Chef–restaurateur David Burke
If you’ve eaten a crispy pork shank, pastrami made from something other than beef, or cheesecake lollipops at a fine-dining restaurant, you have David Burke to thank.
For more than three decades, Burke has been wowing diners with a blend of elegance and whimsy. Now the–restaurateur is looking to expand his budding 10-unit empire, which includes his flagship David Burke Townhouse, Fishtail and David Burke Kitchen in New York City; David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago; David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson, N.J.; a two-unit take-out concept called Burke in the Box; and David Burke Prime at the Foxwoods Casino in Mashantucket, Conn.
He currently has four more restaurant deals in the works. The second David Burke Kitchen is slated to open in Aspen, Colo., in the first quarter of 2014, followed by an unnamed concept at the Archer Hotel in New York’s Fashion District, a concept similar to Burke in the Box in Chicago, and a third David Burke Kitchen at the Indigo Hotel in Chicago.
Burke discussed growth plans and the sources for his inspiration with Nation’s Restaurant News.
What’s the reason for this sudden burst of expansion?
We started building the infrastructure for it five years ago, and we think we’re built for expansion and doing it the right way. We have training systems in place. We have our own trucks going up to Hunts Point [wholesale food market in New York City]. Now that the infrastructure’s in place, we can have fun brainstorming about what’s in the future.
What are you thinking up?
We’re talking about creating an incubator system, where we can train our own people, set up commissaries, that kind of stuff.
Can you elaborate?
It’s in the infant stage — almost like a school, but more like a production facility where people can rent the space and try out their concepts. We can share our expertise and also set up a training program where students can learn to butcher or get ready to create a product line or a manufacturing line. We can teach them how to market, package, label and source — the types of things I’ve already done with my [cheesecake] lollipops and patented dry-aged beef.
Or we can open a pop-up there and test it before spending $5 million on opening a restaurant. Then we can rip it down and set up a pop-up for someone else.
Are these just ideas or are you planning to carry them out?
We found a space for it. That doesn’t mean it’s happening, but it’s something we’re interested in doing. It might happen in two years; it might happen in five years. We have plenty to keep us busy, but this is kind of interesting to me right now.
How is business overall?
Townhouse is doing well. It grew last year from the previous year. Our steakhouse in Chicago got voted best steakhouse in Chicago. Foxwoods is doing great. [David Burke] Kitchen does much better when the garden’s running.
We’ve changed our wine program. We stopped doing the traditional 300-percent markups and figured that for each bottle we want to make a certain amount of money. So we charge $550 for a $300 bottle of wine instead of $900. People who know wines think, ‘That’s a good deal; I think I’ll take two.’ The cost is higher for us, but we’re selling more wine. I don’t know if it’s groundbreaking, but it’s different and it’s friendlier to the consumer — and people can look up on their iPhone what it costs retail.
Where do you find new ideas?
Here’s one: Yesterday I was having lunch with a young lady who handed me a chia seed drink. I tried it, and I said, ‘This tastes like nothing.’ But I liked the texture, the way it held itself together because it’s got that mucous-y kind of thing. So we poured in curry oil, soy sauce, ginger, scallion, cilantro, lemon zest, grains of paradise and vinegar. It’s going to be a signature vinaigrette [without oil] for asparagus and soft-shell crab season.
We’re also working on something called ‘son of a bitch stew.’ We learned about it eating at Stephan Pyles’ restaurant [in Dallas] with the Sam Adams people. It turns out to be an old cowboy dish with all the insides of a cow — the heart, the belly, the sweetbreads — with cream, served like chipped beef.
We’re going to do ‘son of a bitch chicken,’ made with cockscombs, chicken feet, livers, heart, make it like a chili, and serve it with crispy chicken skin wrapped in brique dough and brushed with barbecue flavor. This is taking what Stephan gave us and working with chicken in a way that will work in New York City.
These ideas dance in your head for days, weeks, months or years, and boom or pop in your head. There’s always new stuff going on. That’s the fun part.