Philadelphia’s Jim Burke Embraces the Pressure
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA finals this Saturday, February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the finalists as possible.]
Jim Burke, of Philadelphia’s James restaurant, was so busy with the holiday crush at work, that he didn’t even notice when the finalists for the Bocuse d’Or USA were announced in early December, and his name wasn’t on the list. He found out he hadn’t made the cut when he got a call from a member of the organizing staff, shortly before Christmas, asking him if the Bocuse d’Or USA Committee could re-review his application because somebody had dropped out and they needed to fill the slot.
Burke said “yes,” and got right back to work. He didn’t discover until mid-January that it was Kevin Gillespie, of Top Chef fame, who had withdrawn. But it didn’t really matter, because Burke was already making up for lost time, preparing for battle himself.
So just who is this mystery man who was handed a belated shot at Bocuse d’Or glory?
Burke is the chef-owner of James in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who began his career at The Marker at the Adams Mark Hotel and spent two years at Vetri, considered by many to be one of the two or three best Italian restaurants in the country. Taken with Italian cuisine, he traveled to the small town of Alme, outside Bergamo, where he worked for Paolo Frosio at the Michelin-starred Ristorante Frosio, then spent more than a year working in restaurants and vineyards to further his intuitive feel for Italian food. Back in the States, he became executive chef of Vivo Enoteca in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and then of Angelina, a Stephen Starr restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. Today, Burke is executive chef of his James restaurant in Philly, where he serves what he describes as “modern American cuisine with Northern Italian influences.” He owns and operates the restaurant with his wife, general manager Kristina Burke. The restaurant has been well received locally, and in 2008, Burke received one of the best feathers a young chef can have tucked in his toque when he was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef.
Burke has never participated in a culinary competition before, but was a jock in high school, playing basketball, baseball, and football. He had always been vaguely interested in the Bocuse d’Or, having seen “random TV shows” about it and being drawn to the “hoopla” that surrounds it. Like many of those who have applied since 2008, Burke was inspired to actually apply by the new Bocuse d’Or USA guard of Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse. “The caliber of chef involved was irresistible,” he says. “Thomas Keller. Daniel Boulud. When they get behind something it changes the attitude of a lot of cooks.”
Although Burke got a late start in his preparation, he also got lucky in finding a commis. When approached about being re-considered, Burke mentioned to Alison Buckley, director of competition and events for the Bocuse d’Or USA, that his only concern was finding an assistant in time. Before he knew it, Buckley had reached out to the CIA, who sent a student his way: Simon Solis-Cohen, who is from Philadelphia and had eaten at James. The two met the next day and Solis-Cohen was in, arranging for a three week leave from school. (By the time we spoke in mid January, Burke said that Solis-Cohen was back in Philly full time and that they would be practicing every day until they left for Hyde Park.)
Burke seems remarkably unfazed by the short time frame he’s on. “I know it’s incredibly rigorous and intense and I want to challenge myself,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re capable of until you put yourself against the wall.” The only intimating element for him is the people who will be watching him perform under pressure:
“I’ve done plenty of cooking demos and little talks, but mostly they were in front of housewives…not Thomas Keller. Not Daniel Boulud. Not potentially Paul Bocuse.”
To prepare himself, Burke spent time on the Bocuse d’Or USA website, and also on the French mothership’s site, “trying to see the style of the platters and get a feel for what the competition will be like.” But he acknowledges that visualization will only take him so far. “Anything I find out now will be nothing like when it’s in my face.”
Despite the short notice, Burke has prepared what he calls an “ambitious” menu. Unsurprisingly, he and Solis-Cohen hadn’t done any timed trials by the time we spoke in mid-January. But he was optimistic that would change before the competition in Hyde Park and that they’d get a few full run-throughs in.
Although he was the last chef to start prepping, he’d happily be the first one to present. “The Saturday teams starts at 6 a.m.,” he says. “Much as I hate getting up early, I wouldn’t mind going first, getting done, letting everyone else worry about it.”