"Basically, they kind of made fun of me. 'You want to bake cookies, you want to make cupcakes?' So there was a little bit of flack there, and I kept my mouth shut and just continued on my dream I guess. As a youngster it's hard to envision a future. All I wanted to be was a good cook. I wanted to be as good as the guy in front of me."
Burke said he wasn't sure that cooking was for him until he went to culinary school and then made the jump to Europe.
"I had very little confidence," he said. "I'm a confident person but I had little confidence in my ability as a chef. I wasn't a chef yet. Then I went to the Culinary Institute of America. My internships was in Dallas at a very fancy hotel, so I saw even more European chefs. Then I graduated and went to Norway. And I worked in a home, but I got to Europe, and that was the key.
"I traveled around Europe and looked at some of the restaurants, read the menus from the outside, and you see the pastry shops and realized I had a long way to go."
Now, with a career of opening and running restaurants behind him (and undoubtedly more to come), Burke now draws a sharp distinction between cooking and chefing.
"I could cook, but it didn't mean that I was a great chef. There's a big difference," he said. "A chef has to wear many hats, especially now. You have to be business savvy as a chef, you have to be creative, you got to be a shrink to your cooks, you got to wear a lot of different hats. And being a cook, you know what your day's going to be like. ... There's a lot of things you have to do to keep, you're the boss of a family, you have to keep everything in sync. It's a balancing act."
On the topic of restaurants and professional kitchens, Burke exhibits a healthy penchant for analogy. It's like his creative approach to cooking applied to language: take apart, compare, recombine, reinvent.
"I think when you cook -- and I use this a lot with my young chefs -- when you're in the kitchen environment it's a team thing," he said. "And I was into sports and I compare it to football and basketball, when the coach gets upset and he's yelling, but he's really yelling for the passion of it not because he's angry but because he wants to win. And the reputation of chefs being nasty and yelling and ill-tempered and ill-mannered is they want to win."
"One of the things in a restaurant I compare it to theater sometimes. Those actors work so hard, sometimes two times a day, six nights a week, on point, you can't miss a step or a song or a move. And it's very much what happens, from the girl answering the phone to the maitre d' to the waiters, it's like a chorus. Everything has to be on point."
"When it's good, it's composing. When it's bad, it's like one of those reality shows when you can't find your way home. When it's bad you still got to fight through it, you got to fight through it. Someone can have a bad night, or if it rains out everyone shows up at the same time, or a waiter makes a big mistake. There are so many things that can go wrong."
A sense of fun is central to Burke's project as a chef. While at the River Cafe, he built a Brooklyn Bridge out of chocolate and put it on the menu.
"I take credit for selling the Brooklyn Bridge over a thousand times, because I made the Brooklyn Bridge out of chocolate, which is a great dessert, cute, but it's still on the menu," he said. "You know the old expression; we've been doing it for years.