Volunteer Park Cafe’s Chef/Owner Ericka Burke
Eureka! I Found It.
Have you ever stumbled upon a restaurant that you knew nothing of, had no presuppositions about and weren’t even sure how you came to it? That’s what my first experience was like at Chef Ericka Burke’s Volunteer Park Cafe many moons ago. I walked in looking at the abundance of pastry, the old school roadside cafe/shabby chic American decor, the beautiful light coming through the windows and the dozen or so people looking very content.
As I sat and ate a beautifully fluffy piece of quiche I looked around and realized that this was it – the best hidden gem of a cafe I’d ever been to in the States. It was perfect. Not too big, lovely light, next to an expansive park, no road noise coming in from the street and delicious, simply prepared food. It had all the things that elude the small cafes that try to pretend to be that small, local hangout with the neighborhood feel. And, it had damned good food to boot. I was in love. Eureka – I found it!
Chasing Ericka Burke…
After my original discovery, I’d been back to Volunteer Park Cafe a few times but not nearly enough. Being as off the beaten path as it is, I found myself wanting to go but not being in the neighborhood. So, invariably I’d end up driving farther than I’d wanted to just to end up in some soul-less Belltown haunt realizing I should have just gone to the other side of the hill and made myself happier.
Last August, I had the good fortune of making that wise decision. While dining with a friend I talked to Ericka for a few brief moments and asked if she’d be willing to get together to chat about the restaurant business. She jokingly said, ‘sure – you ready to ruin your life!? I thought to myself – I must talk to this woman. So, over the past several months I have been chasing Ericka down to find an hour to talk and to write this story. I can tell you, she is one busy woman!
The Main Course
After a bit of luck and a lot of persistence, I was finally able to meet with Ericka on a beautiful sunny day in January at Volunteer Park Cafe. The cafe was packed when I arrived at just before lunch and I was quickly handed a coffee while I waited for Ericka and took some photos. I was amazed at the number of people packed into the tiny kitchen and the quality of the food they were putting out. I wanted to eat one of every pastry on display.
Before I stuck my arm over the counter and grabbed a cookie, I was greeted by Ericka, replete in post-yoga workout garb and ready to talk. We got straight to my questions…
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I moved to New York from LA when I was 19 after going to college to pursue a career in acting and modeling. I had practically trained in London at Royal Shakespeare academy and performed at the theater festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was too afraid to be poor all my life so I started working a front-of-house job to pay the rent. I totally got into it and dove into food, entertaining at home and such. I hosted a ‘Bohemian Thanksgiving’ which was basically for everyone I knew who couldn’t afford to have their own. I was totally a ‘bring your own chair’ event.
After a bit of time I made some money doing commercial work but found I was getting pigeonholed as an actress. I wasn’t the ‘girl next door’ or ‘ingénue’ so I was having a hard time finding steady work. Then a friend asked if I wanted to open a place upper East side. It was a tiny 600 square foot place focused on juicing. Organics were just starting to be introduced and I think I was vegan at the time. So, we started what we called ‘Sweet Potato’. I had no idea what I was doing. It was really my first professional experience. It really took off and within 6 months we had 3 locations and had taken over kosher deli next door and expanded the kitchen.
Why did you get involved in food?
I just sort of got sucked into the business. I loved the camaraderie, the teamwork, the late nights. I still can’t believe we’d close the restaurant at 2am, party until 6, sleep some, and wake up, go wot work and do it all over again! My family always ate dinner together but my parents weren’t food oriented. We just had this rotation of mom’s sub-par recipes.
When I was in NY, there was this new world of discovery of food, wine and cocktails. I had a passion for a choice of a different lifestyle. Improvisation in food is very important – very similar to theater. For me, it was an easy transition that made sense. The show goes on every night here – and still with an interesting cast of characters!
What do you love most about the restaurant business?
The people I meet and work with come from so many walks of life. If you are open to it, you can learn from anyone. I still remember when one of my dishwashers taught me how to open a pomegranate by whacking it with the back of a spoon. Amazing! I really need to like people. It’s important to me to be able to meet and know interesting people I wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise. I just love the camaraderie. I’m a very nurturing person – the mama of the place. I can’t help but want to bring people on and see them succeed, grow and prosper. That is the most rewarding thing for me.
I’m so fortunate that I have a crew that has been here for so long. It’s hard to get a job here as people tend to stay for a while. I also love the business model – the cafe acts as a community hub. We have an internal family as well as an external family. The dining experience here is unique – people will get up from dinner service and walk back to our tiny kitchen uninvited just to complement us. These moments make up for the 18 hour days. All the things I’ve done wrong are made worth it by that simple ‘thank you’.
What do you like least about it?
Shit breaks. It’s constant catch up on something. The refrigerator goes down. Payroll has to be done. Taxes. New menus. There’s always something needs to be done or fixed.
We’ve been here for 7 years and we’re fortunate enough to have a management team that helps to do all that stuff well. My quality of life is a lot better because of them. When you share the responsibility with a team they work harder and want to see a better end result. We take care of each other. This isn’t about me, it’s about the team.
How did Volunteer Park Cafe come to be?
This was Café Europa and I saw that it was selling on Craigslist. When I was little, I went to school on 19th and then went to Seattle Academy. This is where I bought penny candy as a child and where we came to buy cigarettes and beer in high school. My mind was so wrapped around starting ‘that next cool place’ downtown. Then, a couple of weeks later, a light went off in my head and I realized this was the perfect neighborhood place.
