Jim Burke's passion for food is showcased on every plate served at Stephen Starr's Caffé Storico in Manhattan's beautifully renovated New York Historical Society.
Raised in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, Burke first fell for the combustible energy of the kitchen as a 16-year-old at his first restaurant job, washing dishes at a small Middle Eastern café. Though all his subsequent summer jobs were food-related, Burke didn't look at cooking as a career until he worked under chef Vince Alberici at The Marker in Philly's Adam’s Mark Hotel. Here, Burke capitalized on the disciplined structure of a hotel kitchen to build a serious culinary foundation, learning from Alberici what it meant to be a chef - an enthusiastic dedication to ingredients, a patient, meticulous approach to technique and presentation and, above all else, respect and consideration for each guest’s dining experience.
In 1999, at the age of 26, Burke came on board at Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri's nationally renowned Vetri. He was afforded ample freedom in this fine-dining kitchen, allowing him to cultivate his personal cooking style. Burke, who from his own studies already possessed a deep interest in the traditions of Italian chefs, picked up even more of this knowledge during his time with Vetri. "I started to understand the Italian sensibility in the kitchen," he says. "The reasoning behind everything they did opened my eyes to what great food could really be."
Burke, along with his wife (and fellow cook) Kristina, rode their love of the Italian way to Europe in 2001, relocating to Bergamo to fulfill their shared goal of cooking in Italy's best kitchens. The most significant experience for Burke during this time was a stint working with chef Paolo Frosio at the Michelin-starred Ristorante Frosio, where he honed his ability to exalt the personalities of pristine ingredients without dulling their integrity. "I love Northern Italian cooking because it balances rustic flavors with refined technique," says Burke. "At Frosio, I saw how simple can be elegant." Beyond cooking, being immersed in Italian culture was formative for the couple. "We went there thinking we would get all these great recipes," says Burke, "but we came back with a deep understanding of how important food is."
Upon returning to the States permanently in 2002, Burke eased into his first head chef position, earning raves at Vivo Enoteca in Wayne, Pa. In early 2004, Starr came calling, introducing Burke as sous chef at Angelina in downtown Philadelphia. He took over as head chef later that year, putting into practice all the knowledge culled over his career while absorbing new lessons about managing a staff and paying close attention to the details.
This experience prepared Burke and his wife to branch out on their own with JAMES, in Philly's Bella Vista neighborhood, in late 2006. Wildly well-received from the start, JAMES was the culmination of a dream for the Burkes, with innumerable accolades justifying their talent and hard work. In a glowing three-bell review, the Philadelphia Inquirer complimented its "palpable sense of personal style and fine-dining passion," dubbing the restaurant "a crisp contemporary vision for how the best ingredients can be shaped by authentic Italian inspirations." On the national level, Burke earned Food & Wine "Best New Chef" honors in 2008, as well as four consecutive "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic" nominations from the James Beard Foundation; he was also a finalist for the United States' Bocuse d'Or team in 2010.
In 2011, Burke and his wife made the difficult business decision not to renew the lease at JAMES. Now, the chef is excited to make a lasting impression in a brand-new kitchen. Inspired by Venice's cichetterias, the small-plate restaurants found throughout the Italian city, Caffé Storico is the culinary jewel of the New York Historical Society's three-year, $65 million renovation project. Burke now has the opportunity to cook exciting food for a Central Park West audience eager for unexpected interpretations of Italian cuisine. "We have a very unique concept," says Burke. "With cicchetti and handmade pasta driving the menu, we are doing something new, yet still rooted in tradition."