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Ericka Burke's Back-of-House Stories from Volunteer Park Cafe

The Volunteer Park Cafe, Chop Shop Cafe, and Canal Market chef/owner is a voracious reader of cookbooks -- for their recipes and narratives.

Suzi Pratt

Ericka Burke, owner of Capitol Hill's venerable Volunteer Park Cafe, has teetering towers of cookbooks -- both at home and in the kitchen at VPC. She's also in the midst of launching three new ventures -- Chop Shop Cafe & Bar, Chop Shop Juice and Provisions, and Canal Market. Eater sat down with Burke, who studied acting before pursuing a career in the kitchen, to learn about her favorite books and why she thinks the kitchen is a lot like theater.

How do you use cookbooks?
We change our menu once a week at VPC. There are only about 15 items on the menu, but we'll change at least a few items, whether it's three or 10. I might have specific directions like, "Let's do this beastly meat menu, so here's a stack of books, let's look through these." I mean, I am the owner and chef, but I like my guys to feel like they are part of the process. The more they feel like they're contributing, the more they feel invested, the more fun we all have and the better the end result.

Some of the books are kind of sticky, so you can definitely tell the ones that have been in the kitchen! The whole idea is for books to be used and shared. Let them inspire you. I have an open door policy for my office at work, and want the staff to borrow books. Books are expensive, so it's nice to share. Some of these books have these notes inside. Or the writing of a chef that worked for us years ago. It's like packing a house -- you find a stack of photos you want to go through quickly and four hours later, you've wasted most of the day.

volunteer park cafe

Photo: Geoffrey Smith

Any books that were particularly inspirational to you?
The Alice Waters cookbooks are some of my favorites, and I think they really inspired me to do what I do now. The River Cottage books as well -- I have a lot of them, the veg book, the family cookbook that is kind of fun. The Stefan Reynard books are great, Pork & Sons is the more famous one. I am inspired by those with that Alice Waters philosophy. I hate to say "farm-to-table" movement, because it is so overused, but chefs that foster those relationships with their purveyors, those are the books and authors that really appeal to me. Like The Cafe Cookbook by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. When I was the chef at Carmelita that book inspired me a lot.

What are some of your favorite elements of cookbooks?
The recipes have a lot of value, but the stories are really inspiring to me. The relationships that these chefs cultivate and share I think are totally inspirational. In some books, the content is obviously the most important, but otherwise I just like the feel of them. Especially if you're thinking about doing your own cookbook, like what do you want it to look like, what do you want the paper to be. And I just love the stories.

In the A16 book, I love some of the real life photos in that -- the cleaver, and the exposed conduit in the kitchen, the wine key. The bulletin board with the crazy notes. I get that, and that's my life, too. I love Nigel Slater's Notes From the Larder. His book Ripe is on my bedside table, I love how it takes you through the seasons, with inspiring images and great stories. It will have a picture of a quince on the tree. I am always thinking how can I honor an ingredient in its most simple form, so that photo of the quince hanging from the tree might give me and idea for a simple presentation.

What were some of your first cookbooks?
I went to a six-month program in Napa at the CIA early in my career. I studied with Alice Waters there, so I gobbled up a lot of her books, Rick Bayless. Paula Wolfert -- her Mediterranean books are great. I get a lot of use out of those. The Kitchen Sessions by Charlie Trotter is an old favorite. Seductions of Rice and Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. I love their books. They make you want to just sell everything, travel the world, and hang out with old grandmas in little villages and learn how to cook.

I have a bunch of books from the 50s along the lines of "How to be a Good Wife." I think they are from Good Housekeeping -- I found them at an estate sale. I have around 10 or 15 of them stored away someplace. They say things like, "Make sure to have his martini ready, and his paper at his chair when he arrives home. Don't allow him to wait more than 15 minutes before dinner is served, and make sure the kids are in their rooms, or outside playing, because he's had a hard day at work." It's a trip! And awful recipes, lots of gelatin, there are aspics, and spiral ham with canned pineapple.

I hate to say "farm-to-table" movement, because it is so overused, but chefs that foster those relationships with their purveyors, those are the books and authors that really appeal to me.

What else do you like to read?
I read a ton of magazines. People that are close to me can't believe how many magazines I have! I am a magazine junkie. Gray, Travel and Leisure, Elle Decor, Sunset. I've been ripping out articles, photos and pages out for inspiration for years. I now find them tucked inside of books and stuff. I'm excited to use that inspiration now, with opening the other two locations.

The new spots each have a retail component. Canal Market in Portage Bay will have a deli, but it's a market primarily. And then Chop Shop on 11th and Madison, we're calling it Chop Shop Juice & Provisions. It's been fun. There's the hard, greasy part of restaurant work, so I've been waiting to do the pretty stuff. Like looking at tabletop stuff, and beautiful wooden spoons, or custom wooden bowls. We've been looking at NW artists, and artists in Vermont, Canada, and elsewhere. The retail-restaurant combo is a trend I hope can sustain itself. The trend has been toward super precious and not very accessible, but I want it to be a price point that most people can afford, along with a few, expensive, more heirloom-type items.

Will you sell cookbooks at either location?
I don't know. Probably. We're taking it piece by piece at this point. I'd love to seek some magazines, too -- like Kinfolk and Cherry Bomb, Monocle and some of those lifestyle, foodie-focused publications.

Is a cookbook in the works for you?
Hopefully. Someday. I need to get all my ideas out of my head and notebooks and write it all down in one place. I've held onto many of our notes and notebooks. They tell you a moment in your past. Maybe its because I have theater background. I mean I still storyboard everything. Especially when we have a special event. My team now knows, "THAT is what that crazy drawing means!" There are lots of stories, too.

One of my favorites from VPC was several years ago, when there was a power outage in about a 10-block radius of the restaurant. Our walk-in was down and everything. I was determined to stay open though, people had no other place to go. I sent my manager at the time to buy some butane burners, and buy as many of those cheesy red Italian restaurant candles they could find. I think we offered two salads, a chili, a few other items, and we were packed! I remember being in the dining room trying to refill waters, but since it was pitch black, it kind of threw my equilibrium off. It was such a surreal evening. But people still talk about it to this day. It was such a memorable night.

The restaurant is a lot like theater. Every night. There's a costume change that got missed, a prop got broken, I think it would be fun to tell those back-of-the-house stories. When you have a good team, your guests don't notice it. In the kitchen we're like "holy shit, how did we pull that one off?" It happens a lot.

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