The Restlessly Inventive Chef Tells Us His Ten Favorite Ingredients and Why He Chose Them
The always entertaining David Burke rose to prominence at New York City’s River Cafe before moving on to Park Avenue Cafe, and then to the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. These days, he’s at the helm of David Burke Group (visit their site, for a limited time they’re giving away snacks to Facebook fans, as well as a chance to sit down with Le Burke himself).
Via his namesake corporate entity, Burke lords over restaurants in New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Chicago. He’s also the restlessly inventive mind behind Flavor-Transfer Spice Sheets and Flavorsprays, to name just two of his unconventional concoctions. Given that buildup, the ingredients he chose below might seem anticlimactic, but his explanations are vintage Burke. We always enjoy catching up with David: he provided a hilarious story for Don’t Try This at Home, and can free-associate with the best of them. Accordingly, we didn’t ask too many questions during this interview; instead, we just let him go.
This is turning into quite a collection of Toqueland Tens–previous installments feature Harold Dieterle, Emily Luchetti, Michelle Bernstein, and Sean Baker. And, now, ten from David Burke:
1. BUTTER. “It’s delicious, it’s natural, it’s versatile. I was trained in France and butter was a key ingredient in sauces, pastries, mousses. I don’t use it as much as I used to because we don’t make as many sauces that are that enriched, but butter on bread, or butter on a good piece of toast is heaven.”
2. EGGS. “Eggs are the thing that, if I had to take one thing to an island, that’s what I would take. The versatility, the comfort of an egg. Egg is my go to. I know it’s not junk food, but it’s my guilty pleasure. When I’m not feeling good, I get the urge for eggs. I liked poached eggs, but I like them all ways: I like them whipped, like a whipped scramble. I could do an omelet. I like over easy, Jersey-diner style. At home I just microwave them: I throw them in a coffee cup, scramble them up, throw a pat of butter in, I microwave them and eat them right out of the cup. It’s a quick method for me; there’s no clean up. I have coffee and a coffee cup of eggs.”
3. CHICKEN STOCK. “Rich, rich chicken stock. [Editor’s note: Burke means a dark stock, made with roasted chicken bones.] For the addition of flavor to other meats, the moisture-added property, the brining that you can do with it, the fact that you can make vinaigrettes that are emulsified with the jelly from the stock. It’s a natural flavor that is just yummy, the closest thing to natural MSG.”
4. MAPLE SYRUP. “Maple is like every time I cross the bridge over to South Beach: When I eat it, I’m, like, ‘Why don’t I come here more often?’ That’s what maple syrup does. It just hits me in the nose; it hits me right in the nasal. There’s a comfort factor there: butter and maple. There’s an association that brings you back to pajamas.It takes me back to childhood, but it’s also just delicious. It doesn’t have to be pancakes and waffles: pork chops, foie gras, duck breast, vinaigrettes, vegetable applications, ravioli. Things like that.”
5. LEMON. “For the acid, the citrus, the zest more importantly than the juice. A good squirt of lemon in brown butter on a fish, or the zest of it on a tuna tartare. Candied lemon peel. Lemon oil. A lot of good stuff. And just the effervescence of it all.” Would Burke ever put lemon front and center? “Maybe in a dessert, yes. You know, lemon meringue type of things, lemon curds. Lemon segments are a little bit too harsh, especially with wine, you know? There used to be lemon garnishes like lemon supremes, but in general I’d rather eat the skin.”
6. TOMATO. “Fresh, red tomato is one of the best things you could ever eat. I eat it raw in salads, cooked, juiced. I love pizza. There’s all kinds of layers of flavors in tomatoes: just look at the range from a tomato to an uncooked tomato sauce down to a caramelized tomato sauce. Very few people don’t like tomato sauce.”
7. VANILLA. “Vanilla is another one of those things that I like to use like maple a little bit: with potatoes, in a butter sauce, in a vinaigrette, in a marinade. It’s not necessarily just for dessert. For dessert, vanilla ice cream will always be my favorite.” Does Burke, like many chefs, frown on the use of vanilla extract? “I like the bean, of course, but the extract can be pretty good as well. I think for cake batter the extract works a little bit better; I think it permeates and integrates a little faster. I think in a sauce or an ice cream you need the bean. Depends on the way you look at it as a professional chef and what you’re doing with time; you don’t have to do everything from scratch. It takes too long. But vanilla bean: We dry the sticks and use them for fruit kabobs. There’s a lot of cool things you can do with vanilla beans. If you haven’t seen a vanilla bean on a tree, it’s amazing: They’re green; they look like big fava beans, and then they get dried out.”
8. LEEKS. “I think they’re underused. They’re great for soup, great grilled, great to fry, and just a great flavor. Leeks are fantastic.” So why aren’t they more popular? “I think it’s the inconvenience. You know, you’ve got to prepare them. You’ve got to wash them. They’re full of dirt. When you bring dirt into a kitchen there’s a possibility of it getting into something else. That’s why people buy prepared spinach. They don’t want to risk having to clean it and making sure the dirt’s out of it. That could ruin a whole night.”
9. SALT AND PEPPER. “Not just as a seasoning: salt as in preserving, and as an architectural piece: We build walls out of bricks of salt. We build our bars out of salt. In the restaurant up at Foxwoods we build a lot of salt walls and we light it up. It’s beautiful.” [Editor’s note: There are some pictures on the site for David Burke Prime at Foxwoods.] “And then pepper: Black pepper, white pepper, green peppercorn even though it’s a different family. And using that not just as a hint but crushed, using that as [the primary flavor in] marinades, using that fresh on the table.”
10. CHILE PEPPERS. “I’m not a chile expert by any means, but I’m getting more and more into smoked chiles and the heat of chiles. When I write menus and I balance out a menu, I use heat as one of those [criteria]: You’ve got to have enough fish, enough meat. Do I have enough poultry? Do we have enough salad? Do we have enough female-friendly dishes? Do we have enough healthy? Do we have a pasta dish? Do we have enough dishes with heat? Chiles are taking the place of what salt and pepper were when I was trained; they add another level of flavor to a dish. It’s a finishing note usually, the heat, and that’s something that’s fantastic. It kind of lingers with you.”