You have achieved great success in creating a brand on top of being a chef. Was that always your goal?
When I was in culinary school my dream was just to be a great chef in a restaurant. I didn’t even envision opening restaurants because that was too far away. That would have been too big of a dream. It wasn’t that easy back then. When I was a chef at school there weren’t a lot of chefs that owned restaurants so it was being a chef at a country club or maybe a hotel that was really the goal. Then there were guys like Todd English and Michael Chiarello. In the ’70s when we were starting to cook there wasn’t an interest in food like there is today. Now people love creativity and trying new things. Back then, you never got sushi or fish medium rare. Fish was well done, unless you were in another country. Now there’s more traveling, Food Network and people are more open. I’m a chef by trade and a businessman by necessity. [My restaurants] just happen to be my way to be creative and have fun and be challenged.
What excites you the most about the Chicago food scene?
Chicago, I tell ya, I first opened here in ‘94 or ‘95 at Park Avenue Cafe. Before that I was competing for the Bocuse d’Or. I was at Charlie Trotter’s the first week it opened. So I had been in Chicago a lot, a lot of people think I’m from Chicago. The city in general is fantastic. There are things I’ve seen change. I operated Park Avenue Cafe, opened Smith & Wollensky and opened David Burke’s Primehouse which is 6 years old now. So I know Takashi [Yagihashi], Tony Mantuano, Michael Kornick and John Hogan used to work for me. I know the older breed and I also know the younger ones. There’s a lot of exciting stuff. There are a lot of great higher-end restaurants and then there’s also The Purple Pig and a lot of great gastropubs.
Are you close with a lot of other chefs from being in the industry for so long?
I’m actually going to Monaco tomorrow. I was invited by Alain Ducasse for the 25th anniversary of his restaurant in Monaco with 200 other chefs from all around the world—I know about 100 of them—then we’re gonna spend the weekend together and that’s how you meet. At a certain level you’ve either read about them or you’ve met them from when you go to certain cities and do fundraisers. So at the right level you start to meet everybody. I think this is one of the only businesses like that. Actors could be the same because there are fundraisers, events and places you cross paths and chefs do the same thing.
Were you upset to see Charlie Trotter’s close its doors?
Yeah, but I work with him—him and I consult for Holland America—so I see him more. I think Charlie will come back in a couple of years, that’s my guess, but fine dining is very difficult sometimes and I think Charlie’s discipline is to be perfect. Twenty-five years of business is a hell of an accomplishment! And [that is on top of] all of his books and all of his charity work; Charlie’s a good man. I think taking a break for a couple of years is okay. I think he’ll come back and start swingin’ again. I hope he does! I like his food.
Where will we find you eating in Chicago?
I know John Hogan of Keefer’s, I like him so I go there and I like it there. I was at GT Fish & Oyster and I liked it as a new place. Takashi I like. I have always liked Spiaggia, I like Tony [Mantuano]’s food. I’ll usually go to different places. I have not been to the fancier restaurants, like L2O so I want to try that. I have not been to Alinea either, I’m embarrassed to say. I will get there! But I need a date to go to Alinea, I’m not going to Alinea myself. When I come [to Chicago], I usually go to my restaurants then I wind up going to Quartino at night and this little bistro down the street, Bijan’s Bistro. I’ve been going to Bijan’s for 15 years.
As a bachelor, do you have a special signature dish you whip up when trying to impress your dates?
I make my dates reservations at very good restaurants! I live in Jersey, overlooking Manhattan with a beautiful view. But on a date, unless I’m gonna have one of my cooks there, I don’t wanna cook. I like to go out because I’m always working at night. If I was dating somebody for like six months and we were at my house, then I would cook. Especially if it was nice out, so that way I could cook outside. I think that would be good. I’m not as hyper as I used to be so it can be nice to spend a night at home.
Do you get recognized more often after being on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters”?
Just coming into the airport a guy in the elevator said, “Hey, Mr. Burke, how ya doin’?” First of all, he called me mister, I hated that, but I asked if he was in the business and he said, “No, I’m just a fan.” Emeril [Lagasse] is a dear friend of mine, all those guys are, so it makes me wonder how much they can be alone if they go out to dinner or even sit at a bar and have a drink or have a meeting because I’m much more under the radar from a celebrity standpoint.
If you could choose your last meal, what would it be?
I’d have chicken and scrambled eggs.
Yeah, I’d have lobster scrambled eggs and caviar first.
Okay, that’s more like it.
It would be chicken eggs in an ostrich shell—I love eating out of funky things, like urchin shells— then I’d have some oysters. I’d probably have a beautiful roast chicken and a little pasta with some kind of funky noodles. I’d have a cheese course and I’d have a great salad too. And I’d have a couple of desserts.
When you’re not in a kitchen or at a restaurant, what are you doing?
I travel. I do research. I don’t golf. See, I don’t really do enough! Believe it or not, I am taking classes.
Nope! You’ll never guess. I bought these two puppets a few years back at an art gallery—I collect a lot of art at home—so I’m going to take ventriloquism classes. I’m going to use them in the kitchen when I’m upset with somebody because you can’t raise your voice in the kitchens anymore. But you know, I like to paint. I suck at it but I’m gonna start painting too. I used to blow glass—which I suck at too —but I like it. I just need to find more time. Over the next couple of years I’ll find the time, it’s just a lifestyle change.
Must-try restaurants when visiting New York?
If you have one night in New York, go to The River Café. It was terribly affected by the hurricane so it’s down and it won’t open for many months but The River Café is where I started my career in New York City. It sits underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and looks at Manhattan. It’s very romantic. There’s a piano player. It’s old school, beautiful and the food is phenomenal. Their chef used to work for me as a sous chef. Brooklyn is hot now!
With Christmas around the corner, do you have any holiday traditions?
I go to all of my restaurants [in New York], because we’re all open—except for the one at Bloomingdale’s—then I wind up at a restaurant I have along the Jersey Shore that I bought seven years ago. I was a prep cook there when I was a kid. It’s in a beautiful town that got pretty racked up by the hurricane as well but it’s on the coast and my parents are not far from there so I take them to dinner. I do that on Thanksgiving and Christmas. My two sons work for me—one of them is a manager, the other’s a bartender—so they get lucky enough to get the day off to hang out with me.
Top of your bucket list?
Skydiving. Want me to tell you the truth? I’m afraid of heights, so I want to. I bungee jumped once and it was fantastic! I did it in New Zealand on a bridge that was 30 stories tall. Do you know how high 30 stories is? It was great! My adrenaline was going for hours after that. I was sitting on the bridge and they wrapped my ankles up and the guy goes, “Do you want a glass of water?” and I said, “Nah, I’m okay.” Then I started realizing there was no glass of water up there. The glass of water was me going for a dip. I did like a 9.5 dive, it was perfect! I have it on video tape. I gotta find where that is. It’s tucked in an attic somewhere.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I just did it!
Such a charmer. Okay now seriously, if you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Einstein. I’ll tell you why. Einstein founded a non-profit organization called the IRC, International Rescue Committee. I’m on the board and a national spokesperson and I had no idea he had founded it. He was a refugee. We help refugees and I hire refugees. For him to have founded that way back when and have it still going on [is amazing]. I’d also like to have a drink with my grandfather. I’ve never met either of my grandfathers so I would like them to see what I’m doing now. They weren’t fine diners—they were blue collar guys—but I’d like to put everyone together and have a drink.
Photography by Samantha Murphy
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