IT'S 6 o'clock on a Friday evening. Dinner hour has just begun at Park Avenue Cafe on the corner of East 63rd Street and Park Avenue in New York City.
Waiters are bringing orders into the kitchen. In one corner, a prep cook grinds pepper and anise for a spice mix. In another, the pastry cook is garnishing a slice of chocolate cake with a chocolate park bench and lamppost, a whimsical Park Avenue dessert. The garde-manger (a cook who prepares cold food) fills a glass mold with salad greens. Plates of ginger-seared salmon with sand dollars (deep-fried lotus chips), roast chicken cut in mignons topped with lemon-dried tomato ravioli, and a swordfish chop , move from the line to the waiters' trays.
Chef David Burke checks each plate. He slices the bottom off an onion so it will stay in place. He rushes from one side of the enormous kitchen to the other - teaching an intern how to make a vegetable salad, then lends his final touch to a dish by drizzling a spicy Moroccan glaze on lobster meat and accenting it with bright gold curried pommes souffles.
In spite of all the activity in this kitchen, the atmosphere is friendly, relaxed. Diners can observe this for themselves by reserving table No. 88, which is enclosed in glass in the center of the kitchen.
The food presentation is dazzling, yet graceful, an invitation to taste. The flavors reflect the look - innovative and refined. The food is American in spirit, pushing the limits of American ingenuity and creativity.
Mr. Burke can take full credit for the smooth operation and exquisite fare. He's an innovator, a mentor to young chefs in America. "Occasionally, I see my dishes being duplicated: garnishes, ideas, and techniques, and that's alright with me. It happens with other chefs too."
But, Burke's recipes may be more popular than others for duplicating. Drew Niporent, owner of Tribeca Grill Montrachet calls Burke the "most copied chef in the city," explaining that Burke has originated many dishes that others have taken credit for.
He created the swordfish chop, a trademark dish of Park Avenue Cafe, which involves a special way of cutting a swordfish in which the flesh of the fish nestles against a bone.
How does he come up with this stuff? "Well, I get an idea, I come up with a style, and one thing leads to the next." He finds ingredients everywhere. He searches local markets. Whatever he comes in contact with is a potential catalyst for a recipe. "It can be a mood, a style, a lightness," Burke says.
Chef Neil Murphy of Polo restaurant at New York's Westbury Hotel credits the appeal of Burke's food to his love of experimenting. "He keeps things changing, that's why he's successful and will always be successful," Mr. Murphy says.
Burke's menus are oriented to seasonal dishes. Having a computer and desktop printer in his office gives him latitude to change the menu, adding new things while keeping a core of favorites. The restaurant also offers two specials a day.
Burke likes a certain element of surprise. For example, a prawn hidden under a julienne of vegetables - topped with a red snapper sauteed with fennel seed - delicately sauced with a saffron garlic broth, or ceramic animal-shaped egg cups holding an eggshell filled with flan.
He is always experimenting. A few years ago he was one of the first chefs to use flavored oils, such as basil oil, curry oil, and lemon-grass oil. His latest interest is spice mixes. "I love spices," he says. "I think people will [soon] be using spices that they don't know a lot about yet, different ethnic spices, like cardamom and cumin."
Food is getting lighter, and Burke's dishes reflect that. Heavy, gelatinous veal sauces have been replaced with light stocks - fish, chicken, and vegetable - or glazes, tomato-based or barbeque sauces. And he uses only a small amount of butter.
There is a spirit of teamwork in the Park Avenue Cafe kitchen. Members of Burke's staff often suggest a dish. He may direct the look and taste, but they execute it together.
"That's how it should be, " he says.
Chef Burke started working in restaurants as a teenager. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then worked for Chef Waldy Malouf at La Cremillere in upstate New York. He left the United States to study pastry at Lcole Lenotre, then worked his way through France under starred chefs at Maison Blanche, Georges Blanc, and Trois Gros.
He is a former executive chef of Brooklyn's famed River Cafe. In 1991, he was voted "Chef of the Year" by his peers and is the recipient of numerous culinary awards. He is currently writing a cookbook to be published by Alfred A. Knopf.
About 15 months ago, Burke opened Park Avenue Cafe, a collaborative effort with New York City restauranteur Alan Stillman. The cafe serves about 300 meals per day in its two comfortable dining rooms.
Customers can have a five-course "tasting menu" for $48 per person or order a la carte. Chef Burke likes this flexibility.
When asked what he's achieving at Park Avenue Cafe, David Burke replied, "I'm making people happy, I hope." In that regard, he appears to have succeeded.