Chef David Burke and TEDxAsburyPark Founder Brian Smiga talk about how he got started as a chef and his return to Monmouth County. David will speak at TEDxAsburyPark 2021.
Brian Smiga: This is Brian Smiga, the co-host of TEDxAsburyPark. We’re producing our eighth TEDxAsburyPark on Saturday, May 2, at the newly expanded Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, when we will consider a much-needed topic: Joy. Right now, let’s welcome our guest and TED speaker, Chef David Burke. Welcome, David.
David Burke: Hi, Brian. Nice to be talking to you. How are you doing?
Brian Smiga: Great. David, it’s great to bring your story to the TED stage. I feel like I’ve known you a long time because we both came up on the Jersey Shore, so we’re really excited about hearing your story on the TED stage. And I know you’re going to talk about the joy of food, but this story started a long time ago, in an unlikely time and place. Can you tell us about how you got started?
David Burke: I happened to work at a Motor Inn, a hotel on the Hazlet-Holmdel border. I lived in Hazlet; it was on Route 35. I was cutting lawns and then I wriggled my way into a dishwasher position, which was coveted because you could eat all you wanted. And it was just cool to be in the kitchen, the guys in the kitchen were older guys. I was probably 15-16 years old, and I wanted to be in a kitchen and I liked working in the kitchen. I found out that after being a dishwasher, I wanted to pursue the bigger picture of, “How do I become a chef?”
Brian Smiga: So, from lawn cutting to dishwashing, you wanted to become a chef and make food. So I read your story and I’m going to give a little bit away. You had one day to find a real job. Tell us that story, where did you find that real job, what was it?
David Burke: Well, my dad was pressuring me to make a career choice. I was a bright kid, I had good grades, I was a varsity wrestler even as a freshman, so I was a good athlete. And I was carrying on with the beer-drinking at a young age, just like a lot of people were. And he was like, “You need to make decisions.” When I told him I wanted to be a chef, he was super disappointed. I mean, upset. Not disappointed, but visibly upset. And I couldn’t really figure it out, but basically, being a chef in 1977 was the equivalent of being a janitor or a maid, it was a service job, it was not a profession yet. Anyway, we had a tiff back and forth. Basically, he was like one of the old school guys from Brooklyn. He was like, “Listen, if you’re going to live under this roof and break the rules, you’re going to have to work.”
I had a job at a cooking school in the Monmouth Mall of Eatontown. That closed, I was out of work. And I hitchhiked back then. I hitchhiked everywhere looking for a job. And I went from Eatontown, from Hazlet to Eatontown into Shrewsbury. I probably hit Shadowbrook, then I walked over to Molly Pitcher Inn. It’s getting late, it’s probably around dark now. And one of the chefs at Molly said, “Go up and see Jose at the Navesink Country Club. I’m like, “You got to be kidding me?” And he said, “It’s a few miles up the road.” I’m like, “Okay.” And I went, I walked all the way there from Molly. Get there, and they called Jose. Jose interviewed me and he was desperate. I wasn’t quite a cook yet, I was prep cook, it was a big difference.
But I was a strong kid and I was wide-eyed and ready to go and desperate for a job. And as I learned, he was desperate for a pair of hands and a pulse, and someone to teach. And basically, he told me to go upstairs and tell the general manager at the country club that I was a broiler cook at the Sheraton, and I was not. I was a prep cook and I kept telling him I’m not a broiler. And he said, “You just got done telling me that you would listen to me.” And I said, because I told him, I said, “Just tell me once and I can do it.” And he goes, “I’m telling you once, go up there and tell him you’re a broiler cook.” I said, “Oh, I get it now.” So I went up to lie to the manager.
Brian Smiga: Wait, so Jose was your Yoda. He got you started, and he promoted you to broiler cook immediately and you had a trial by fire, right?
