Exposure to restaurants helped turn a “moody kid” into the best-selling bad boy of chefdom.
AGE: 51 HOMETOWN: Leonia RESIDES: Manhattan DOSSIER: Executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan. Author of three novels and five nonfiction books, including his spicy tell-all memoir, Kitchen Confidential (2000), which gave him the first of several stints on the best-seller list. Host of A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network (2002) and the current No Reservations on the Travel Channel.
I wasn’t one of those kids who cook. But my parents thought it was important to know about food. My father, Pierre, was a salesman in the audio department of Willoughby’s camera store in New York City. At night he worked at Sam Goody’s in Garden State Plaza. My mom, Gladys, was a housewife. When I was in my late teens, she became an editor at the Record of Hackensack. She has worked at the New York Times as a copy editor for more than two decades.
My parents loved restaurants and often took me and my brother into Manhattan. We were eating Japanese, Indian—all kinds of food—back in the 1960s.
We also ate out a lot in Jersey, mostly in Bergen County. At that time there was a lot of mediocre red-sauce Italian and gluey Cantonese. When you’re a kid, though, it tastes good. I have fond memories of eating hot dogs at Hiram’s in Fort Lee. We went to the Sol ‘n’ Sol Deli in Englewood, where I liked the chopped liver. Then there was Baumgart’s soda fountain in Englewood, which I loved. And we’d go to a local farm for apples, cider, and doughnuts.
Every summer we went to Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. Shore food is an enduring love of mine—fried clams, steamers. You can’t improve on fresh-caught seafood.
When I was a teenager, I did a lot of cruising around for food. I was frequently stoned and always hungry. My usual munchie was rice pudding. My haunts were the Plaza Diner in Fort Lee, another diner in Palisades Park, and the IHOP in Teaneck. The Harbin Inn in Fort Lee had okay Cantonese, and I liked the spaghetti and meatballs at Jerry’s in Fort Lee, a pizzeria that’s still there.
I was a moody, alienated kid. The times I lived in—Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate—provided clear evidence that there would be no “revolution,” that the counterculture was just as lame and selfish and hypocritical as previous generations. A good education gave me the knowledge, context, and vocabulary to articulate my unhappiness and anger.
When I went to college—Vassar for two years, then the Culinary Institute of America—I had summer jobs as a dishwasher on Cape Cod. That’s where I fell in love with the food business. Cooking just resonated with me, and I found relief and accomplishment doing something “real” with my hands.
My preference today is for simple, unprettified food. What I liked about eating in Jersey as a kid, I still like. Give me a good burger, a decent deli, some steamer clams. Newark’s Ironbound is good, and I love the artisanal cheese from Bobolink Dairy in Vernon.
The most striking Jersey dining trend today is the Asian invasion. There’s no reason to go to Manhattan for Asian. Fort Lee’s Korean food is as good as Seoul’s, and the Japanese food at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater is as good as anywhere. —interview by Karen Tina Harrison
Even after he became the toast of New York, he dreamed of buying the restaurant where he had worked as a teenager: the Fromagerie in Rumson. Last year, he finally did.
AGE: 45 HOMETOWN: Hazlet RESIDES: Fort Lee DOSSIER: Executive chef and owner of David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson, and davidburke&donatella and David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, both in Manhattan; chef and partner at David Burke Las Vegas and Primehouse in Chicago. Burke is a two-time winner of the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence, and the first American and youngest chef (age 26) to be awarded the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France in 1988.
I was a typical Jersey kid. I went to the beach every day in the summer, hung out in the woods, got in a little trouble here and there. My mom cooked simple but good food—everything was fresh—and my dad was a health nut. Wheat germ, skim milk, no cold cuts, no sweets. I remember when he tried to tell me that wheat germ was sugar. I was like, “Come on, man. That ain’t sugar.”
I was a picky eater. I was happy with pasta, butter, and parmesan; a pork chop with applesauce; a sub sandwich. On weekends we made French toast with peanut butter and bananas for breakfast, but cooking was never a big part of our family. My mother was a nurse, and my father was a train driver for New Jersey Transit.
When I was fifteen I got a maintenance job after school at the Sheraton Inn near Hazlet—cutting the lawn, hanging mirrors, things like that. My cousin was a dishwasher in the hotel kitchen, and I’d go in on my lunch break and shoot the breeze with the guys. I was captivated by the energy in the kitchen, the camaraderie, the creativity.