As I grow, it will always be the corner store for me. I felt I could hide in this little neighborhood and the press would leave me alone. In your mid-20’s/early-30’s it’s all about getting good press and the write-up. It’s important for me to be the favorite and to have a place that’s comfortable, inviting and at a price point that people can come here a couple of times a week. It’s important to have a place that can become a part of our guests daily lives.
It’s not pretentious, it feels good and we are able to serve good healthy food to kids. Not milk with hormones, antibiotics and a bunch of unhealthy crap.
What or who is your inspiration?
After I had Sweet Potato I moved to San Francisco and ended up studying at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. I did a 6 month program and was fortunate enough to work with Alice Waters. She really resonated with me. A lot of her proteges – Paula Wolfert and her whole Mediterranean sense of simplicity influenced me.
More than anything it was the lifestyle, being in Napa surrounded by wine, the CIA organic garden, being able to go to the garden to pick and cook something. After living in SF in North Beach and running Trattoria Pinocchio with my ex-husband Giovanni Perticone, I moved back to Seattle and was recruited by Restaurants Unlimited. I was their Director of Creative Development for about 5 years. I am thankful for that experience. It gave me systems tools and understanding of financials, etc. But it crushed my creative soul. Being in a board room with a bunch of middle-aged balding white guys who had no sense of creativity was stifling. They wanted to bring back 30-year-old dishes that were played and call them ‘new’. It was me working in a test kitchen, then going to meet with Food & Beverage directors which then gave recipes to 5 different chefs from different places, background and their own styles.
At the end of the day, a recipe is a template open to interpretation. And chefs are chefs – they want to put their own spin on things. The pressure to perform – I just wasn’t into it. I just wanted to be me – whatever that meant. And I guess that’s what Volunteer Park Cafe is.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
I try to keep it simple. I don’t think a dish needs more than 5 ingredients. We buy great proteins and vegetables. I don’t want to mess these things up with heavy sauces. Not to say I don’t love butter. But it’s about honoring whats on the plate. Simplicity.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Don’t do it! Don’t do it for ego or because you think you’ll be popular. This romantic notion of being the front man, charming people, etc. is all fun and good. But ask yourself – do you have the drive to be there 7 days a week, on call 24/7? It’s not as easy as it may seem from the outside.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
With Sweet Potato – I didn’t have the business knowledge I needed to really know how to manage the P&L. That part of the business is just as important as the vision and creative part of it. That’s what a lot of young chefs don’t understand – that the business side is just as important than the creative.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Lemon. Probably because I put lemon zest in everything. My favorite thing to make is spaghetti con vongole – and braising meat. People always make fun of me – here’s little Ericka braising a big ole hunk of meat. I love it.
What current trends in the business do you see on the horizon?
It’s so funny as I’ve been thinking about that too. I almost think ‘what else can we do’? It’s all been done. As we look in the Northwest, we’ve all come back to simplicity. I’m not saying that’s the right thing or what the focus should be but it seems like there’s growth in that.
I’m just not interested in going to a restaurant after I’ve worked all day and have to digest the menu and deconstruct it. It’s too much work. I just want to eat.
What trends or fads are played?
I’m over the whole molecular gastronomy thing. I think it’s interesting – little pearls of this or gelees of that. But I’m more interested in respecting and honoring these awesome ingredients.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
I can’t say there’s one thing but I’d like to see more farmers bringing us the food that makes it to our plates. That’s going to take better supply chain. The product is out there but getting it to people is the tough part. I wish we could just use some vacant land to plant our own garden and harvest from that. I think there’s a huge opportunity to use vacant city land to farm here. Let the community farm – they want to do it.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
People always get so nervous to cook for chefs. We just want something simple. Simply grilled whole fish with greens and lemon and wine. That’ll do it.
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
Nathan Lockwood at Altura – his food is f#*&ing delicious. Mark Fuller at Ma’Ono in West Seattle makes the best fried chicken there is. In terms of baking – Evan Andres at Columbia City Bakery knocks it out of the park. We’ve been working with him for 7 years now and I haven’t once seen a dip in quality.
What is your last meal?
It’d probably be Spaghetti con vongole. I have no idea why. It just makes me happy. I’d be drinking some a Chablis or something in that category. With friends and my son of course.
I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Ericka and getting to know her better. She clearly has a passion for what she does, the people she works with and the guests she serves. There are so many places you can go to eat – but few lack the soul and comfortable feeling that Volunteer Park Cafe has in spades. If you’ve never been, go now. Try it. Find a way to go on a lazy weekday morning. ‘Work from home’ and sit in this divine, serene little place that defines ‘local, neighborhood cafe’ for the rest.
If you enjoyed this then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Series and stay tuned for future interviews with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs coming soon including Eric Donnelly of RockCreek and Matt Lewis of Restaurant Roux!
If you enjoyed this story then read more about food, farming and eating locally in Seattle by Jason Price at TheHungryDogBlog.com!
Brussels Sprout Gratin Serves 6 side dishes Ingredients: Cheese Sauce: Recipe Procedure: Assembling Gratin: Serve!
A Recipe from Ericka Burke of Volunteer Park Cafe
Brussels Sprout Gratin
Serves 6 side dishes