David Burke: Well, I didn’t start in the salad section, he had a guy for that. Usually, you start there. So he put me right on the broiler, and I got to tell you, man, that was… Luckily, I had eye/hand coordination and I have a lot of nervous energy; I don’t like to get behind in things. And I got to tell you, I learned, he taught me. He taught me and I loved it. I couldn’t wait to get to work. I used to wear my chef’s coat, too. I had to go to two classes in the morning at high school, and then I’d go to work. And then in the afternoon, I had a couple of hours off and I’d meet my friends and I’d still be in my chef coat with blood on it and all that. And then my nickname was “Chef” and people laughed at me, they’re like, “You’re going to be a chef?” Like, nobody would.
Brian Smiga: So, as a teenager, you just stepped into this identity, and so much of it is thanks to Jose. And I don’t want to steal your story but-
David Burke: And I hope I see him in Red Bank. I hope he’s here because if he’s still in Red Bank somewhere, I’m going to find him.
Brian Smiga: Jose sounds like a great man. And then, this is part of your transformation because from there you were going all the way.
David Burke: Yeah, Jose also big-brothered me a bit, too and I didn’t have a big brother. So Jose was the guy that gave me the confidence, and said, “You can take this to places that you have no idea. You have the passion and the coordination and the smarts to do this.” And he tough-loved me on a few occasions, and the story gets a little deeper, but not for this conversation today, but he’s a good man, that’s for sure. And you need those types of people to keep you going.
Brian Smiga: I understand that both as a dad and as a chef you’ve grown a lot of people in your life, and that’s part of what you want to do in this next chapter, right?
David Burke: Yeah. Well, my story started when I started cooking and worked for the old masters, you know? The old French guys. I worked for some seriously talented people and I worked for some guys that were taught by the people before them in learning dishes that they don’t teach anymore. The stuff made by hand, the old school of French cooking, the old this, that and the other thing. I was fortunate to travel around the world, too, so I’ve got a ton of knowledge, and I’ve also been blessed with being creative enough to stay ahead of the curve as a trendy and/or a creative chef. So, we have the old married to the new that we helped create, which has shaped the new modern American cuisine.
My goal was to be able to teach and share the knowledge with people that are coming up and that one understands how an American chef thinks. My publisher wants me to put out a book about the thought process, what makes you think the way you do about certain dishes and combinations, and it takes a while to get to a certain point in your life where you can slow down mentally and explain that. You can’t do it until you get to the right part. You have to be comfortable.
Brian Smiga: Yeah, so a couple of things. There’s another big risk you took besides walking all the way to Navesink Country Club, which was to go to Europe and decide to learn from the best. Tell us that quick story, what made you dare to do that?
David Burke: Well, I went to school, I went to the Culinary Institute of America. I was 18. I left the house and I moved up to college and packed my green Gremlin and drove up there with a cactus.
Brian Smiga: The green Gremlin! Folks, this is the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York, otherwise known as the CIA. Five restaurants, you can dine out in Hyde Park, it’s a kind of a “must-see” in the Hudson Valley.
David Burke: Yeah, the Harvard of cooking schools, so I start school. Luckily, I had good cooking skills and good knowledge, so I was top of the class, nominated most likely to succeed, etcetera, etcetera. And then one of the toughest teachers who I thought hated me, recommended me at a job fair to go work in Europe. And I was like, you know what? I gotta take it. Mainly because he recommended me, and I had such respect for him. And I’m like, “If he’s telling me to do it, I gotta do it,” because I didn’t think I’d ever had an opportunity to go to Europe. And I was like, “Okay.” So, I go home and I tell my dad I’m going, I’m moving to Norway. And he’s like, “What exit is that?” And I’m like, “I said I’m going to Europe.”
And I’ve got to tell you, it opened my eyes. And going to Scandinavia was a toe in the water because they spoke English. But after my contract ended for work there, I took a month off and took the trains into Germany, Italy, France of course, plus Belgium and Amsterdam and studied and went to restaurants and volunteered to work in kitchens. And then I was so excited, I had now just graduated from college. I was excited about being a chef, now I was rip-ready to go as a 20-year-old, and started to get work in New York City.
