That news you read about Donald Trump ordering his steak doused in ketchup—that’s fake news. Or at least that’s what David Burke, the New York chef who runs BLT Prime inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., says. While the president does in fact prefer his steak well-done, Burke says that ketchup was “probably for a side of French fries,” not his dry-aged New York strip.
One year after opening, Burke will be the first to admit that there was a lot of controversy tied to BLT Prime’s arrival inside the Trump Hotel. The restaurant was a replacement after José Andrés decided to back out of his restaurant deal, causing a well-documented legal fight which eventually settled out of court.
Today Burke is mostly focused on serving his high profile clientele. “We get a mix of people,” he explains. “Some are tourists, some are locals, there are repeat VIPs, international visitors, members of Congress, lawyers, and lobbyists.”
Eater caught up with Burke to ask him all about what it’s like to serve Trump, those White House chef rumors, and if he’ll ever open another D.C. restaurant.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between opening a restaurant in D.C. vs. New York City?
You know, I’ve opened restaurants in D.C. in the past. I opened a place called Maloney and Porcelli, where Fiola is now, and I opened Smith and Wollensky too. But that was a while ago. It’s a different market now, and the city has changed, in a good way.
Opening a restaurant anywhere is hard. That being said, opening a restaurant in a hotel like this can be especially difficult. This is a historic landmark, and at the time we opened, Trump was a presidential candidate. Considering that it was a big hotel and there was some controversy coming in, [I was surprised that] it was actually a pretty typical opening.
We had a few early hiccups with our general manager and a chef [who quit]—not uncommon in restaurant openings—but because of the BLT connections, we were able to weather those storms. The launch was smooth, but not stress free.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing about D.C., given that it’s been awhile since you’ve opened a restaurant here?
The restaurant scene is great here. The food is really exciting. There’s a nice camaraderie. I now think it’s possible to compare D.C. to Chicago. Those are the two cities I know the best outside of New York City.
Q: Really? You think we can compete with Chicago?
One hundred percent. Chicago is a big city, and there are a lot of really good chefs. I’m not going to say D.C. has the depth and breadth of the fine dining like you do in Chicago, but you certainly have some really good, local farm-to-table chefs making noise, doing some exciting things.
Q: When this place first opened everyone was talking about the candied bacon tower. It was such an Instagrammable dish. Anything caught up to that in popularity?
The bacon is hard to catch up to, but the fall menu has brought in some changes. We have an octopus dish that is very exciting. It has a kebab-style presentation. The flavors are like paella on a stick. I call them octo-pops. I’m also running them at Tavern 62 in New York. It’s one of those must-have dishes. It’s also a visual feast. Most head-turning dishes are appetizers or desserts because those are the ones you can share.
Q: Let’s talk about the steak order heard around the world. In February, President Trump came here and ordered his steak well-done and with ketchup. What was your reaction?
Well, first off he doesn't order it with ketchup, and he doesn’t eat it with ketchup. What we make for the president normally is a piece of Dover sole. Or he’ll have a hamburger, or a steak, or a shrimp cocktail. But he usually eats Dover sole. And you know what? I have no problem with a well-done steak.
A lot of Americans eat well-done meat. I’ve found people, especially if they’re a certain age, order meat well-done because that’s what they grew up eating. People forget that back in the day there wasn’t reliable refrigeration, so there was a lot of bacteria in meat that you had to kill by cooking it well-done. It had nothing to do with the pleasure of eating a steak, which was seen a luxury. So when you get into a habit, it can be hard to break.
Listen, I like my meat cooked to a certain point. Typically, meat tastes better the longer you cook it because of the caramelization that occurs. That being said, with a good steak, you want a nice caramelization on the outside but still juicy enough on the inside. I’m not defending the president, but our steaks are so good—even well-done—it’s a delight.
Myself, I prefer a medium-rare steak, and it’s a really good way to eat a steak because you're getting the succulence of the fat molecules. Lamb I like medium. Duck I like medium. At the end of the day, people should be allowed to eat in peace.
As far as the ketchup goes, [Trump] likes French fries, and most likely the ketchup was for his fries.
Q: So table 76 is Trump’s table. Do you get a lot of requests for table 76?
I can’t answer that, but our general manager might know. The first-timers want to sit on the rail. I like the rail because of the view. In this room, there’s really not a bad seat in the house. We also have a private room that [Trump] likes to sit in. But when he comes in, people get up and shake hands with him. It’s not a secret. It’s an event. I would have to say he’s been here five or six times since he took office.
Q: Any plans for Tavern 62 in D.C.?
It has a great ring to it, but we’re in business to grow business. We need to make sure we can walk before we can run. I wouldn’t say no to it because it’s not a bad idea. But there are no plans in the works right now.
Q: There was a time earlier this year, when I kept hearing your name floated for White House Chef. Would you say yes?
First of all, no one in the Trump White House ever contacted me about it. It was written by Washingtonian magazine, and they said if we were to guess, we would pick David Burke. I was their pick and that became national news. Meanwhile, I’m just sitting here minding my own business because my hands are full. If you would have asked me, I’d be flattered, but I’m better off doing what I do here. It was media spin that kept growing. Soon I had friends asking me if I was going to be White House chef, and I joked by saying, only if they give me the master suite.
Q: What’s one thing you’re trying to improve or dial-in right now?
We’re always trying to improve our menu. It’s about the quality, value, and seasonality. We just launched a new brunch menu too. It has some very interesting dishes—oatmeal three-ways, meatloaf Wellington, pork shank hash, a waffle with crab cake in it—a fun menu, priced nicely. With a year under our belt, we’re trying a few new things. We know what’s strong and what’s not. The cement has settled so to speak.
- All BLT Prime Coverage [EDC]