His voice is unmistakable, his determination enviable. Culinary groundbreaker chef David Burke is at it again with his wood-burning American bar and grill called Woodpecker by David Burke. Success is nothing new for Burke, but his latest endeavor is every bit as special as when he welcomed his first table of diners, decades ago.
“With Woodpecker, we are back to basics cooking with wood, making pizzas and great pasta, taking lamb and roasting it with hay, doing prime rib of pork,” said Burke, who loves the idea of roasting meats, slicing, and topping them off with the right garnishes. “This is simple American food, but we’ve taken it to a new level for people who want to go to a place with heart and soul.”
Burke likes the unpretentious nature of Woodpecker and that patrons can come in and graze a little at the wooden tables as honest food emerges from the kitchen to reach hungry diners eager to share their experiences there.
“This is a fun place, not pretentious – it’s the unplugged version of David Burke restaurants, and I guess you could say I went acoustic after all of the restaurants past,” said Burke. “The neighborhood is quite busy and there is a little void here close to Madison Square Garden, but we’re perched nicely right off Broadway with al fresco tables and views of the Empire State Building.”
For David Burke fans who aren’t ready to give up the techniques, bells, and whistles they have come to love in Burke’s cooking, the way he brines and roasts a chicken or imagines a garnish like no other, remains unchanged. And, of course, Burke is doing a version of his famous bacon on a clothesline with dry-aged beef and some other signature dishes. Burke’s lobster calzone gets 86’d every night, which he says is almost like angry lobster, but it’s a calzone because it’s been cooked in the wood-burning oven.
“My chefs and I have been doing this for a while, so anything we do, even if we make a ham sandwich, just because of the passion we have, it’s going to be the best ham sandwich,” said Burke, who likes that Woodpecker has a fairly priced menu and caters to repeat business, rather than being a special occasion restaurant. “We’re a neighborhood joint that happens to be run by a celebrity chef, not a celebrity chef restaurant people come to twice a year.”
People often ask Burke where he gets the stamina to keep striving, how he stays motivated and enthusiastic. His answer is simple. He’s always up for a challenge. “I get bored very easily and I have no fear of failure, plus I’m not afraid of change – chefs who get comfy and don’t want to take chances will find their restaurant going out of style right in from of them, without even realizing it,” says Burke. “Staying ahead of the current is actually the fun part and, after all, it’s only food.”
When a chef like Burke gets to this point in his career, testing the limits stops being stressful. He says in the early days, he used to stress out about reviews and critics before social media could make or break a restaurant. “You are the author of your dishes, so understand and believe in your dishes. Just stay focused, stay the course, and be happy,” said Burke, though he admits being a chef-in-charge is part shrink, cop, second father, alcohol and drug counselor, and everything in between. “This is an enjoyable job if you don’t let the stress take the joy out of it.”
Burke is excited about the future, especially when it comes to how people are eating now versus how they chose to eat in the past. Used to be, he recalls, in fine dining in a major city like New York, people got excited about menus, hors-d’oeuvres, and ordered a couple of bottles of wine with dinner.
“That was the heyday of dining, a great opportunity when you could cook that way and the team was in sync, but since then labor has become a major issue and being able to do everything a chef wants to do is challenging,” he said. “I can write a menu of twenty items, but affording an army to produce it is a balancing act based on that price point.”
Burke does miss the fancy footwork and the days when guests never dared speak on a cell phone at the table. “Now it’s completely okay to check your phone at the table and sometimes we have four people Instagramming every bite, eating for a postcard experience,” he said.
Burke still hits home runs with diners every night, but he’s noticed them shedding the 90s excess of obsessing over every chive in a housemade potato chip to enthusiasm for ingredients and sharing, whether they’re eating Carolina barbecue or French soufflé. He also sees the trend of diners bucking restrictions continuing, such as being pigeonholed into eating in the order of what the restaurant dictates.
“Now instead of the timing and style of the meal determined by the restaurant and maitre d’, one table will order six apps and maybe split a steak and some side dishes, and then they’ll see how they feel and maybe order more – or they might order a couple of tacos and some sushi rolls,” said Burke, who takes guests’ desire for freedom and how they order and eat into account when designing a menu. “We have much more veggie and green healthy options, and protein has become a smaller part of the plate, along with more grains, as opposed to a big steak with a side of broccoli.”
A simple statement on a menu can solve a lot of issues, Burke believes, in an age where millennials especially want to know the source of their food. “You don’t have to put the cow’s name where you got your milk – a couple of nods to whatever farms and ingredients should suffice because otherwise, it’s easy to lose focus on the food,” he said.