Brian Smiga: So then, you start off and in not too much time you were building a rep for yourself in recreating American cuisine, so how did that happen?
David Burke: Well, I landed a very… Basically, the people I worked for in Europe recommended me for a very fancy French restaurant outside of Greenwich, Connecticut. I spent a couple of years there with a great chef and mentor named Wally Maloof, who taught me. I worked side by side with a master, he was a master. He was in New York City at some great places. He was at the Rainbow Room, he’s still a dear friend. He is a Dean up at the Culinary Institute of American now. So he set me up and he put me into New York City to work for Daniel Boulud, one of the greatest chefs in the world. I worked for him for a short period in a brand new French hotel, and my skills were fine-tuned. Charlie Palmer then called me for a sous chef job at the River Cafe, which was a super progressive American restaurant at that time.
Larry Forgione, a great American chef, the godfather of American food. Charlie was the second chef there. I eventually worked for Charlie for two years, then I took a hiatus because I knew I’d become the chef there. I didn’t want to do that without going to pastry school. The owner of the River Cafe, Buzzy O’Keefe, another great mentor, sent me to Paris for six months to work in restaurants and go to pastry school. And on my return, I became the chef at River Cafe, and I was 26 years old and that was in ’87.
Brian Smiga: And then you got nominated to go to Japan to a worldwide contest.
David Burke: Yeah, I represented the United States, luckily as the sole American chef to compete in the “Culinary Olympics” in Tokyo in 1986, out of 16 countries. And we didn’t expect to win, no one expected us to do anything. I was the youngest and the oldest was a 62-year-old Japanese chef. And there was some great stuff, 10-day competition, and we wind up winning two really prestigious awards, one from the French government and one from the Japanese government.
Brian Smiga: Now there were some innovations you took a risk on in Japan, what were those?
David Burke: Well, I used some Japanese ingredients, one was called Lotus Root. And basically, they handed us this mystery basket, and I’m like, it looks like a potato, felt like a potato, so I made potato chips.
Brian Smiga: Chips won the day or part of what won the day?
David Burke: Those chips got me on the news that day because it was the typical American thing to do. And apparently they never fry Lotus Root, they just used it for pickling, and in stir-fries, things like that. So it became…actually, there are Lotus chips on TV commercials right now for cruise lines and resorts when they advertise their food, which makes me crack up because I know that’s something I put on the map, so I get flattered by that. And we also took the chance in making a very special dessert. Luckily, I had gone to pastry school and doing the pastry in the final competition is what helped us win.
Brian Smiga: So, is there a lesson there? Because you were already really at the top of your game, and yet, you wanted to go to pastry school to have mastery of all the skills. And then that played into winning, right?
David Burke: Yeah. Well, I was ready to be a chef. I didn’t have the pastry knowledge, enough knowledge where I could take over the pastry shop in case the pastry chef quit. And I don’t like to be in that position. I like to be…if I’m the coach of a team, I need to know every position. If I’m going to run the business, I was a dishwasher and I was a butcher, I could do everything, except pastry. I had to know that so that no one could hold me hostage. And that I could use my creative mind so that from soup to nuts, I could do everything in the style in which I wanted and not have to…of course, we’re all collaborative together now anyway, but the vision is seen from the beginning to the end.
Brian Smiga: So you’re kind of at peak creativity now, and you’re planning a lot of great things as we talked about the other night. But, getting to your TED Talk, food as joy, the chance to open people’s minds up to where we have come with food in America, and where we’re going. Can you share a little bit about that?