One day my cousin got promoted and I took his dishwashing job. I was still in high school. I didn’t become a cook because I love food; I became a cook because I love the kitchen. There was no Food Network then.I didn’t know who Julia Child was. When I told my dad I wanted to be a chef, he said, “This is what you want to do? You need a job.” So one day I hitchhiked all over Monmouth County, and I ended up at the Molly Pitcher Inn in Red Bank. They had no openings, but they suggested I go to Navesink Country Club in Middletown. I walked—it was probably four miles. I met the chef, and I said, “Listen, I’m not really a cook, I’m a prep cook and I’m a good dishwasher, but if you show me once, I swear to God you’ll never have to show me again. I want to be a chef, and my dad’s busting my chops.”
He said, “Do me a favor. Talk to the manager, but don’t tell him you’re a prep cook. Tell him you’re a grill cook, because that’s what I need.” He was desperate, but that’s what happens in this business. You need a body, you get a body, and then you teach.
He taught me how to butcher, how to work the grill. I still have the burn scars. But I was cooking like a real chef, and I was only seventeen. I worked at the country club for about nine months, but the Fromagerie in Rumson had all the prestige, so I left Navesink and got a job there.
I took a pay cut, but I was learning French cuisine. I was intimidated by the Fromagerie—everything was so polished, the dishes were so complex. I was there only a few months before I went to the Culinary Institute of America, but I would swing by when I went home. The owners, [brothers] Markus and Hubert Peter, gave me the desire to achieve what I have today. My goal was to be in their clogs.
As my career started to take off, I told them, “If you ever decide to sell the restaurant…” It was always my dream to own the Fromagerie. Davidburke&donatella in Manhattan is my flagship, but the Fromagerie is my baby. —interview by Stan Parish
The son of two cooks—one a pro, one “instinctive”—grew up on homemade red sauce, Friday nights at Spirito’s in Elizabeth, and crabbing with his grandfather in Barnegat Bay.
AGE: 45 HOMETOWN: Elizabeth RESIDES: Manhattan DOSSIER: Chef and owner of Craft (Manhattan, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Dallas); Craftsteak (Manhattan, Las Vegas); and Craftbar and ’wichcraft (both in Manhattan). Craft was named Best New Restaurant in 2002 by the James Beard Foundation. Head judge of Top Chef on Bravo and author of Think Like a Chef (2000) and Craft of Cooking (2003).
I’m a real Jersey boy. I grew up in Peterstown, Elizabeth’s Italian neighborhood. I’m Italian on both sides. My mom was a manager in the cafeteria at Elizabeth High School, where I went. My dad was a corrections officer at the Union County jail. He was an instinctive chef who didn’t use recipes. On Sundays we’d have pasta with a red sauce that we called “gravy.”
In Elizabeth everyone ate at Spirito’s, an institution from the 1930s. It’s still there. My family went there every Friday to give my mom the night off. I can still see the fried veal cutlets and the ravioli with red sauce. I used to go crabbing with my grandfather in Barnegat Bay. We’d catch crabs, fish, eels. I remember eating the crabs with linguini and red sauce.
On Christmas Eve we’d do the Thirteen Fish Feast. My grandfather would cook it—the idea was, one dish for Jesus and one for each of the twelve apostles. He’d make dishes like linguini with clam sauce, spaghetti with mussels, grilled lobster, salt cod, and shrimp. Romans traditionally eat capitone, a long, fat, female eel that is seasoned and grilled. I cook the feast now—bacala, smelts, beet salad…it’s a wonderful meal and a wonderful tradition.
I graduated from Elizabeth High in 1980. Then I worked in a series of Jersey restaurants: Evelyn’s Seafood in Elizabeth, Chestnut Tavern in Union, the Old Mansion in Elizabeth, the Secaucus Hilton. I was living in East Orange and working at 40 Main in Millburn, which is now Martini’s, when I got tapped by Barry Wine [chef and owner of the Quilted Giraffe, the four-star temple of nouvelle cuisine that dazzled New York from 1975 until it closed in 1992]. I had mailed Wine a resume; he called me in, interviewed me, and hired me even though he had a thing about not hiring “career cooks” like me. He felt that chefs with varied backgrounds brought more to the kitchen. But I became the first “career cook” at the Quilted Giraffe.
