Chef David Burke Celebrates Mother's Day

PHOTO David Burke prepared a special feast for his mom on Mothers Day.Courtesy David Burke
David Burke prepared a special feast for his mom on Mother's Day.

Get chef David Burke started on the topic of his mother, Joan, and he can go on and on. About how she's a beautiful woman. About how their relationship has always been strong. About how cool and caring she is. About how she can always make him laugh.

There's no end to the things he owes his mother, the chef will tell you.

Cooking, as it happens, just isn't one of them.

"I got a couple stories about mom cooking," Burke said. "Mom's cooking was ... she didn't use a timer. She put the food in the pot and when you got there, it came out. So people ran late. It was, you know when the pork chop can curl, but it was always tasty.

Home Cooking with MomPlay
Home Cooking with Mom

"My family food at home was very simple, good wholesome food, but there wasn't a passion for cooking that you would find in Italian homes or Jewish homes, etcetera. We shared a table as a family but food -- it was more about being together, not about the feast."

With Mother's Day just around the corner, Burke brought his mom into the kitchen at David Burke Townhouse in New York and cooked some of her favorites -- and shared the recipes. He spoke with "Nightline" about having fun at work, life in the food business and how he did get his start in the kitchen.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Burke headed to France for the obligatory European apprenticeship. At 26, he won the coveted Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Diplome d'Honneur, conferred by the French government in recognition of nonpareil culinary output. A pantryful of awards followed, including the Time Out New York Best Culinary Prankster award for 2003. After returning to the states, Burke went to work as a sous chef at the renowned River Cafe in Brooklyn, where he ascended to executive chef and pulled down a three-star stamp of approval from The New York Times.

Burke has opened a string of eponymous restaurants, including David Burke Townhouse, David Burke at Bloomingdale's, David Burke's Primehouse (in Chicago), David Burke Prime (at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut) and, most recently, Fishtail by David Burke (in New York City). Among his culinary inventions the chef counts pastrami salmon, flavored oils, GourmetPops (cocktail lollipops) and culinary products including easy Flavor-Transfer Spice Sheets and Flavorsprays.

Every superhero has an origins myth. Burke's plays out in the suitably humble setting of a motor inn near the Jersey Shore, where he grew up. His dad was a subway driver in New York. His mom worked as a nurse's helper. Burke got a job as a dishwasher.

"My cousin was a turkey club salad guy -- well he was a dishwasher first actually ... then he got moved and I got shifted," Burke said. "And as a dishwasher I couldn't wait to touch the food, because I was amazed that a pot of soup was that big -- even though it was a small kitchen, they did a lot of banquets and stuff, and I had never seen food like that at home.

'They Kind of Made Fun of Me'

"When I'm 14 I'm a dishwasher, first on the weekends, then full-time in the summer. I guess I am a freshman in high school at this time. Because I was a wrestler freshman year, and I did very well. Then I went back as a sophomore and told the coach I wanted to quit because I wanted to be a chef, and he laughed pretty loudly, because back then -- this is 1975, -- being a chef wasn't a great choice.

"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."

'I Take Credit for Selling the Brooklyn Bridge'

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.

"My reputation for fun with food will always be there. When you're working those types of hours you gotta -- fun has to become part of work. ... If you're working six days, you gotta throw the Saturday on the plate. So that's a good expression actually, and I think even if it's wholesome it can be fun. I think uniqueness and thinking outside the box when it comes to certain combinations. If you can make someone smile by looking at something or by someone saying, 'Why didn't I think of that?' that's a great accomplishment, especially in a city that's so competitive and serious about dining at one point."

Burke said that the vicissitudes of the food business can be a distraction from the core activity of creating dishes, but that that core never changes.

"The fire is still there, the creativity is still there," he said. "Of course there's more business involved in my day and weeks, and there's more creativity in restaurant design and planning, but the passion for touching the food and creating dishes makes you smile. When you come up with a great idea -- sometimes you'll be flying on a plane or you see a plate or a new product, and you can just put the pieces together, and you can't wait to land and put this dish together."

In honor of the holiday, Burke agreed to share a story about one of his mother's less successful moments in the kitchen.

"She's a great sandwich-maker, my mother, always made me a sandwich. When I came home, she made me a sandwich, or would ask. She's gonna kill me for this. I had written my first book and I mentioned something not as pleasant in my first book. I came home as an adult and she made me a sandwich and I bit into the sandwich and the wrapper was still on the cheese. And she was like, 'Oh my god, you're going to put that in your next book.'

"One thing is, she's a beautiful woman. My mother's a beautiful woman. I had a very good relationship with her growing up. I was the oldest boy, and we were pretty tight, and we still are. When you're a boy and 16, your dad's not a cool guy. But my mom was always cool, and I have a great relationship with my dad.

"But 16-18 my dad wasn't that cool. Maybe it was me, but my mom was always there working on me, being told what to do and not what to do, she was the mediator between me and Dad. I'll never forget that. And she's funny. She's loving, caring, she's a mom. And she knows things before they happen. She knows me better than me, and I still haven't figured that out."