Beaches, boardwalks, casinos, beautiful farms, Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen are just a few of the many things we can boast about in New Jersey. Sophisticated local cuisine is another story, and when it comes to food, Hazlet native David Burke is the Garden State’s rock star chef.
Anyone who likes to eat out knows Burke’s upscale casual restaurants across the state. With his recent addition of David Burke’s The Fox & Falcon in South Orange, Burke now has eight restaurants in New Jersey as well as his flagship David Burke Tavern on New York City’s Upper East Side, as well as restaurants in New York, Charlotte, North Carolina. , other restaurants in Richmond, RI and overseas in Saudi Arabia. Without further ado, he recently took over the historic Dixie Lee Bakery in Keansburg.
After working various jobs in the food industry during his teenage years, Burke went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America. At 26, he was named executive chef at the legendary The River Café in New York City, and his career took off. For years, Burke was a TV anchor on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters,” during which time he became famous for jumping out of airplanes. He has appeared on numerous shows, including “Every Day With Rachael Ray” and NBC’s “Today,” and gave a critically acclaimed talk at TEDxAsburyPark about food and the joy of doing what you love.
The iconic chef is known for his creativity, expressiveness and innovative culinary techniques; most famous of which is his famous dry-aging process of beef in pink Himalayan salt. Burke pays as much attention to a restaurant’s vibe as he does to its menu. His love of design and culture permeates every space, from the artwork on the walls to the interiors of each restaurant.
The father of three grown children, Connor, Dillon and Madeleine, and an ordained minister, Burke hosted his sons Connor and Melissa Way at David Burke’s Red Horse in Ramson last year. Elky’s wedding. Burke has lived in New York, New Jersey and Europe, but feels most at home in Monmouth County, where he grew up. He loves his hometown of Atlantic Heights for its laid-back vibe, proximity to the water and easy access to New York City, just a short ferry ride away.
In addition to investing in restaurants in New Jersey, Burke gives back to the community and has served on the board of Table to Table, a North Jersey food rescue program, for 20 years. He also supports charities such as Meals on Wheels, Share Our Strength and Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore. We asked Burke how it all started, his restaurants in New Jersey and what’s next for him in the Garden State.
New Jersey Family: Where did your love for food start?
David Burke: I grew up in Hazlet, which is exit 117 of the Garden State Parkway. I’m close enough to New York to go to sporting events and concerts and have the vibe and grit of a working New York City worker. I fell in love with the restaurant industry at a young age. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I decided to become a chef and quit my high school wrestling team. I left school a year early and started working at Navesink Country Club in Middletown and Fromagerie in Ramson, which was a great experience before I went to culinary school. I went to school, moved to Texas, moved to Norway, went to Europe, lived in Europe, worked in New York, and went back to Europe a few times. I came to the kitchen of The River Café in New York City to be the executive chef there.
NJF: Your restaurants stretch from New York City to Saudi Arabia, but you’re actually investing in New Jersey.
DB: I think it would be more beneficial to come to Jersey and start taking the high level of knowledge that we learned in New York and filter it down to doing business in Jersey. We are building a good network of chefs. Even more attractive to them was the ability to work for a well-respected chef and restaurant company with a New York and national presence without having to commute to New York.
NJF: What dishes do we have to try at David Burke’s?
DB: We make homemade bread, usually popcorn. We had the signature bacon and lobster dumplings hanging on the clothesline. If you see crab cakes, give them a try. Our burrata salad, tuna tartare and oysters were also very well done, as was our steak. We have a patent on dried meat. If you’re a steak lover, you’ll enjoy a great steak at any of our restaurants.
NJF: What are some of your favorite NJ restaurants (other than your own)?
DB: I think Roots Steakhouse (with multiple locations in NJ) does a good job. Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge is a fine restaurant. I went to a local favorite in Monmouth County: Nicholas and Gabriela’s Italian Steakhouse, both in Red Bank. I go to the Salt Creek Grille in Rumson. There’s a nice little pizza place in the Atlantic Highlands called Strada. I love Pascal & Sabine, a French bistro in Asbury Park. They do a great job. River Palm Terrace is a great steakhouse in Edgewater and Fair Lawn. Well done to Son Cubano in Western New York. Chatham’s Serenade and Scalini Fedeli are also very good.
NJF: Tell us about the Dixie Lee Bakery you bought in Keansburg.
DB: The bakery is where my mom used to go when I was a kid. Old fashioned bakeries are going out of business as you compete with one-stop shops like Wegmans, Whole Foods, and ShopRite. We must go beyond them. I think Keansburg is a town that will do well in the next twenty years. This summer I will be putting Dixie Lee Bakery on the boardwalk with a small kiosk. We’re going to eat sandwiches, lollipops, donuts, black and white cookies, and frozen cupcakes.
NJF: All three of your children have grown up. How do you encourage them to be adventurous eaters? Any advice for parents of young children?
DB: My eldest son eats very lightly. He eats pasta with butter. My little boy, even when he was 4 or 5, was eating sushi and clams, spaghetti 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 likes ham and burrata, shrimp, lobster, and steak. I didn’t have to convince her to try it. All you can do is let them try. Don’t make a fuss about it. It will never work if you force them.
NJF: When you look back on your career, was there a moment when you thought, “Wow, I’ve surpassed my wildest dreams”?
DB: Since I bought my house in Atlantic Heights, I’ve had time to reflect. I’ve spent a lot of time at home during the pandemic, something I rarely do because, like all chefs, I’m working 60-70 hours a week. I have time to actually go home and enjoy home. Most cooks don’t spend a lot of time at home. A lot of them are single or divorced and we don’t cook at home. Recently, I’ve started to like my surroundings more and it’s made me realize that I’ve achieved something.
NJF: What do you like most about Atlantic Heights?
DB: I like Atlantic Heights because there is a lot of history there. This is a quaint little town. This is not a flashy town. It has views of New York City; it’s on the bay. In a way, it’s a small fishing village. And then it has all these old Victorian buildings and houses on the hill, which are all unique. The houses were built hundreds of years ago, they were built on hills and cliffs, and the roads were like you were somewhere in San Francisco. You have hiking trails, we have downtown. We have a main road with coffee shops, ice cream parlors and a movie theater that Kevin Smith just bought. There is a music scene and an arts area. I am involved with the Atlantic Heights Arts Council. It’s like a small village. Whether you’re a hedge funder, a rock star, a professional athlete or a blue collar worker, everyone in Monmouth County is treated the same. There is no snobbery in this county.
NJF: Tell us about a reality show you’re developing.
DB: This is a Jersey-based TV show filmed at my home with the Brookdale Community College Culinary Arts Program. Five students will live here during the five-week boot camp. They get paid to work in my kitchen, gaining experience and developing skills. Each Sunday, a student will host a ticketed catering event for 70-100 people. Funds raised will eventually serve as seed money for students. Top chefs will compete for their favorite students in a “draft”. We’re opening the doors of our country’s best chefs to them.
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