After about a year, I went back to 40 Main as executive chef, and then returned to Manhattan to work with Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar & Grill. Then I worked in France for three months and then back in New York at Rakel and Mondrian. I partnered with Danny Meyer to open Gramercy Tavern in 1994. I opened Craft in 2001, and the Craft restaurant family is still growing. You could say I’m busy.
Jersey was instrumental in making me a chef; the kitchens I worked in here gave me confidence. It’s a great place to grow up and start a cooking career. The proximity to New York is stimulating, and the Jersey chefs’ community is very supportive. You don’t feel like you’re under a critical microscope like in the city, so you can be more creative. And you can’t beat the proximity to both the City and the Shore. There’s great seafood and great Italian food. And there’s nothing on earth like fresh New Jersey tomatoes and corn.—KTH
A fireworks mishap at age fourteen cost him his left hand, but that didn’t deter him from pursuing his dream.
AGE: 47 HOMETOWN: Madison RESIDES: Plainfield DOSSIER: Executive chef and owner of Restaurant David Drake in Rahway, rated “Excellent” four times by the New York Times. First executive chef at The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick, and pastry chef under Craig Shelton at the Ryland Inn.
I wouldn’t eat anything as a kid; I didn’t really like food. My parents would tell me, “You can’t get up until you take at least one bite,” so I would sit at the table for hours.
I was born in Summit and grew up in Madison. When I was eight, my parents got divorced and I moved with my mom to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, right outside New Hope. As a kid in Bucks County you either worked on a farm or in a restaurant, and at seventeen I was a dishwasher in a restaurant called Chez Odette in New Hope. At first it was just a job; at that point I had no interest in restaurants at all.
My father was an architect, and when I was little he used to show me the drawings in his office and take me to the building sites. Sometimes it would be years before a project was completed, and I had no patience for that. I needed instant gratification. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was what really drove me to the kitchen. I could create something, put it on a plate, and away it went.
At Chez Odette I loved the intensity of the cooks, the pressure they were under. They controlled the restaurant—the front of the house worked around them, and I liked that. By the summer after my freshman year at Fairleigh Dickinson, I knew I wanted to be a chef. I was working at a gas station up there to make money, but I was trying to find a cooking job. I went everywhere.
No one would hire me because I’d had an accident when I was fourteen years old playing with homemade fireworks, and I lost my left hand. I never looked at it as an obstacle to what I wanted to do. I had been ambidextrous, but I wrote left-handed, so the first thing I had to do after the accident was learn to write right-handed. It came surprisingly easily.
On my first day back at school someone helped me tie my shoes, and I remember thinking, I can’t go through life with someone else tying my shoes for me. After that I figured out ways I could play the drums, or field and throw in baseball. Years later, when I was working for Craig Shelton at the Ryland Inn, I adapted my old drumstick technique to a cooking spoon, wrapping it to my wrist with athletic tape.
But back when I was at Fairleigh Dickinson I saw an ad in the paper for a cook at Houlihan’s in the Riverside Square Mall in Hackensack. I decided that, if at all possible, I was not going to let the guy interviewing me know that I had one hand. We sat at a cocktail table in the bar, and I kept my wrist under it for the whole interview. At the end he asked me how much I wanted. At that point I was making almost no money, about $2.75 an hour, and I thought, I’m going to go for it; I’m going to ask for three dollars.
He offered me the job. He never did find out that I had one hand. But the next day my old boss, the owner of Chez Odette, called and asked me to come back and work there. I called and declined the job at Houlihan’s. I drove straight to New Hope and went right to the dishes. The owner came in, and before he even said hello he asked me what I was doing. “You’re not working there anymore,” he said. “You’re in the pantry.” That meant I was working the appetizer station. I was a chef! I was so excited because it was my first opportunity to do what I really wanted to do.
One of my first tasks in the pantry was opening clams. I would press my left forearm against the handle of the knife to hold it in place on the edge of the table, with the blade sticking out. I’d hold the clam in my right hand, and instead of opening it from the front, I’d push the hinge at the back into the knife blade. I wasn’t the fastest, but I could do it as well as anyone else. I transferred to Temple University so I could be closer to the restaurant and work on the weekends.
