Beaches, boardwalks, casinos, beautiful farms, Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen are just a few of the many things we can brag about in New Jersey. Exquisite locally-sourced cuisine is another and when it comes to fine dining, Hazlet native David Burke is the Garden State’s very own rock star chef.
Anyone who loves to go out for a great meal knows Burke for his upscale and casual restaurants throughout the state. With his recent addition of The Fox & Falcon by David Burke in South Orange, Burke now has eight restaurants in NJ along with his flagship David Burke Tavern on the Upper East Side of New York City and others in NY, Charlotte, NC, Richmond, RI and overseas in Saudi Arabia. Closer to home, he recently took over the historic Dixie Lee Bakery in Keansburg.
After working a variety of jobs in the food industry in his teens, Burke went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America. At 26, his career took off when he was named executive chef of NYC’s legendary The River Café. Burke has been a TV staple over the years on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” during which he famously jumped out of a plane on-air. He’s appeared on countless shows including “Every Day with Rachael Ray” and NBC’s “TODAY” and delivered an acclaimed talk at TEDxAsburyPark about food and the joy of doing what you love.
The iconic chef is known for his creativity, presentation and innovative cooking techniques; among the most notable being his famous Pink Himalayan salt dry-aging process for beef. Burke cares as much about the ambiance at his restaurants as he does the menu. His love of design and culture permeates each space from the art on the walls to the interior design of each restaurant.
A father of three adult children, Connor, Dillon and Madeline, Burke is also an ordained minister who last year officiated his son Connor’s wedding to Melissa Welch at Red Horse by David Burke in Rumson. Burke has lived in NY, NJ and Europe but feels most at home in Monmouth County, where he grew up. He loves his hometown of Atlantic Highlands for its laid-back vibe, proximity to the water and accessibility to NYC, just a short ferry ride away.
Beyond investing in restaurants in NJ, Burke is big on giving back and has been on the board of Table to Table, a North Jersey food rescue program, for 20 years. He also supports Meals on Wheels, Share Our Strength and the Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore, among other charitable organizations. We asked Burke about how it all began, his NJ restaurants and what’s next for him in the Garden State.
New Jersey Family: Where did your love of food begin?
David Burke: I grew up in Hazlet which is exit 117 on the Garden State Parkway. I was close enough to NYC to go to sporting events and concerts and have the vibe and grit of the New York City worker. I fell in love with the restaurant business at a very young age. My summer between freshman and sophomore year is when I decided to be a chef and quit the high school wrestling team. I got out of school a year early, started working at the Navesink Country Club in Middletown and also the Fromagerie in Rumson, which was a great experience, before I went to the Culinary Institute. I went to school, moved to Texas, moved to Norway, went to Europe, lived in Europe, worked in NYC and back to Europe a couple of times. I landed in the kitchen at The River Café in NYC and became executive chef there.
NJF: Your restaurants extend from New York City to Saudi Arabia but you’re really investing in New Jersey.
DB: I thought it would be more beneficial to come out to Jersey and start to take what we learned in New York at the high level, and filter it into doing business in Jersey. We’re building a nice network of chefs. What’s more appealing to them is to be able to work for a highly regarded chef and restaurant company that has the New York and national presence, but not having to commute to New York to do it.
NJF: What dishes must we try at a David Burke restaurant?
DB: We do homemade bread, usually popovers. We have signature bacon hanging from a clothesline and lobster dumplings. If you see a crab cake, try it. We also do a very good job with burrata salads and tuna tartare and oysters, and also our steaks. We have a patent on dry meat. If you’re a steak lover, you’ll get a great one at any of our restaurants.
NJF: What are some NJ restaurants (besides your own) you love?
DB: I think Roots Steakhouse (with various locations in NJ) does a good job. Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge is a good restaurant. I go to my local favorites here in Monmouth County: Nicholas and Gabriella’s Italian Steakhouse, both in Red Bank. I go to Salt Creek Grille in Rumson. There’s a good little pizza bar in Atlantic Highlands called Strada. I like Pascal & Sabine, a French brasserie in Asbury Park. They do a really nice job. The River Palm Terrace is a good steakhouse in Edgewater and Fair Lawn. Son Cubano in West New York does a great job. Serenade and Scalini Fedeli, both in Chatham, are also very good.
NJF: Tell us about the Dixie Lee Bakery you bought in Keansburg.
DB: The bakery is a place my mother went when she was a kid. Old-fashioned bakeries are going out of business because you’re competing with one-stop shops like Wegmans, Whole Foods and ShopRite. We have to outshine them. I think Keansburg is a town that’s going to grow quite well in the next two decades. I’m putting Dixie Lee Bakery on the boardwalk this summer with a little kiosk. We’re going to have sandwiches, push pops, donuts, black and white cookies and frozen cupcakes.
NJF: Your three kids are grown. How did you encourage them to be adventurous eaters? Any advice for parents of young kids?
DB: My oldest was a very bland eater. He ate pasta with butter. My younger boy, even when he was like 4 or 5, was eating sushi and clams, linguini with clam sauce, sea urchin, octopus and calamari. My daughter’s mother was a chef and caterer, so she grew up eating good food. She liked prosciutto and burrata, and shrimp and lobster and steak. I didn’t have to convince her to try things. All you can do is ask them to try. Don’t make a big deal about it. If you force them, it never works.
NJF: When you look back on your career, do you have a moment where you felt: ‘Wow, I’ve surpassed my wildest dreams’?
DB: I’ve had time to reflect since I bought my home in Atlantic Highlands. During the pandemic I spent a lot of time at home, something I rarely did because like all chefs I worked 60-70 hours a week. I’ve had time to actually be home and enjoy a home. Most chefs don’t spend a lot of time at home. A lot of them are single or divorced, and we don’t cook at home. Lately, I started to enjoy my surroundings more, and it has made me aware I have reached certain goals.
NJF: What do you love most about Atlantic Highlands?
DB: I like Atlantic Highlands because there’s a lot of history. It’s an old town with a cool vibe. It’s not a flashy town. It has a view of NYC; it’s on the bay. It’s a little fisherman’s village to a certain degree. Then it has all of these old Victorians and homes up in the hills here that are individually unique. These homes were built hundreds of years ago and they’re on hills and cliffs, and the roads are like you’re somewhere in San Francisco. You have hiking trails, and we have a downtown. We have one main road that has coffee shops, ice cream shops and a movie theater Kevin Smith just bought. There’s a music scene and an art area. I’m involved in Atlantic Highlands Arts Council. It’s like a little village. Whether you’re a hedge fund guy, a rock and roll star, a pro athlete or a blue-collar worker, everybody in Monmouth County treats everybody the same. There’s no snobbiness in this county.
NJF: Tell us about the reality show you’re developing.
DB: It’s a Jersey-based TV show filmed at my house with the Brookdale Community College Culinary Arts program. Five students will reside here during a five-week boot camp. They’ll get paid to work in my kitchens, get experience and develop skills. Each Sunday a student will lead a ticketed catered event for 70-100 guests. Money raised will be seed money for the students at the end. Top chefs will compete in a “draft” for their favorite student. We are opening doors for them to our country’s best chefs.
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