Growing up in Hazlet, just a few miles from the ocean and even closer to Sandy Hook Bay, David Burke—culinary partner at ESquared Hospitality and world-famous chef—was surrounded by food from the start. From local fish and crabs, to the farm fresh fruits and vegetables bought from roadside stands, Burke had access to it all. From a culinary point of view, though, Burke describes his childhood as being somewhat of a mélange, drawing from both the healthy realm as well as the not so healthy. “I would go into New York City often as a kid, as my relatives lived in Brooklyn Heights and my dad worked for the city,” Burke recalls. “My food memories, unfortunately, were of pretzels from a street cart and pizza on occasion. Since my father was a very healthy eater and marathon runner, we had no junk food, soda, sweets, or processed foods in our home. Instead, we had brown bread and skim milk and wheat germ.”
Then, at 15, Burke found a job that would change his life forever—even if he didn’t know it when he applied. He started washing dishes, and, from there, he became a prep cook and a fry cook/salad person.
“Through this, I found something I liked and pursued it with a passion,” he explains. “Even though my father tried to talk me out of my choice, it ultimately helped me get into the Culinary Institute of America.”
Since graduating from the CIA, Burke has done a little bit of everything, starting in 1992 when he opened Park Avenue Café with Smith & Wollensky CEO Alan Stillman. It was all up from there, as Burke continued working with some of the top chefs in the world, earning accolades (including three “Chef of the Year” awards in 1991, 1997, and 1998) and worldwide recognition throughout it all. It’s this constant education both from others and from the culinary world as a whole, Burke says, that has helped him grow and evolve as a chef, keeping him at the top of his game.
According to Burke, “There are so many different methods, techniques, and styles to running kitchens, designing dishes, and defining a style that you never truly stop learning. The bond between chefs is very strong, and in most cases, remains throughout your career. Being afforded the opportunity to work alongside greats [such as Daniel Boulud, Charlie Palmer, and many others] is an honor that many would be happy to pay for.”
These methods and chefs have enabled him to establish a laundry list of accomplishments, both inside the kitchens of the many restaurants he’s helped to establish, and outside of them.
When not on or overseeing the line, Burke grew professionally by landing spots on shows “Iron Chef America” and “Top Chef Masters,” and developing multiple products for use by professional kitchens and home chefs alike.
It was amid all of this that Burke moved to Bergen County in 2001, where he quickly became friends with Claire Insalata Poulos. Two years earlier, Poulos had founded Table to Table, a nonprofit group which works with over 200 area restaurants, markets, and other food providers and distributors to collect foods that would normally be thrown out and redistributes them to around 60 organizations including homeless shelters, elderly homes, soup kitchens, and after-school programs that serve the hungry in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Passaic counties. At the time, it was the only food rescue program in the entire state. Currently, Table to Table is the number-one four-star charity in the state, as ranked by Charity Navigator.
Working in kitchens for most of his life, Burke quickly saw the necessity of such a program and became involved, joining the board of directors, where he has remained since. With 1.2 million people in the state of New Jersey—and one in five children hungry—this is a cause that has remained close to Burke’s heart. It is organizations like this, and others that work with food in some capacity—whether saving food to donate or reducing overall food waste—that will be integral to the future.
Table to Table is always looking people interested in helping out, but there are plenty of other ways to get involved. “Groups that can get together and spend some time feeding others is a necessary part of helping your neighbors,” Burke says. “Every community has haves and have-nots, so it’s important to love thy neighbor.”
On a personal level, too, there are ways to help the situation, especially when it comes to reducing overall food waste.
“[You] can help on food waste if you order less food, utilize undervalued cuts of meat, and buy in-season products,” Burke says. Living in New Jersey makes this easier, too, as there are plenty of local farmers’ markets and other opportunities to engage in such activities—it’s just a matter of doing a little bit of online research to find them.
It may seem that these accomplishments are enough for a lifetime—restaurants, television spots, products, philanthropic efforts—but Burke is far from done.
This past October, the celebrated chef continued to expand his culinary empire, opening his first original NYC concept with ESquared—Tavern 62—on the Upper East Side. The American tavern features everything from classic dishes such as the Tavern Sirloin, which is dry-aged for 40 days, to weekend brunch (featuring items like the mouthwatering Rosemary Belgian Waffle), to afternoon tea time and more. Each and every dish is infused with Burke’s signature creativity and influenced by the contemporary style for which he is so well-known.
That isn’t all, though. How could it be, when he’s already accomplished so much. When you work at the rate that Burke does, you don’t just slow down. Next stop on his list? More and further-reaching efforts.
“More product development,” he says, “and I also want to design a cooking school.”
If his accomplishments in and out of the kitchen are any indication, sign us up for the first class.
By Sam Slaughter