The sprawling 3,500-acre hobbit-home dotted swath looked to add more whimsy: Enter “The Lollipop Kid.”
Celebrity chef and noted “culinary prankster” David Burke took one look at the property and agreed to a 15-year partnership.
“It’s a beautiful property. There’s a magic to it,” he told me. “I’ve always loved Rhode Island. I got a phone call from Paul [Mihailides, Preserve chairman], took a ride up a few months back. We got the deal done on New Year’s Eve and opened 60 days later.”
The high-end resort offers horseback riding, ziplines, fly-fishing ponds, mountain biking, golf, hunting, and even an indoor shooting range.
Now Burke is adding his own touch.
With some 15 restaurants around the world from New York City to Saudi Arabia, Burke will oversee the Preserve’s culinary operations, including the main steakhouse, Double Barrel Steak By David Burke, a 350-seat restaurant that opened this month.
The Rhode Island menu includes his signature cake pops with bubblegum whipped cream, a restaurant wall made of Himalayan salt, bacon-on-a-clothesline — strips of bacon, clothes-pinned and blow-torched — and chicken roasted on piles of hay. He’s thinking of summer grilling by the hobbit doors.
It’s all classic Burke, who you might know from any number of cooking shows, including “Iron Chef” and “Top Chef,” “Rachael Ray Show,” “CBS This Morning” or as a judge on Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Known for his cake pops and creativity with meats, Burke’s long had a reputation for Seussical wow-factor.
A 2004 New York Magazine review of his restaurant, dubbing him “The Lollipop Kid,” noted: “People kept swiveling their heads as the food went by, like spectators at some loony Dr. Seuss fashion show.”
It’s currently his only New England property. He’ll also oversee the menus for the safari tents and Hobbit holes.
Middle Earth foodie Bilbo Baggins himself might approve of the new steakhouse menu: from lobster dumplings with chili oil, tomato miso, basil and preserved lemon ($19), to truffled bison short ribs with wild mushroom cavatelli ($44). Desserts include a nod to Dunkin’: “Sometimes We Make The Donuts” — cinnamon sugar donuts and macarons with strawberries, whipped cream, and passion fruit caramel ($19.)
We talked to Burke, who will soon receive an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales at their Charlotte campus, about skydiving, his pet bull, and plans for his Rhody restaurant.
What’s your vision for the property’s main restaurant?
It’s a modern American restaurant with great steaks. As we get familiar with Rhode Island — I interviewed a chef this morning, and was picking his brain about what a stuffie was, what a clam cake was — I want to learn about the local, everyday fish market dishes and try to elevate some of that.
We’ve got signature dishes. A Rhode Island fritto misto [fried calamari, shrimp, fennel, zucchini and eggplant.] The menu will be seasonally driven as well as geographically. It’s a great region for seafood and farming.
We also have a chicken parm, which is a little bit off of what a steakhouse does. And “Ocean Steaks” — swordfish on the bone, halibut T-bone, skate on the bone, larger cuts of salmon — where you get fish as a steak. Sometimes at a steakhouse, fish is like the redheaded stepchild.
We just had a discussion about putting grills outside the hobbit holes for summer. We’re off to a good start. We had a full-day at Johnson & Wales recruiting yesterday.
So you’re recruiting chefs locally?
Well, cooks, really. We transferred some chefs from our other properties, while also looking for chefs locally. It’s like building a baseball team. We’re trying to get the right people in the right positions.
You said you have about 15 restaurants — how do you balance that?
It’s like having a lot of kids. The one that needs the most attention, you give the most attention. The newer ones need more attention and training until the baby can walk. It takes time.
So you became famous at 26.
I was fortunate to work at The River Cafe. I was lucky enough to get good reviews. I represented the United States at the Culinary Olympics; we happened to win. Then we got three-stars from the New York Times. That’s basically when the notoriety started.
When did you start out on cooking shows?
I was on TV in the late ‘80s: “The Today Show,” “CBS Morning Show,” Joan Lunden, all those things. Then the Food Network popped and there was a show called “Ready… Set… Cook!” where we’d compete with other chefs. Then “Iron Chef” came about. I was against Bobby Flay. I beat him but he won.
I was on “Top Chef,” “Top Chef Masters” a couple times. I judged “Worst Cooks in America,” Gordon Ramsay’s ”Hell’s Kitchen.” I used to do CBS every Thanksgiving morning.
You were named Time Out New York’s “Best Culinary Prankster.” How did that happen?
I guess because I have fun with food. I had some quirky names for dishes. I put a dish together — a crackling pork-shank with firecracker applesauce; it was a huge chunk of pork-shank; I had to fight my partners to put it on the menu. That was ‘96. So they thought that I was pranking the rest of the culinary world. I think that’s where it came from.
I created the cake pops. We were doing whimsical, fun stuff. It looked as if we were having too much fun for fine dining.
There was something with a limo.
Oh yeah. That was one of the best ideas. So my brother was doing construction on one of my restaurants. It was December 2003, freezing cold. He’s outside smoking. He wanted to smoke in my car. I was like bull—t. I said, “Finish the job in three days so I can open for Christmas and I’ll put a limo out here and you can smoke in it.” That’s what happened.
Dec. 31, 2003 was the last time you could smoke in a restaurant. [So I had a limo parked] outside. Anyone could go in and smoke. People had dates in the limo. A guy from Time Out Magazine sat in a limo for two-and-a-half hours and wrote a story about his experience. It was on CNN. It was a big hit.
What are some other things you’ve come up with like that?
Well, I bought a $250,000 bull in Kentucky before we opened a steakhouse in Chicago. We were afraid of mad cow, and I wanted to make sure all our steaks came from the same country.
We made a deal with those farmers and those ranchers and the food scientists; I mean, it’s big business, like thoroughbred horses. They look at the lineage of each head of cattle. You’re breeding for success. He was a thoroughbred. We had a name for him, we took pictures with him. I guess you could call it a prank — it was an expensive prank. “Prankster” came from just daring to be different, I think.
What’s your favorite thing to eat if you were going to make yourself something?
Eggs. I like good Asian food. I love good pasta. I like a good roast chicken. I’m not that picky. I love a good dessert, something with finesse and texture.
An apple tart, hot, with beautiful cinnamon ice cream and something crunchy on top. A Napoleon is good if done well. Even a good pie. We make a key lime pie that’s fabulous. Twenty years ago, I’d never be able to serve a wedge of pie and be happy because I’d think it was too old-school or easy. But as you change, you realize a good wedge of pie, if done well, is harder than making a deconstructed pie. The phrase “easy as pie” is not very true.