Why celeb chef David Burke hired his landscaper, housekeeper for kitchen gigs

One of the most thankless jobs has been made worse by the labor shortage — and even celebrity chefs are twisting themselves in a knot to hire and retain dishwashers.

David Burke, the Food Network star behind 18 restaurants, including the David Burke Tavern in Manhattan, says he has been so desperate for dishwashers and other kitchen staff that he recently asked his personal landscaper and former housekeeper to work in one of his restaurants. 

After they agreed to don aprons in exchange for beefed up salaries, the Iron Chef America contestant was finally well-staffed enough to open his Rumson, NJ, steakhouse and sushi bar Red Horse Tavern in March.

But it’s been anything but smooth sailing. For every person Burke manages to hire, another one quits on him. And the constant churn exacerbates the difficulty of the job for everyone else — creating a vicious cycle of staffing woes.

The landscaper-turned-dishwasher, Tony Edele, found himself clocking 90-hour weeks at first — turning up seven days a week, even on Mondays when the place is closed, just to clean up, Burke said.

David Burke Tavern interior
The David Burke Tavern owner would like to create a scholarship program to lure restaurant help.
David Burke Tavern

The hours have been so grueling and tensions so high that Edele has walked off the job more than once, Burke said. “We give him a day to cool off and [he] comes back,” said Burke, who praised Edele as “a hard worker.”

While many people — including Burke — blame beefed up pandemic unemployment benefits for the restaurant labor shortage, the truth is that it can be hard to convince people to labor in a sweaty kitchen for long hours, on weekends and holidays no less, for relatively low pay. The nationwide labor shortage has helped boost pay somewhat, but it hasn’t resulted in the job getting any easier.

As Burke himself acknowledges: “[Dishwashing’s] not a glorious job and it’s steaming hot,”

Other unusual tactics Burke has taken to hire dishwashers include reaching out to maid services and day laborers — to no avail.

As soon as the day laborers learned they would be washing dishes, they said: “No, no kitchen work,” Burke said. A couple of maid services companies provided staff initially, but the workers “just faded away.”

David Burke in  a black jacket.
David Burke persuaded his landscaper to work in his restaurant.
Tamara Beckwith/NY Post

Burke says the laborers think they can earn more money in landscaping, plus they don’t like the hours involved in kitchen work. They travel to jobs together or rely on public transportation, which can be spotty at night.

“They don’t like working at night and getting home at midnight,” Burke said.

Edele, a mechanical engineer who lost his job during the pandemic, told The Post that he agreed to the dishwasher gig because he stood to earn more, at $15 an hour plus overtime, which has led to compensation of more than $20 an hour overall.

He also felt a sense of loyalty to Burke. “I know David and he couldn’t get anyone to do it,” Edele told The Post.

But it it hasn’t been easy, Edele admitted.

“Everyone categorizes dishwashing as a break-your-ass job, and it is,” Edele told The Post. “It’s nonstop work, cleaning the floor and maintaining the entire kitchen. And if you take a 20-minute break, there are twice as many dishes waiting for you when you get back, so you take a break when it’s finally over at 10 p.m.”

And while Edele has managed to tough it out, not everyone can say the same.

Red truck outside restaurant
The Red Horse Tavern serves up steak and sushi in tony Rumson, NJ.
Shelley Clark

Burke’s ex-maid recently left to get married. And one of his sous chefs quit after a building trades company offered to train him to work as a generator technician in Connecticut.

The sous chef, John O’Neil, explained his decision this way in an e-mail to The Post: “I had been in the restaurant business for over 20 years as it was just a passion of mine. As with everything in life, we need to change our paths in order to better our quality of life.”  

Another challenge, said Burke — an award-winning toque who cut his teeth in the 1980s at the River Cafe in Brooklyn — is the blatant poaching of staff.

Three of Burke’s restaurants are in Jersey shore towns where he says, “I’m losing cooks to my competitors who are paying them in cash, off the books and up to $35 an hour.”

Burke even reached out to the local culinary school program at Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County, where he offered to start a scholarship program for students “who are willing to get their hands dirty and work in a good restaurant and learn from me.”

David Burke standing outside his Red Horse Tavern in with a glass of wine.
David Burke tells The Post he has managed to staff up more fully, but it was a Herculean task.
Red Horse Tavern

But school was out of session for the summer at the time. It also requires its culinary students to earn college credit by working as cooks, bartenders and servers — not dishwashers, Michelle Zuppe, chair of the hospitality program, told The Post.

Zuppe said Burke wasn’t the only desperate restaurateur to reach out to her as summer approached and Jersey Shore restaurants scrambled to staff up. In one week in May alone, Zuppe got 72 e-mails from restaurants looking to hire her students, she said.

Burke still hopes to establish a scholarship program at Brookdale, “so we build our own farm team.”

And while he’s managed to beef up staff somewhat in recent weeks, allowing Edele to lower his weekly hours to 50 from 90, he’s still scouting for staff.

“We are taking any able-bodied person we can get and training them,” Burke said. “I’ll take an Uber driver. We just need bodies.” 

Rebecca R. Ammons

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