Throughout his career as one of elite restaurant cooking’s most in-demand chefs, Daniel Burns has built his name quietly, always working behind the scenes.
At Noma, in Copenhagen, the Halifax-raised chef built and then ran the pastry department for three years as the room vaulted from near obscurity to the most influential restaurant on the planet. Yet in his typical style, Mr. Burns, who finished degrees in mathematics and philosophy at Dalhousie University before taking up professional cooking, brushes aside any credit. “It was just a massive opportunity that was waiting for me there,” he says.
During his time as a senior chef de partie at The Fat Duck, in England, the pastry department he worked in added a string of highly original new desserts to the menu – no easy task given the perfectionism of the restaurant’s chef. The Fat Duck earned its third Michelin star during Mr. Burns’s 18-month tenure there and hit No. 1 on Restaurant magazine’s international best-restaurants list.
In his most recent position, as the Momofuku empire’s head of research and development – the guy whose job was to problem-solve, to innovate and to perfect idea after brilliant idea – Mr. Burns was credited with the company’s most important culinary discovery of 2010. “I almost wanted to punch Daniel,” said David Chang, Momofuku's head chef, as he described the breakthrough. (It was a ridiculously tasty shiitake mushroom chip.)
But tonight, on a frigid Friday evening in early February, in the tiny kitchen of a pop-up restaurant above a historic East End London pub called The Ten Bells, Mr. Burns is hoping to break out from behind the scenes. For the first time in his career, he’s cooking his own recipes under his own name. He’s headlining here for four evenings as a guest chef, alongside a pair of young, all-star British chefs who run a cooking collective called The Young Turks.
One city food site called the dinners, “A collaboration that any London foodie ought to give their right arm to get a seat at.” Top chefs, food writers and even one famously food-loving pop star have reserved tables to taste what he’s all about.
The problem, however, is that even Mr. Burns, who is 37, is still trying to figure out the answer to that one. He’s all too aware that he hasn’t yet developed his own signature cooking style. Plus, the kitchen here is minuscule and they could use another few pairs of hands.
With less than 20 minutes to opening, he and the other chefs are madly racing through their prep lists, whisking sauces and dicing pickled vegetables. One of them is on his knees with his head in the fridge, rooting around the bottom shelf for a lost container of smoked eel mix.
Mr. Burns has shaggy blond hair, a bushy beard and heavy-framed glasses; he often wears a tattered Montreal Expos cap at work. He's chatty, too: jokey. (“We'll have these dinners totally dialled in by the last night,” he says at one point.) But only until he gets stressed. Mr. Burns turns quiet now.I can’t believe I’m doing this, he thinks.
It started with his mother. He remembers tomato sandwiches – slap-dash sandwiches at other kids’ homes during elementary school lunch hour. He remembers thinking: My mother’s sandwiches are better than this. At Dalhousie, he often spent his downtime cooking. So when he graduated in 1998, he took a job making sandwiches in a Halifax café.
By 1999, he was working the cold-food station at The Century Grill, a booming restaurant in Vancouver. “My mom was calling all my aunts and uncles and cousins and saying, ‘Do you think Daniel’s doing the right thing?”
In 2003 he moved east, to Susur, in Toronto, at a time when Susur was easily the most important place in town. He was a chef by now, with the sort of resume that most other chefs would be happy to coast on.
His leap to the big-time came in 2004, in England, after a one-week stage at The Fat Duck, one of the world’s most relentlessly creative restaurants.
James Petrie, who lead The Fat Duck’s pastry department, remembers being impressed with Mr. Burns’s patience, his analytical mind and his drive to learn. It didn’t trouble Mr. Petrie that Mr. Burns had always been a savoury cook; that was an asset, in fact.
He learned to make smoked bacon-and-egg ice cream, and another dessert that played mango and lychee off the taste of Douglas fir. These weren’t your ordinary sweet courses. One of them featured what looked like a simple cup of tea, but was instead hot tea and iced tea, but served – as if by magic – on opposite sides of the same cup.
Mr. Petrie, who is now The Fat Duck’s head creative development chef, says that Mr. Burns stands out even today for his talent at both savoury and sweet. “It’s rare for chefs to be able to do both sides of the kitchen at such a high level,” he said.
Back at The Ten Bells, the dining room is heaving. The chefs bound down the stairs from the third-floor kitchen, balancing finished plates in their hands. Mr. Burns has planned two starters, a savoury dish and two desserts this evening. James Lowe and Isaac McHale, The Young Turks, are cooking another four courses to round out the meal. Mr. Burns looks tense as he flashes through the dining room, like all of it could fall apart at any second. But his dishes tell an entirely different tale.
There’s a sweet, saline emulsion of lovage and roasted mussels that he serves with crispy, fragile potato tuiles that are made from potato puree. Little rounds of Jerusalem artichoke follow, topped with diced apple, herbs and a quavering pat of roasted bone marrow.
Next, a dish of raw oysters with pureed herbs and cabbage. They’re dressed with dehydrated cabbage threads and brioche crumbs tossed with crispy pork bits for texture and a mix of dashi and oyster juice that’s been spooned around the plate.
The dishes are still-life stunners: deep, verdant greens, seashore brine and dark, meaty flavours – subtlety and balance at play.
At the next table, James Murphy, frontman of LCD Soundsystem, a now defunct the Brooklyn-based dance band, takes a bite from the oyster dish. His eyes close just a little bit, in happiness, it seems.
Mr. Burns is used to getting reactions from his food. At Noma, one dish he developed – René Redzepi, the restaurant's chef, had asked him to build a dessert from blueberries and thyme – became a blockbuster plate of blueberry sorbet, spruce ice cream and spruce granita, crispy brioche and a thyme-infused oil. The smells and tastes of that dish, which Mr. Redzepi called “blueberries surrounded by their natural environment” had a way of pulling loose childhood memories in the Danes who came into the restaurant. More than once, he remembers, diners would take a spoonful and begin to cry.
By 9:30 p.m., the desserts at The Ten Bells are also blowing minds, even if nobody's quite weeping yet. For the first one, there’s yogurt ice cream and beet sorbet and a maypole blush of rhubarb gel. There’s a tuile of whisp-thin rhubarb leather, too, plus an inky, anise-tinged beet and licorice sauce.
And then, as if everybody’s not deliriously sated, bowls piped with parsnip mousse, parsnip ice cream, chocolate crumble, chocolate biscuit powder, chocolate ganache and blowtorched malt meringue. It’s light in spite of its ingredients, complex but perfectly focused. Even Mr. Burns allows a smile.
It’ll take him time to figure out his own cooking style: He’s hyper-conscious of doing original dishes, as opposed to aping what he’s learned at the restaurants where he’s worked. But doing that will take time and experimentation and context – luxuries that Mr. Burns hasn’t yet had. “It’s a very hard question, to know what your food is, until you have a platform and you can adapt with it,” he says. But people – regular, food-loving people, as opposed to mere superchefs – are starting to pay him attention. He’s rising from obscurity to being the one to watch. Eighteen months from now, he hopes to open his own restaurant. He won’t yet confirm where in the world it will be.