While there’s nothing gourmet about a box of Cracker Jacks, chef David Burke finds inspiration in the idea of the surprise inside. “That’s the game I like to play,” he says. “Why not? What if? It’s only a plate of food. Let’s see how it goes.”
Anyone could serve strips of bacon thicker and meatier than the cafeteria norm. But only Burke sends them out, three to an order, pinned to a miniature clothesline. His whimsy also has a practical side.
Packaging takeout pizza at his Union Beach restaurant, the GOAT, staffers first toss popcorn mixed with Parmesan and pesto into the empty box. It makes a fun snack in itself, but it also lifts the pizza so it doesn’t sweat and lose its crispness.
“Starting out,” he says, “I thought the only way I would have an edge was to do something that makes you scratch your head or smile. After decades of doing it, it’s built into my style.”
Who but Burke sends out whisks covered in chocolate batter for customers to lick before their Tin Can cake arrives? Then there’s the cricket pizza—topped with actual crickets—on the menu at the GOAT, Burke’s newest restaurant, which happens to be half a mile from where he grew up in Hazlet. “We’ve only sold one,” he admits. “It’s more for schtick.”
The Culinary Institute of America graduate, who was named executive chef of the legendary River Café in Brooklyn at the age of 26, is now 60 and runs eight restaurants in New Jersey—including the NJM Top 30’s Red Horse by David Burke in Rumson and 1776 in Morristown—and seven more arrayed from New York to Saudi Arabia. In 1988, Burke became the first American to win the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) diploma of honor. Burke credits his parents—a former New York City subway conductor and a former housekeeping manager—for his blue-collar grit and the drive to still put in 80-hour weeks.
If you’re lucky enough to spend a morning with the impresario at his towering Tudor mansion in Atlantic Highlands, the whimsy is on full display. Sure, there’s a massive outdoor cooking space with enough stainless steel to beam signals to Mars. Less expected is the life-size, painted horse statue on his deck. (It was meant for Red Horse, but didn’t quite fit.) Beyond the swimming pool, there’s a wall, not of wood or brick, but of giant Legos assembled by Burke himself. In Burke’s executive office—er, his dining room—sits a Humpty Dumpty statue more than 3 feet tall that once graced the David Burke Tavern in Manhattan.
Of course, you can’t ride to the top on whimsy alone. “You have to be able to do it correctly,” Burke says. “If you’re a pitcher, you don’t throw a curveball with every pitch.”
After an 8:30 am conference call with his business manager in Charlotte, Burke jumps on Zoom to go over designs for a new bistro on Park Avenue in Manhattan slated for next year. Just when he seems visibly bored with color choices for tables and walls, in walks his handyman, Rob Petsch, carrying molds that he’s cut from PVC pipes for a lobster dish that Burke hasn’t made for more than a decade, but just remembered and wants to recreate. On a side table, there happens to be a duck decoy. Burke asks Petsch to paint it with the same spattered finish that’s on the new wood-burning pizza oven at the GOAT. Burke intends to give it as a gift to his new lady friend.
Burke’s executive assistant, Alison Kelly, keeps an online calendar of all his upcoming meetings and appearances. There’s also a giant whiteboard calendar set up in the dining room. It’s filled with Burke’s TV appearances, wine-pairing dinners, and meetings to discuss projects. One that stands out is the July 5 Fireman’s Fair in Atlantic Highlands. Burke’s newly acquired bakery, the 85-year-old Dixie Lee in Keansburg, will supply several dozen pies for an old-fashioned pie-eating contest.
The last order of business before Burke slides into his Maserati Levante SUV to visit several of his restaurants is to consider names for a restaurant in Lake Park, Florida, he expects to open in the fall of 2024.
“What about the Old Man?” asks Burke.
“Salty Dog?” Kelly ventures.
“Too much like a college beer joint. Aqua? Aqua House?”
Kelly googles Water Dog. “Water dog is another name for a sailor…. There’s a Water Dog Smokehouse in Ventnor.”
“Water Dog works,” says Burke, who goes on to describe a dog in the prow of a boat peering through a spyglass. This suggests a new name. “I like Canoe Club,” he says, and lays out the possibility of actual canoes suspended in the restaurant. Some of them might wind up as conversation pieces in Burke’s house, joining his collection of birdhouse cuckoo clocks that go off at random times, souvenirs from his erstwhile Woodpecker Pizza Bar in Manhattan.
Just past the clocks is one of Burke’s most prized possessions, a framed study for Maxfield Parrish’s famous mural of Old King Cole, commissioned by John Jacob Astor and now hanging at the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Pointing out that the courtiers in the painting are grimacing and one is reaching for his nose, Burke announces with schoolboy glee, “It’s a painting about a fart!”—a joke that Parrish played on Astor.
It’s the kind of thing Burke loves. What boy wouldn’t? And that’s what you discover when you spend a morning with the entrepreneurial chef. He is still the boy who convinced his health-nut father to come to show-and-tell to demonstrate chocolate fondue; who loved going to the car wash for the spectacle of spray and soapy flapping straps; whose pipe dream of Jersey oil refineries being filled with water “so we could swim in them” led friends to dub him Imagine If Burkey.
Now he’s the grown man who delights in putting crispy crickets on pizza; who imagines turning his home into the set of a reality show featuring three live-in apprentice chefs; who says that, of all his restaurants, including some fancy ones, he thinks the one that will make him happiest is the little Dixie Lee bakery. Imagine If Burkey envisions it with a cotton candy machine, a doughnut machine and a chocolate fountain.
What kid wouldn’t?
Debbie Galant is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.
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