A Conversation with Chef David Burke
An Interview by Zhanna Isakharov
“I grew up as a regular American kid….likeable guy, long hair, listening to rock and roll,” David Burke enthusiastically told me as we sat in his new office at E-Squared Hospitality, overlooking Manhattan’s splendorous skyline. Being raised by a strict father and laissez-faire mother in the suburb of New Jersey with the reputation for partying the most obviously worked out quite well for the restaurant mogul. With a thriving restaurant empire, a world-renowned name, and hundreds of friends in high places, David Burke is a force that keeps success in its orbit. However, discovering who he was before he became famous is critical in discerning his current approach to life, especially lately, with his name popping up so often in the media as a subject of controversy.
A self-proclaimed bad boy, he had “a minor arrest here and there for vandalism or drinking underage, a little bar fight on the boardwalk” and “once we hit high school, we partied a lot, drank a lot of beer, and smoked a lot of pot,” he confessed, grinning. His attitude was light and humorous when we spoke about his childhood. There was obvious nostalgia in his expression. Although he grew up modestly, where he admittedly “didn’t go away for far away vacations [because he] had the boardwalk right there, had the beach right there,” his attitude toward his childhood is refreshingly thankful. “I had a good upbringing. I had what I wanted. And my dad made me work for stuff and respect people.”
Working a paper route since the age of 11 and making big money for a kid that age, he soon moved to a simple job as a dishwasher in a hotel. “At that time, food was not that interesting to me. I never really had a desire to be a chef,” he admitted. Since his father was health-conscious, the family rarely went out to restaurants and would instead eat home-cooked, organic food. If being the oldest son of four children wasn’t pressure enough, David was an A student who graduated high school in three years, and was building a successful wrestling career. All of these factors definitely built the foundation for the go-getter he is today. “When I told him I wanted to be a chef, he hit the roof,” he recalled of his father’s reaction, “because I had the brains and had a lot of things going for me.” Once his father acknowledged how serious David was, though, he helped the cause. “He set me up with a cooking school with a bunch of housewives and he thought I’d hate it. I went and they hired me to do all of the mise en place for all the people who were promoting cookbooks, so that backfired on him.” He took that opportunity and then enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in 1980, which is when he quit the partying lifestyle and took cooking very seriously.
Since then, he has opened dozens of restaurants, interacted with thousands upon thousands of people, and touched the lives of many more. He takes pride in his visibly friendly nature and loves to interact with people who are sitting alone in his restaurants. Since he grew up with a younger brother who was a “slow learner” and had to stick up for him, he developed an appreciation for people with disadvantages. “I’m always for the underdog in anything,” he proclaimed, which translates into hiring employees, as well. “Anyone that’s from a broken home, homeless guy, ex-con, someone with a speech impediment or is a little slow, an immigrant, or a refugee…I’ll find a spot for him. There’s always a spot in the kitchen. You’d be surprised how far that goes with people.” He finds pride in providing his employees and their families with the opportunity for a better lifestyle and even recalled a “little Pakistani guy” from several years ago who expressed thanks to David when his son got accepted into a talented and gifted school. “He was so proud of his kid and I was so proud of him! Because he’s busting his ass and he’s the hero of his house and his kid is going to live the American dream,” he recounted to me with a laugh.
When the recent stresses in his life were brought up, he became very serious and a look of concern swept over his face. When asked how he feels about everything, he acknowledged that he feels betrayed. “I’m disappointed in my old partners and disappointed in myself,” he sighs, “but you chalk it up to making a wrong turn…I’m not angry because anger gets me nowhere.” Although his name is still being used to promote new items and restaurants, because he has left the David Burke Group, he actually has no say in any of these decisions; knowledge the common person is not privy to. “I was very upset because it wasn’t just a job, it was my life,” he asserted. Without going into too much detail, he revealed that “it’s unfortunate, but partnerships have their ups and downs like marriages and not everybody wants to go in the same direction or give up certain things or give up certain rights.”
However, after everything he’s been through, David Burke’s confidence seems to be at an all-time high. He has the right people to fight for him in his corner and is sure that the results of his efforts will be in his favor. Most importantly, things have changed in terms of his approach to life. He now values his family considerably more than he did before because they were there to support him throughout the trying times. “I never really spent quality time with them as much as I do now, which is a blessing because when the chips are down, your family is there, and I really appreciate that,” he stated. He’s still bustling with creative energy and has an abundance of ideas, but approaches them with more care now. “Instead of having 25 things on the board, all going at once, I put 25 things on the board and say ‘here’s the five I’m focusing on now’ and then really push hard on the five. I always have so many ideas that I can’t get the one good one across the line sometimes because I’m trying to juggle them all,” he observed. This has led to more quality of life and time wisely spent with some much-needed self-care. He asserted, “I’m a healthier person, I try to get more sleep, I try to look out for my weight and my overall brain and lifestyle…it’s important that I get rest and I do good things…things that pull you away from the chaos of the restaurant business.”
“I’m more patient and my fuse is longer,” he realized. “With every life experience, good or bad, there’s always something good that comes out of it.” It seems like, although the adjustment was confusing his takeaway from life is beautifully stated: “You work hard, you treat people right, you teach people what you can, you help everyone you can, and everything’s going to work out.” His confidence is overflowing. “My best work has not happened yet. I still have a youthful spirit, a fresh mind, and have great connections. I have a lot to be thankful and happy for. I feel good. This is just the beginning of rebuilding an empire.” We all can’t wait to see what that empire looks and tastes like, especially with the newly added ingredient of tranquility.