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  • VOL 08, ISSUE 01 • WINTER 2020
The Steakhouse Giants

The Steakhouse Giants

04 04 steakhouse giants 1David Burke

The Best in the Biz
Highlight Achievements, Milestones

When David Burke was part of the team opening new restaurants for Smith & Wollensky, one of their most important tasks was sanding down all the chairs so that they didn’t look brand new. That was during the 1990s and early 2000s when he was vice president of culinary development for Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, and when he left the company to branch out on his own, he took that mentality with him.

“One of the biggest questions to ask yourself about a steakhouse when you walk into the place: How does it make you feel? Does it feel like a club? Do you feel like you’re welcome? The feel of a steakhouse is very important,” explains the award-winning chef. “It shouldn’t be that polished. And when you walk into some of these steakhouses they look too polished to me.”

Throughout the years, Burke’s steakhouse-focused concepts have ranged from cozy cult favorite davidburke & donatella that was based on New York’s Upper East Side to tourist hot spot David Burke Las Vegas. And his big personality, inventions and offbeat entrées helped bring him to the forefront as the face of modern steakhouses years before they became trendy places to hang out.

Burke is what you call a legitimate “celebrity chef,” as he’s recognized worldwide. He’s competed on “Iron Chef America,” two seasons of “Top Chef Masters” as well as made countless appearances on “The Rachael Ray Show,” “Today” and Bloomberg’s small-business television series “The Mentor.”

Burke has also published two cookbooks, but his biggest achievement to date is obtaining a patent with the United States for a dry-aging beef process at the David Burke Primehouse in Chicago. It features a room lined with pink Himalayan salt, where the beef is allowed to naturally dry with help from the salt. At the same time, the beef absorbs the subtle flavors of the salt, resulting in beef that is tender and deep with flavor. The steaks are typically aged for 28, 40, 55 or 76 days. The longer the steak ages, the more intense it becomes as moisture evaporates and concentrates the flavors. “That patent belongs to me, the individual, and it’s hanging on my wall,” Burke says, beaming.

As in the case of most people operating on the creative level of Burke, he’s always looking for the next big challenge. In 2015, Burke left his namesake restaurant group to join forces with hospitality magnate Jimmy Harber at ESquared Hospitality, which owns the BLT Steak brand. As a consulting partner and head of culinary development, he’s developing a new David Burke brand of restaurants.

The first one to open is BLT By David Burke, a high-end steakhouse with dry-aged and wet-aged beef as well as seafood and David Burke-influenced food. He describes the specialties at the New Jersey-based outpost as “ethnic in nature and more stylish than what you’d see at a traditional steakhouse.” Plans are also underway to debut BLT Prime at the Washington, D.C. Trump International Hotel, plus the moderately priced Tavern By David Burke in New Jersey and a manufacturing facility for processing beef, which will also be located in New Jersey.

There will be quite a few consistencies throughout the new restaurants, with Burke maintaining simple approaches to food. Most important, he’ll offer the food he prefers to eat when he’s off the clock: “I like my ribeye steak to be sautéed, cooked in a cast-iron pan with dry-aged beef fat, garlic and a little bit of fresh thyme.

“I’m not interested in eating foie gras and rabbit at a steakhouse. I want side dishes, really unique vegetables and grains, and some cool fries or potato dishes. And I want some really cool pastries.”

04 04 steakhouse giants 2Randy Waidne

Gibsons Boasts Pioneering
U.S.D.A. Certified Angus Beef Program

When Randy Waidner took over the reins as corporate executive chef at the Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group in 2006, his first mission was to improve the beef program. He wanted the classic steakhouse chain, which opened its first restaurant in 1989, to stand apart from his competitors by featuring beef exclusive to them. Therefore, he set out on a mission that took five years.

The end result is on all of the Gibsons’ restaurant menus today, U.S.D.A. Gibsons Prime Angus Beef. They’re the first and only restaurant group in the country to have a U.S.D.A. Certified Angus Beef Program, and the beef is sourced from a carefully selected list of farms in the upper Midwest region.

“It is our own third-party audit system with the government,” explains Waidner. “We can say with authority that these animals are this breed, this specification, they’re fed this, they’re aged for a specific amount of days, and we get them from this region. It is as close to a guarantee as you can get without having to buy the entire animal.”

Beyond the inventive steak program, Gibsons remains classic in every sense of the word. And other than a new craft cocktail program, the chain doesn’t have any intentions of going head to head with the recent crop of modern steakhouses.

“That was my biggest focus when I came (to the company). I wanted to focus on what made us great,” says Waidner. “We’re not going to hang bacon from the wires. (Other steakhouses) have a niche and we have a niche. And I believe doing what you do and doing it well, and executing it and training your staff is a winning formula. It’s worked for us. And we’re insanely successful.”

04 04 steakhouse giants 3Celeste Fierro

A Trendy Approach To Steakhouses
Pays Off For STK

STK, one of the country’s biggest modern steakhouse chains, launched in 2004 to appeal to a demographic looking for a concept that was “unique, fun, accessible and sleek.” That’s according to Celeste Fierro, co-founder and senior vice president of The ONE Group, who adds that “STK encourages a social experience, and we highlight the fact that it’s a vibe-driven, energetic restaurant. It definitely is not a typical or traditional steakhouse.”

Her company’s formula is apparently working, as the brand boasts 11 locations, with even more planned for the next two years in a number of cities, including Ibiza, Denver, Toronto and San Diego. Fierro stresses that each location boasts a distinct personality.

“Each STK has a similar energy and ‘DNA’ in a way—comparable aesthetic, in-house deejays, signature menu items, exemplary service—however, each restaurant is unique and customized to adapt and reflect the city that it’s in,” she explains. “While the core experience will be consistent from city to city, the overall experience will vary slightly from city to city. STK Las Vegas will not be the exact same vibe as STK Chicago or STK London, for example. It makes it fun to travel and experience each location’s unique offerings.”

Steak choices range from small (14-ounce bone-in filet) to large (34-ounce Cowboy ribeye steak) and are available on every menu. Events, however, vary. For example, the original flagship location in New York’s Meatpacking District hosts a daily happy hour with drink and food specials, while the Midtown Atlanta outpost features a popular weekly champagne-focused party. Of course, the locals at each location help shape the venues’ personalities.

Fierro adds that what makes STK distinct and successful is its connection with customers. “Whether it’s a smile, buying someone a drink or touching a table to say thank you, I truly believe that if you extend genuine kindness and hospitality to anyone, it goes a long way,” she says. “Taking the time to say thank you to a guest is key. It is the first step in building a relationship and turning a stranger into a friend.  This is the kind of attitude and service that we try to emulate at each of our STK restaurants. Even through our social media and marketing campaigns, we try to have a fun, personable attitude towards our audience.”

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