I soon realized that if I wanted to be good, I had to start eating things. I had to learn to like food. My first great fine-dining experience was going to dinner at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia with the chef at the Lambertville House, where I worked after leaving Chez Odette. I had no idea what to expect; I just knew I had to wear a suit and tie.
It was an awakening. I’d never eaten fish in my life until that day, and I had Dover sole in a tarragon cream sauce with celery root purée and chestnut purée done in perfect quenelles. I didn’t even know what celery root was. I rode home in my boss’s Ford Fiesta thinking, That’s exactly what I want: the intimacy, the prix fixe menu, the upscale setting.
At that time, in the early 1980s, people weren’t taking New Jersey dining seriously. But I felt like it was my home, and I was going to make my place here. I love the compactness of the state. The reason I took a chance on Rahway is that it reminded me of New Brunswick in the early 1980s. New Brunswick was a war zone back then, but we were very successful with The Frog and the Peach.
I saw the gentrification of New Brunswick, and I’m beginning to see the same thing in Rahway. It’s early in the revitalization, and hopefully I’m in the right place at the right time.—SP
The smell of apple blossoms and strawberries in the family backyard “imprinted in my genes” a lifelong love of garden-fresh food.
AGE: 63 HOMETOWN: Chatham RESIDES: Berkeley, California DOSSIER: Executive chef, owner, and founder (in 1971) of Chez Panisse, the restaurant that pioneered California Cuisine. Named Best Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation in 1992. Created the Chez Panisse Foundation in 1996 to underwrite programs that “demonstrate the transformative power of growing, cooking, and sharing food.” Founder of the Edible Schoolyard, a student garden and lunch project in Berkeley. Author of eight cookbooks.
I feel that I grew up in my father’s World War II victory garden in the backyard of our house in Chatham. My earliest memory is being put in the strawberry patch, where I was surrounded by the intoxicating scents of apple blossoms and berries. I’ve never been happier than I was in those moments, and I think I’ve spent my life trying to recapture that bliss.
Many of my aesthetic principles have their roots in my early childhood. The garden was my world. I got a strong sense of the four seasons imprinted in my genes. Even as a small child I relished the advent of spring. I still remember the Queen of the Garden costume that my mother made for me for a Fourth of July contest. She strung it together from actual produce: It had an asparagus skirt, a top made of lettuce, a wreath of strawberries for my head, and bracelets made of radishes and peppers. I can trace my love of vegetables back to that costume.
My father worked in personnel for Prudential in Newark; my mother raised me and my three sisters. She canned our garden’s rhubarb and made applesauce from our apple tree. I can still taste that applesauce. My mother cooked simple, healthful food. But at that time, the 1950s, technology was taking over. All the gadgets were coming out; food was getting canned and frozen. And it was all coming from Jersey. Hoboken was the main port for canned foods at one point.
My father called me a picky eater, and he was right; I wouldn’t eat just any old thing. I wanted green beans, and I loved grill-cooked steak. Every birthday I’d do the same thing: go to Manhattan and eat at the Horn & Hardart Automat. It was exciting to drop coins into the slot and take your lemon meringue pie out the glass door. Afterward we’d go to the Museum of Natural History.
We did go to one Jersey restaurant, the William Pitt in Chatham, for special occasions. The meal always began with canned fruit cocktail. We also went to a Gruning’s that was twenty minutes away. I couldn’t believe there were so many flavors of ice cream. My favorites were the mint chocolate chip and the vanilla with caramel. I also loved saltwater taffy, which I’d get when we visited Grandmother Hickman in Atlantic City. I had a great-aunt in Long Branch, too. The beach was a special place.
My family never ate seafood. I do remember one time when I was eight or nine, I went fishing off the Jersey Shore with my Uncle Norman. I caught a bluefish and a flounder. It was the first time I had a meal that I had, well, caught myself. It was so satisfying I’ll never forget it.
Friends of my family had a cottage up at a lake, and I was delighted by barbecues in the sand. We had clambakes complete with roasted corn, chicken, and blueberries we had picked on islands in the lake. I still love corn, but that was the best.
I loved the summer foods—corn, tomatoes, green beans. They’ve never been as good as they were then, before agribusiness took over and industrialized our food. New Jersey was once the Garden State, but to say that today is laughable. Jersey lost so much farmland to housing developments. What happened to New Jersey and America? Only honesty and integrity can create something real and meaningful. We have to learn from our mistakes and earn back our pride. —KTH