Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Chef Jim Burke was one of Philly’s most promising talents. Now he’s back — at Wm. Mulherin’s

The chef behind Bella Vista's praise-winning James pretty much disappeared after it closed in 2011. Now he's back in his first fine-dining role in years.

Jim Burke, the new chef at Wm. Mulherin's Sons, prepares a pizza at the restaurant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Thursday, December 12, 2019.
Jim Burke, the new chef at Wm. Mulherin's Sons, prepares a pizza at the restaurant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Thursday, December 12, 2019.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Honeynut squash puree fills out the curves of the cappellacci at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown. Not butternut squash, honeynut squash, a miniaturized version of the butternut with twice the sweetness and half the water content.

It’s a particular that would be easy for a server to confuse, but if these were the old days at Mulherin’s, meaning spring 2016 to 2018, when Chris Painter was chef and partner, bar manager Holly Sue Allen would have rather gotten the details wrong than ask for clarification.

In March 2018, Painter and three other staff members were suspended after sexual-harassment allegations by four former Mulherin’s employees were detailed in a Philadelphia Magazine story. The restaurant parted ways with Painter and the other employees shortly thereafter.

“When you create this fear-based culture in the kitchen where your front-of-house staff is afraid, you don’t ask questions and you don’t learn,” she says over the buzz of the espresso machine behind Mulherin’s bar.

Allen is not afraid to ask questions since a new chef arrived in September. “This restaurant is a total beast, and chef Jim has come in and has 100% given it his all while maintaining a safe and educational space.”

Chef Jim is Jim Burke. Whether your reaction is “OMG!” or “Who?” will tell you a lot about where you were in 2007, when Burke and his wife and business partner, Kristina, were running James, one of the best restaurants in the city at the time.

James was a magical place, where orange zest and bitter chocolate fell like snow over lacy tagliatelle, and cardoon season might as well have been a national holiday. Craig LaBan called it “one of the most exciting new restaurants I’ve encountered this year” in his three-bell review, noting “its palpable sense of personal style and fine-dining passion, and a crisp contemporary vision for how the best ingredients can be shaped by authentic Italian inspirations.”

Burke, 46, was one of the most promising young chefs in the city, then he pretty much disappeared after James closed in 2011. Mulherin’s is his first fine-dining executive chef position in five years, and it’s a doozy. In addition to reinvigorating the menu, Burke has to rehabilitate the culture of a restaurant whose staff has “been through a lot,” says Randall Cook, who owns Mulherin’s parent company, Method Hospitality, with David Grasso.

Cook and Grasso hired an outside human resources firm in July 2017 after learning of a “disturbing incident” that took place at the restaurant, according to a statement released in response to the Philadelphia Magazine story. Though they declined to discuss the incident, they confirmed that Painter had been put on a modified schedule in order to prevent him and a female colleague being on the premises at the same time. At least one staffer quoted in the magazine story — former server Amber Smith — suggested there was a systemic problem with the restaurant’s workplace culture.

“We put systems in place to alleviate the concern that people have as to who to go to without fear of repercussion,” says Cook. Method continues to employ an outside HR firm today. No criminal charges were filed.

“It was a horrible, inexcusable situation,” Burke says. But getting involved with a damaged restaurant “didn’t give me any hesitancy at all. It actually made me a little more interested because I felt like I still have something to say about the way restaurants should run, and it starts with mutual respect and making sure that we do everything we can to provide a positive work environment.”

Burke also knows what it’s like to be damaged. He remembers the early years at James as “lightning in a bottle.” The accolades piled up, including a Food & Wine’s best new chef award.

But by 2010, James was on shaky financial footing. The restaurant closed the following year, with plenty of blame to go around: the recession, the out-of-the-way Bella Vista location (subsequently home to a series of failed restaurants), and the fine-dining reputation the Burkes nurtured like a rare flower until it turned on them, ultimately becoming poisonous.

They moved to New York and were never coming back. Burke took a job with his old boss, Stephen Starr, opening Caffe Storico at the New York Historical Society, then left to work for Daniel Boulud at db Bistro Moderne. After just a few months, the restaurant fired Burke; it was only the second time he’d been let go from a job, and the first time since he was 19.

“They did not get my best,” Burke says. “I was resentful that I had to work for somebody else. My dad was sick. I didn’t see my wife. I didn’t see my kids.” (Burke’s 10-year-old son, Daniel, refers to the family’s three years in New York as “when we never got to see you.”)

Burke and I sit at a table in La Colombe’s Fishtown headquarters, a block from his new “office,” and the pained expression on his face makes it clear the memory still cuts. He doesn’t look so different from a decade ago — same scruffy beard and wiry, Italian-greyhound build — but there are more lines around his pewter-blue eyes. “The bitterness was overwhelming,” he says. “It was the only thing I felt for years, honestly.”

When I ask him what got him out of it, he doesn’t hesitate: “Moving back.”

The Burkes, including Daniel’s little sister, Sadie, born in New York, returned to Philly in 2014 and rebuilt their life in Graduate Hospital. Burke remained mostly in the shallow end of the restaurant industry: catering for old clients, doing a summer at Morgan’s Pier, consulting at Tredici and Pizzeria Felici, developing the menu and running the kitchen during Yards’ first year at the Spring Garden location, teaching in Drexel’s culinary program. Safe jobs. Stable jobs. Jobs with weekends off so he could coach Daniel’s baseball team and surf with 6-year-old Sadie down the Shore. Jobs that were unfulfilling creatively and kept him out of the conversation about Philly’s best chefs and restaurants.

If I were sitting here with Michael Solomonov or Jennifer Carroll or Nicholas Elmi — chefs of similar age and skill who’ve lapped Burke during his hiatus — restaurant regulars, fanboys and girls, and industry pals would have interrupted us. Here, the only interruption happens when a restaurant-industry friend of mine says hello. Later, when I ask that friend if he recognized the guy I was having coffee with, he says, “He looked familiar… He’s a book author, right?”

Burke is ready for a reintroduction, which is why he took the job at Mulherin’s after long discussions with his family. But he’s nervous, too. “I’ve been out of the game for a while, and you get rusty when you’re not in that creative mode,” he says. “I questioned my ability to cook for years, and that stayed with me till I started here, but when I got in this kitchen, it was like instinct took over.”

The changes Burke has made to the menu have been slow and methodical. So far, just five of his dishes live among the carryovers from the previous menu: red-violet veal tartare over silky tonnato sauce; Sicilian-ish roasted cauliflower; lemony Brussels sprouts pizza; black truffle-buttered francobolli ravioli; and the aforementioned cappelacci, the first dish he successfully conceptualized here and one whose evolution into a sheer raviolo — “a little more refined, a little more interesting” — he sees clearly in his head. “It’s been a long time since I felt this good about my work.”

When that raviolo arrives on the menu, along with a slew of other dishes slated for early next year, it will no doubt be delicious, but the cappellacci are exquisite placeholders. Back at Mulherin’s bar, I eat them one at a time, like pieces of expensive sushi.

“Chef Jim makes delicious food,” Allen says, looking at my empty plate. “He’s also one of the nicest chefs I’ve ever worked for.” As the restaurant industry staggers into a new decade, we shouldn’t stand for anything less.