David Burke: Yeah, there’s a lot there. I mean the food is joy, number one. Goes back to your first bite of food, the first time you taste anything, smell anything as an infant, and at birthday parties and family celebrations and cultural things, and being rewarded a treat, a cookie if you’re a good boy or good girl, etcetera, etcetera. So there’s a lot of joy in food and it’s also fuel for your body, whether we know that or not, we know that food makes us feel good. As far as what has happened in the United States with food over the last 45 or 50 years, it’s been incredible because we’re a young country and we didn’t really have a traditional cuisine. So the melting pot of what American food is, for example, in ’86 when I went to Japan, they thought it was steak and potatoes and hamburgers with American food.
So in the late 70s, there was a change — the California influence, there’s a Boston seafood influence, there’s stuff from New Orleans, big influence — but there wasn’t a lot of influence. Chicago was meat and potatoes. But now there’s a style to American food that evolved from French or European food, and it has finesse. But we have a much better product here as well. The workforce and our creativity and our desire to break and bend rules as American chefs are commendable, as long as you know what makes sense. There’s also been a good shift over the years into healthier eating. Look at yogurt, now and years ago, yogurt is simple. Look at all the grains we’re eating now, the vegetarian diets now… People are finally starting to embrace plant-based foods and it’s here to stay. It’s not a nuisance now when somebody orders a gluten-free dish or a carb-free fish or diabetic friendly dish.
So chefs have come a long way and the acceptance of these things came quite a long way and the fact that American people eat out a lot now, that two people are working now…. The traditional model of one adult worked, one parent worked, and you had a lot more family meals. Now it’s, let’s go out and eat. And then also the fast-casual market now where you don’t need a waiter, you can go in…I had lunch today up North Jersey, I ordered on a flat screen and food came to me. You save 20%, no tipping, but it’s also quick and easy and you can finish some work on your phone. I mean, for a guy my age, I still like to sit down at a real restaurant and eat, but when you’re in a rush and you can get something…and what I had was healthy at a fast-casual restaurant, there’s something surprisingly refreshing about that.
And I think it’ll continue to grow with sustainability, natural products, creativity, less fatty foods, smaller portions in the big steak houses, sustainable seafood…we’re always making progress.
Brian Smiga: So in America, there’s the frontier and, perhaps, because we’re a new country relative to, say, Europe or Japan, we have the freedom to fail. We’re not as attached to a multi-hundred-year tradition. And I think that freedom to fail shows up in entrepreneurship. Do you feel that was part of what made your career and continues to?
David Burke: I think that that’s a good way of putting it. I think that when you understand your subject matter like I do, and you understand the foundations, you have a lack of fear and trying things. For example, I’m cooking a dish. So from an economic standpoint, if the dish fails, it’s not very costly, right? It’s only a plate of food or it’s special for the evening. But for a winemaker to experiment, he only has one shot a year to make great wine, it’s a little riskier.
So my risks are less dangerous with failure. You can get a bad review, of course, but once you start to get together with your senses and sensibilities and you become an expert at combinations, you can basically write a menu sitting on a plane and almost taste it because you have the science in your head and the flavors, the textures, and the colors are all in your memory bank and you can…I often sketch things out, I’m sure other chefs do, too. And all of a sudden you start to write. There’s so much fun stuff to do in a restaurant business that you don’t…it’s a grueling business, don’t get me wrong, but there are also so many creative things that you can do that make it challenging and rewarding at the same time.
Brian Smiga: So that’s a great place to leave the audience hungry for your TED Talk. You heard from David Burke, who, I really believe his creativity comes out of his fearlessness, and his understanding that you can make a dish and it could fail and then you iterate, right? So we really appreciate your fearlessness, David.
David Burke: Yeah, well sometimes you need some failures to get better I think.
Brian Smiga: So, I’m going to close out the interview and just say as a reminder, to our audience, you can learn more about Chef David Burke and the other 20 TED speakers on the subject of Joy at TEDxAsburyPark on the web. David, thank you so much for your time and for joining us at TEDxAsburyPark on the 2nd of May.
David Burke: You’ve got it, Brian. Nice talking. I look forward to it.
NOTE: TEDxAsburyPark 2020 was postponed and is in the process of being rescheduled for Spring 2021.