My Five Favorite Meals: David Burke
From France to Singapore to Germany, celebrity chef David Burke shares with us the meals that have mattered the most to him.
David Burke was born in Brooklyn and for all his world travel, international success and recognition, he’s New York through and through. Brooklyn is a birthmark.
He studied cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in the Hudson Valley and pastry at the Ecole Lenôtre in Plaisir, France, and cut his teeth in some of the greatest French kitchens, including Marc Meneau’s legendary L’Espérance in Burgundy.
I first heard about Burke when he started racking up New York Times stars cooking at the River Cafe, in, of course, Brooklyn, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
“I had a rule breaking mentality at River Cafe, we didn’t plate the same way, we combined ingredients that were not necessarily combined. I threw fast balls, kept cooking—what made sense to a chef didn’t make sense to a food writer, i.e. smoking our own food, flavored oils, garnishes with texture,” he says, of an experience that “molded him.”
Real fame and fortune began to come his way with his collaborations with the Smith & Wollensky restaurant group, and then Burke started creating his own restaurants. His first was the exquisite David Burke and Donatella (still his favorite of his own places).
His newest project is David Burke Orange Lawn in New Jersey, which is inside a private tennis club. (It’s actually his second private club restaurant—a couple of years ago he opened the Drift House at the Driftwood Cabana Club in Sea Bright, New Jersey.) In the future, he wants to start a “culinary finishing school” in his home in New Jersey, to help aspirants become chefs and get hired by the best restaurants in America
Currently, he is most occupied with his Feed the Heroes charity, which offers meals to health care workers battling the coronavirus. “As hospitality people, it’s hard to have our hands tied and not be able to nourish those in need and show our appreciation. #Feedtheheroes was born out of the need to raise funds to help get food to the front lines, while giving our employees their jobs back!”
Read on for his five favorite meals.
It was the mid-1980s, I was taking the train back to Paris, so I could fly home to New York. It was a rainy day and I was at La Maison Troisgros by myself having a lunch that was so good. It was right across from the train station. I drank three half-bottles of wine and I ate a five or six course meal consisting of: pigeon with cabbage and bacon lardons, a cheese plate, oysters gloria (with julienne pickled vegetables), foie gras with leeks, salmons with sorrel, Jasmine tea crème brûlée and there was a sorbet trolley. The trains were coming and going. It felt like I was sitting in a movie. I used my Amex card to pay, and got on the train to Paris and flew home! This memory is about the timing, the weather, which played on my emotions, the sexiness of the food, and how the staff operated with such ease. I remember saying to myself, I’ve got to remember to create this. It was all about the window seat, flowers on the box outside—about the setting. Time, place and emotion.
In the 1990s, I was in Munich consulting for the New Zealand Venison Board at the time. I remember reading about Chef Eckart Witzigmann, the original chef at Tantris, then Chef Hans Haas taking over the restaurant. I remember going to the restaurant and not being impressed by the decor—then the food started to come out: tomato water, tomato gelatin, every course took me by surprise. What was most impressive was its signature and unique style—no dishes were like any other served or followed any trend.
I never met Chef Haas, nor have I been back, but what stands out is the technical expertise of the meal. In contrast, the very next day after my Tantris meal, I went to a Hofbrauhaus for lunch and had pork schweinshaxe, their signature dish. I laughed and joked that I’d put a hunk of meat in a bowl with dumplings on the Maloney & Porcelli menu when I returned to New York! Sure enough, after arguing with Alan Stillman to get it on the menu, it won awards! I had taken a typical German peasant dish and reinvented it for America.”
I consulted for Singapore Air in the 1990s. I would travel over with Fred Ferretti, columnist for Gourmet magazine and the husband of Eileen Yin-Fei-Lo, a famous Chinese cookbook author. Fred would feed me a ton of history on the journey and we had a routine after landing on the red-eye. We cabbed straight to have dim sum. It was always the best dim sum; the dumplings, the live fish, turnip cake (carrot) custard and pasty ‘XO’ sauce on a steamed black sea bass. If I could eat that in New York, I’d go once a month!
Thomas Keller and I shared headlines together in the ‘80s when I was at the River Cafe. When I heard about what he was doing in California, touted as having the best restaurant in America, I flew out to Cali with a date for a weekend getaway. It was a lot of eating and drinking and carrying on through Napa and San Francisco. What a fun weekend! But the French Laundry was the highlight—the hospitality, back then, there weren’t a lot of great American chef restaurants in Napa. I recall the littlest details, clothespins on the napkin and the ambiance—it was romantic.
It was a stage set for a king and queen with courses coming out one after the other, so many I lost count! The meal was long and absolutely mesmerizing.
I flew out to L.A. with Drew Nieporent, who is a big brother to me in the restaurant business and whom I deeply respect. He brought me to get my opinion of Nobu Matsuhisa’s first restaurant. It was a hot sweaty day. We arrived at a very simple looking place, had lunch, easily 15 plates of food, and we drank like thirsty farm animals. We laughed and ate—we sat outside—we people watched, talking about food and the restaurant business and were amazed at what we had just eaten from a totally unassuming place.
It opened my eyes to a different type of dining and food. My expectation was not that high, but it’s about the food and the company. Don’t judge a book by its cover. There was a lot of Peruvian influence, since Nobu had worked there. The food is now mainstream high-end, but at the time he took America by storm and surprise!
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.