As his restaurants scaled back or shut down for the pandemic, a chef discovers a new affection for teaching.
By David Burke as told to Chris Mohney
David Burke is a chef, founder, operator of numerous restaurants, mostly in New York and New Jersey. With several of his restaurants closed or limited during the pandemic, he has begun creating videos and cooking classes in his home studio for CocuSocial and Instagram.
When we decided to close down the New York City restaurants, it was pretty devastating. March through April—the uncertainty, the lack of hope, the lack of direction, and the fear of not getting the loan from the government. That was what really got us. We all thought it was going to be two weeks. After three weeks, it started to really climb on top of me. The uncertainty about my career and my business, my employees, my landlords, my partners, all that. It became a little bit tense.
Then once we received some money from the government, it put us a little bit at ease and we could start to bring some people back. We started something called Feed the Heroes, and we started feeding hospital workers and homeless shelters, and that kept us quite busy. We did that at David Burke Orange Lawn. We did it at all of our Jersey restaurants, and at David Burke Tavern.
That kept some of our employees busy. It gave us some hope. There was a little bit of cash flow, not a lot. It was still a losing proposition. But we’re adrenaline junkies anyway. We need to work.
We tried outdoor dining in New York. At David Burke Tavern on the Upper East Side, it cost me more money than I could make there. I’m on the side street. I don’t have that many tables, and you’ve got to bring the tables in and out every day. The waiters don’t want to do that work. That’s not part of their job, even in a pandemic. So then you’ve got to hire more people to do that. You need a chef who cooks, a dishwasher, a manager, a bartender, and two waiters. Plus you’ve got utilities, you’ve got to pay for garbage again now. Then it rains, or you get 95 degree days, there’s no wind flow. The Upper East Side is traditionally dead in August anyway. I don’t know why we expected it to be busier.
Woodpecker, on the other hand, and Mister French are now giving outdoor dining a try. They have nice platforms outside. It’s uncomfortable unless you invest ten grand in a sexy outdoor platform. Maybe that neighborhood downtown is a little different than the Upper East Side. We invested $15,000 on the interiors to put the plastic walls up for social distancing, and we’re not allowed to use them. We spent money we don’t have just to accommodate the rules. It doesn’t make sense.
We also did the takeout and delivery. But takeout and delivery does not work for certain styles of restaurants. Our food is not takeout and delivery food. It was a waste of our time. We lost more money doing that, because labor in New York is so high. If it’s pizza or to-go Chinese food or things that people think about for delivery, you’ve got a much better chance. It’s less expensive, and it’s okay to eat that out of a cardboard box. When you take a branzino or an octopus and sea scallop dish and you put it in a container, it just doesn’t fit the brand so well. Even a steak doesn’t travel well. It’s not hot. At least that’s how I feel.
My landlord for David Burke Tavern could not be more accommodating. We’ve had a very good relationship. She’s struggling, too. She has a mortgage. She needs the income. We came up with a deal where I give her a percentage based on my sales, with a minimum guarantee. I said, “If you can find someone else to pay you more rent than that at this time, I’m glad to step aside.” But I don’t think she can. And our landlord down at Woodpecker, he’s one of my partners, so he’s the owner, too. So we’re okay there. If you have a good relationship with landlords, and they see that you’re working hard to get something done, they don’t want to see it go away. Of course, I don’t know what’s going to happen. New York might be on its knees right now, but I don’t think it’s going to lay down.
Luckily, we have five spots in Jersey that are currently open. We’re doing really well there because, number one, we have a lot of seats, and number two, the competition is closed. We’re not getting rich, we’re not making a lot of money. We certainly aren’t hitting our budget. But to hell with the budget this year. The fact that our employees are back to work and we’re making new friends and feeding people is excellent.
Feed the Heroes kind of fizzled out in the last six weeks. We’re still doing 300 meals a day. Eventually we laid most of our people off. Some of our employees can’t feed their families on unemployment, so there’s a platform for that, and also to pay for food that we can send to the other shelters and hospitals that can’t afford to pay for it either. We’re looking for corporate dollars or donations of food that we could convert into meals.
After all that, I started working from home in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. I bought it a year ago, and I’ve never really used it. I was using it for the weekends. When the pandemic hit, I decided to stay here instead of high-rise living in Fort Lee. I got settled in and we started making videos.
CocuSocial helped us get some cooking classes together. I have a big enough kitchen here. So I did work with them, cooking and teaching people on their platform. I started doing videos on Instagram with a puppet. They’ve really started to take off. That helps keep the camaraderie going, and the laughter, and the hope, and the reminder that we’ll get through this.
Before the pandemic, I didn’t know what a Zoom was. Now I’ve gotten pretty good at some of the computer stuff. Chefs, we’re like hamsters on a wheel once we have restaurants going. Some of us think the place is going to burn down if we’re not there 18 hours a day, which isn’t true.
I created a studio here at my home. We got the lights and all that stuff down pat. We’re going to continue to do it because, number one, there’s income, and, number two, I have a lot to offer in a way of education, and number three, I like it. I like being home and being able to teach.
If there was any goodness in this crisis, it’s the time that you learned to step back and enjoy your homes and your families and your friends a little bit more. I’m talking about from a chef’s standpoint of trying not to work 80 hours a week. Maybe we can work 65. Maybe we can work less than what we do, and work from home a little bit. We have so much knowledge that doesn’t necessarily get shared with the public when they eat at your restaurant. When they can see it online, and they can ask questions, and it’s incredibly informative and fun. I give them an example about the way this works, or why I don’t do that. “Because I was living in France, and this is where I learned how to do this.” That becomes as important to the class as the actual recipe.
I’m what you’d call on the older side of chefs now, and I have a vast amount of experience and knowledge. Sharing that knowledge is something I want to do for the future anyway, in regard to larger-format cooking schools or redesigning how cooking schools are done right now.
We actually had a birthday on CocuSocial. A viewer said, “It’s my birthday dinner and I’m cooking at home with my husband.” And the whole group sang happy birthday. All of a sudden she had a party. How many people were in the class I don’t remember, but it felt like we were out together. It was really cool.
Some of the students are very curious about the restaurant business and how it operates. There’s a lot of mystery and rumors about the darkness of the restaurant industry, the late hours and the nightlife and the struggles. I think it’s important to teach people—even the young students that are going into the culinary colleges—some history of food, but more about what’s in the now. You can reference the history, but I don’t think chefs need to learn how to cook a dish from 60 years ago that nobody wants to eat anyway. People don’t want salt cod anymore. We don’t need to teach them how to make salt cod when we have refrigeration.
I unpacked a thousand cookbooks and put them in the library downstairs. I’ve had a resurgence in passion for why I love cooking, and a reminder of why I love cooking. I’ve also been reminded—and it sounds weird—how good of a cook I am. I’m a sloppy cook at home, and I’m a terrible dishwasher and a bad shopper, but when I get the pots and pans going—it’s a sense of freedom for me. It’s like I’m a drummer who hasn’t been able to play for a long time. All of a sudden you sit down in front of a kit, and all you have is time to play, and you start reconnecting with the rhythm of what you do for a living.
Most of the chefs in my league, we don’t cook on a daily basis anymore. We’re actually designers, we’re therapists, we’re accountants, we’re firemen putting out fires, you name it. So it was a reconnection for me in a positive way. The connection to other people through food can be a good vehicle to communicate a sense of hope, of getting through this. That’s how I use my videos.