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David Burke

Jim Poris / January 2004

Food Arts presents the January/February 2004 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to David Burke, the whimsically creative New York City chef whose fun flights of fancy are steered by a classically grounded guidance system. After years of riding red-eyes as culinary head of Alan Stillman's Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, the chef who pioneered flavored oils, the swordfish chop, pastrami salmon, goat cheese lolipops, flans baked in egg shells, and edible chocolate replicas of the Brooklyn Bridge and a park bench has gleefully returned, at age 41, to a humming restaurant kitchen at his newly baptized david burke & donatella (in partnership with Italian restauranteur Donatella Arpia; see Birth Announcements). "I'm back to doing what I do best," Burke declares with Jersey guy certitude.

Burke gained validation for his rigorous immersion in technique and professional protocol—courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America, three years working with Waldy Malouf at La Crémaillière in Banksville, New York, and his own unflagging energy and curiosity—when he became the first American to receive a Diplôme d'Honneur from the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Workers of France) organization for his victory at the International Cooking Festival in Tokyo in 1988. "I didn't travel all that way to lose," he says of the experience. "I just wanted to go over there and swing the bat." To Burke, who has judged the prestigious Bocuse d'Or. contests serve as "healthy learning vehicles and a chance to network, but you have to like them to do them right."

Burke never envisaged a cook's life, especially as the son of a marathoning, health food consuming father. "I was a wheat germ baby," Burke says. But as a teenage dishwasher in Hazlet, New Jersey, he fell hard for kitchen life—"the production work, the creativity, the camaraderie." By 17, he was wearing a double-breasted chef's jacket as a line cook at Fromagerie, the longtanding haute eatery in Rumson, New Jersey. His post-CIA voyages took him to Norway as a private chef, to New York City, to Malouf, and then to Brooklyn, where he served as Charlie Palmer's sous chef at The River Café, on the Brooklyn shore of the East River. When he succeeded Palmer as executive chef in 1987, he went right for diners' sensory jugulars with such aromatherapy dishes as a brandy snifter of steaming smoked salmon consommé served alongside smoked salmon.

Burke's fantastic forays continued at Park Avenue Cafe, where, beginning in 1992, he kept "feeding his creative bone," to the extent that David Burke's Gourmet Pops—smoked salmon, goat cheese, and foie gras—and pastrami salmon can be found in a supermarket near you. His latest invention, "flavor sheets"—spices and/or herbs stuck to a plastic sheet by a food glue—has gained him a seat on the board of directors of the Research Chefs Association.

"We have a hard time saying no in this business, whether to charities, guests, or whatever," Burke says. "No is just not an option, so I'm constantly pushing myself."

And, by example, his peers as well.