Celebrity host of last year’s Dan’s Taste of Two Forks, East Hamptonite David Burtka returns to Fairview Farm at Mecox to host Dan’s GrillHampton 2019 presented by New York Prime Beef. Long before the acclaimed chef, caterer, cookbook author and award-winning actor found solace in the Hamptons’ bountiful farms and seas, he was a fish out of water.
Growing up in sports-centric Michigan, Burtka felt like an “oddball kid” for not following the extracurricular path of most of his classmates, opting instead for children’s theater—a decision that paid off tremendously. “I ended up just loving getting into theater,” he says. “I was in chorus as a kid, and I was different, and I was a weirdo.”
Burtka went on to study musical theater at the University of Michigan, a college that boasts many Broadway alumni, and sure enough, he moved to New York and booked his debut show within three months after graduation. “That was the road to acting for me,” he says. “It was a passion, and I pursued it, and it came right out of the gate, which was very lucky.”
Quickly transitioning from Broadway dancer to serious actor, Burtka believes his big break came with the Off-Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby, for which he earned the Actor’s Equity Association’s 2001 Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Male Performer.
From there, Burtka performed another Albee hit, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in 2003. “I think the Albee plays that I did really affected people in an emotional way,” he proposes. “I got to ride a journey every single night and really tell a story that was heartbreaking and made people think about loss, love, how we hurt and how pain affects us. That was a really big turning point for me in my career.”
Burtka remembers the exact moment when he had the epiphany that he had made it as an actor. It came during a tech rehearsal for Gypsy, in which he played the lead actor, as he was dancing across the stage toward his co-stars. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow! I am playing one of the most important musical theater parts in history on the Shubert [Theatre] stage, which has so much history,’” he recalls. “It was sort of a pinch me moment.”
When now-husband Neil Patrick Harris, who Burtka met through a Gypsy co-star, landed the plum role of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, the couple relocated to Los Angeles, though Burtka quickly found himself yearning to return to the more consequential acting roles found in New York. “I ended up working few and far between for the 10 years that I lived [in LA],” he admits. “I was auditioning for stuff that I didn’t even want…TV shows with terrible writing. I just couldn’t get through it!”
In 2008, Burtka received a phone call from his father that no son ever wants to receive—his mother had been admitted to the hospital and was receiving chemotherapy for her newly discovered leukemia. He flew home to Michigan to be by her side for the few short weeks she had left. When it was finally time to return to LA, he realized he didn’t want to go back to the way things were.
“It was a major turning point in my life. I just thought, ‘What am I doing with my life? I can’t keep acting and getting rejected and being depressed, and also mourn the death of my mother,’ Burtka recalls. So I thought, ‘What else makes me happy?’ I did some soul searching, and whenever I get sad or depressed, I end up trying a new recipe.” He resolved to go to culinary school in California to bide his time until How I Met Your Mother ended, then he and Harris could move back to New York, and he could return to Broadway.
He graduated with honors from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena and paid for it using a sum of money his mother left him that miraculously matched tuition costs to the dollar. With his newfound culinary expertise, he got a job at the famous Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, acted as sous chef for Cat Cora, worked with Chef Thomas Keller on a TV mini-series and began acting as a caterer to the stars, beginning with a luxurious party thrown by Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks.
During this time, Burtka learned that cheffing and acting are actually quite similar—both involving reading a script and performing for a crowd—but one key difference is that cooking can always be salvaged. “As an actor, you put yourself on the line—all you have and all the work that you’ve done—but sometimes you’re just not right for the role,” he notes. “Whereas with cooking, all the proof is on the plate. You can pick it apart and say it has too much salt or not enough cumin or whatever it is. You can analyze it that way, but acting is such a human ego-driven career.”
In April 2019, Burtka released his first cookbook, Life Is a Party, named after the Food Network special Life’s a Party with David Burtka, and it was far from an easy feat. “It was insane! I never imagined how much work it was,” he exclaims. “I have 103 recipes [in the book], but I came up with probably 150 and narrowed it down from there. You’re tweaking and testing four to seven times to make sure that [each one is] okay…You want these to be foolproof recipes.” His personal go-to is the Rib-Eye Steak with Porcini Rub.
The cookbook contains much more than just recipes, however; it details proper attire, festive decorations, music selections and more. Burtka went so far above and beyond for this book, that he assembled 17 Spotify playlists with music for a wide range of celebrations, including Sunday Funday, Game Night, Dig In Brunch and Mexican Fiesta. Instructional videos for making the crafts described in the book can be found on davidburtka.com.
Burtka is looking forward to Dan’s GrillHampton, because it means he and the family, Neil and their twins Harper and Gideon, will be spending the weekend in the Hamptons, a place he’s fallen hard for. “I love being out there, because there are so many amazing farmers markets, and what you can find in season is incredible,” he says. “And you can go to Montauk and fish your own fish out of the ocean! It’s incredible! I love that…It’s a joy to be in the Hamptons, because everything is so fresh. That’s why we chose living out there instead of Connecticut or the Berkshires or something like that, because you get the sea and the farm.”
David Burtka hosts Dan’s GrillHampton on Friday, July 19. For tickets and more information on all Dan’s Taste of Summer events, visit DansTaste.com.