ARCHIVE: Burke’s Law, No Blarney

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David Burke will joining in the celebri-chef challenge in the new season of TOP CHEF MASTERS, airing next month on Bravo — and he’ll be getting into competitive shape this week, during the second annual No Blarney Chef Competition at his Fromagerie in Rumson.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 15, 2010)

Reasons to be thankful for David Burke; part 192 in a series.

All of us who’ve grown up or lived any appreciable amount of time in Monmouth County  — particularly Bayshore-bred brethren like this correspondent — can take a certain amount of vicarious pride in the accomplishments of the Hazlet native whose cooking career has placed him in the rarefied stratosphere of the nation’s top culinary artists. A genuine celebri-chef with the cred to back it up, he’s a carefully crafted brand unto himself; a real innovator and the driving force behind a half dozen premium restaurants across the country — including the local landmark now known as David Burke Fromagerie.

The rustically ritzy Rumson favorite is where the young Burke first apprenticed under Fromagerie founders Markus and Hubert Peter — and his return to Ridge Road a few years back was as much a salute to old friends and mentors as it was a way to stay in touch with his roots. It’s all part of a professional journey that’s encompassed intensive training at the CIA and in France, as well as highest accolades in Europe and Asia.

Rather than put on airs, Burke has always grounded that international reputation in a pronounced playful streak that’s earned him a Best Culinary Prankster citation from Time Out New York, and has seen him compared to Willy Wonka more than the seriously outsized egos that crack the whip in many top-rated kitchens. Naming DB Fromagerie as one of the state’s best restaurants, New Jersey Monthly called it “a stage for Burke’s whimsical design sense and imaginative food…tongue on rye is deli, but tongue-in-cheek ascends to cuisine under Burke.”

This sophisticated chef has also shown a pronounced egalitarian streak, a quality that allows him to share some of his secrets with casual cooks who purchase such Burke-branded products as flavor-transfer spice sheets and spray-on diet flavorings.

It’s that inventor’s inclination that can lead one to liken Burke to another tinkering son of Jersey, Tom Edison. Or perhaps he’s “The Boss” of the bistro business — a previous post here in oRBit cited the Fromagerie and Restaurant Nicholas as “the Springsteen and Bon Jovi” of area eateries, while remaining unclear as to which was which. Then again, that Bayshore connection can summon comparisons to Kevin Smith (although the mega-cult moviemaker has expressed little interest in developing fat-free food technologies).

When all’s said and done, Burke is Burke — a tops-in-his-field legend who’s scaled the heights by, thankfully, not adopting the forced eccentricities displayed by the current crop of increasingly obnoxio food celebs. He did it without “BAMs” and bizarre hairdos; without tossing around faux-folksy phrases or hurling carving knives at cameras. He’s a regular guy of extraordinary expertise and skill; one who stays current and competitive on the only stage that matters.

“All of us in the restaurant business compete every day to survive,” the master chef told us in a phone interview last week. “It’s a quiet competition really; the claws don’t come out, because we respect each other and share a common interest.”

In the days and weeks to come, David Burke will once more engage in a round or two of entirely friendly and very public competition — including a nationally televised tournament designed to prove whose kitchen kung fu is king, as well as the return of a hometown throwdown that takes place right here within the greater Red Bank orbit.

This St. Pat’s Day Wednesday, March 17, Burke will be among the participants taking part in the second annual No Blarney Chef Competition at his Rumson restaurant — a serious-fun event that sees DB joining with exec chef Sylvain Delpique (ofDavid Burke Townhouse in Manhattan) in a countertop competition against DB Fromagerie chef Rich “Whitey” Calton and original Fromagerie founding fatherHubert Peter.

It’s a sequel to last year’s inaugural No Blarney event, an offering that featured as a special guest master brewer Grant Wood of Samuel Adams — and an occasion that arose from a spur-of-the-moment idea conjured by Burke in advance of St. Pat’s.

“It’s an Irish holiday, and Peter is German — but it’s also kind of a BEER holiday, so we thought it would be a good time for a beer tasting,” said Burke.

“We were itching to get Peter back into the kitchen, so we asked him to help us out with sausages — and even though it wasn’t meant to be a competition, it kind of turned out that way.”

This year’s round of “friendly pot-to-pan combat” features a beer, wine and whiskey tasting, hors d’oeuvres and a multi-course dinner. There’s also live music, plus a roulette wheel with cookbooks and other prizes for guests as they vote for their Top Chef tag-team.

“We had such a good time last year, we wanted to do it again,” says Burke of this year’s heightened rematch between himself and Peter. “It’s all in good fun, and it’s a nice way to get through March.”

But if Fromagerie chef Calton bests boss Burke in the juried competition?

“If he beats us, he’ll face the consequences,” laughs Burke.

Seating for this Wednesday’s 7pm event is limited, so reserve ($60 per person) at(732)842-8088 — then tune into the Bravo network at 10pm on Wednesday, April 14, when David Burke guests on the second episode in a new season of Top Chef Masters, hosted by TV food journalist Kelly Choi and featuring guest judges that include the likes of Mekhi PhiferSimpsons creator Matt Groening and voicemanHank AzariaBizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, and the cast of The Modern Family.

According to Burke, he wasn’t called upon to face a panel of characters whose culinary tastes have skewed toward items like fried park squirrels and the infamous pickled-egg jar at Moe’s. But the jury boasted some seriously credentialed industry pros (among them Gael GreeneJames Oseland and Jay Rayner), and the chefs with whom he competed on his episode — Marcus Samuelsson of NYC’s Red RoosterThierry Rautureau of Rover’s in Seattle, Monica Pope of t’afla in Houston, and noted chef consultant Carmen Gonzalez — are all people at the top of their game.

Burke hasn’t issued any spoiler alerts regarding the April 14 episode, which was taped recently and in post-production — but the format of the show has a field of 22 master chefs gradually whittled down to a pair of showdown finalists, with this season’s Top Chef Master ultimately awarded $100,000 for the charity of his or her choice.

All in a day’s work for a superstar to whom a certain degree of competition is part of the job description — perhaps even more so on the neighborhood level than on the national stage.

“We all basically compete for the same customers in Rumson,” observes the owner who’s among those participating in March’s Rumson Restaurant Month promotion. “We’re doing our part, with things like Burger Night, and a value driven buffet on Sundays.”

“We’re happy to take part in Restaurant Month — we’ll do whatever we can for the town.”

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