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Graduates of L’Academie de Cuisine, the prestigious Maryland cooking school, generally don’t aspire to flip burgers in the back of a dive bar. And yet there’s Amber Bursik, class of 2007, putting her expensive culinary education to work in the noble pursuit of elevating the salty bar snack. Spiced pecans, anyone?
“I was joking around that I was a white-collar kitchen worker and now I’m a blue-collar kitchen worker,” says Bursik, 39.
A glance at Bursik’s resume suggests she’s a victim of downward culinary mobility. Her career previously placed her in esteemed fine dining establishments, under the tutelage of some of the District’s brightest culinary minds. For the last three years, she worked at Palena, James Beard Award winner and former White House chef Frank Ruta’s house of haute cuisine in Cleveland Park.
Prior to that, Bursik cooked at Hook in Georgetown, learning how to properly butcher fish first from sustainable seafood guru Barton Seaver and later serving under Josh Whigham, the former opening chef at Minibar, José Andrés’ tiny six-seat temple to the fanciful art of molecular gastronomy. “That’s like a whole set of skills that I never thought I’d get from Hook,” she says.
Then, this past June, Bursik abruptly traded in her prim and proper chef’s uniform for the more proletarian apron, taking on duties as head chef at the grungy DC9 nightclub in Shaw. “It’s a little different,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s a one-man kitchen. I have to wash my own dishes and most days run my own food. But it’s fun.”
For most of the summer, Bursik staffed the nightclub’s kitchen solo. But, in the past couple of months, she has recruited some old colleagues to the cause. “Now, we have two guys from Palena helping me out—three-star line cooks in a dive bar kitchen, which I think is really hilarious,” she says.
Compared to the high-stress environment of toiling in a top-tier kitchen, the down-market assignment has its perks. “It’s quiet and calm,” Bursik says. “It’s just you banging out food, which is nice. You don’t have to worry about people yelling at you. You get to listen to music. It’s definitely a relaxing change of pace.”
The fancy cooks of DC9 are hardly unique. Other veterans of the often intense white-tablecloth scene have also been lured away by the promise of cooking in a decidedly more laid-back setting.
Joe Rumberger, for one, left his post as sous chef at the venerable Restaurant Nora over the summer to helm the kitchen at Mount Vernon Square’s Passenger and Columbia Room, D.C. mixology maestro Derek Brown’s two-pronged cocktail lounge, where the best-known bite is a kimchi hotdog.
Not long ago, the beer-centric Granville Moore’s on H Street NE brought in two toques from more upscale venues: chef de cuisine Maria Evans, formerly of Rhode Island’s acclaimed Castle Hill Inn and Resort, and sous chef Mike Lunsford, previously at New York’s Beauty & Essex and Metropolitan in Annapolis. Lunsford is now moving on to The Big Board, a beer and burger bar down the street.
So is this just another sign of our national economic apocalypse—the food world equivalent of some cash-strapped Bear Stearns refugee turning up as the teller at your local savings and loan? No. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Now, it seems, even dive bar patrons want some foodie flair. “D.C.’s becoming a very food-oriented town,” says DC9 co-owner Bill Spieler. “We knew we had to step it up.”
Bursik’s hiring at DC9, though, is a story of love as well as a tale of changing culinary tastes: The chef is actually married to co-owner Spieler. “He was kind of at a loss,” Bursik says of her husband. “He needed help getting the kitchen back up and running after everything went down.”
Bursik is referring to the death last fall of Ali Ahmed Mohammed outside DC9. The details surrounding the fatal incident remain in dispute. But initially, authorities shuttered the nightclub and charged Spieler and four other DC9 employees in connection with Mohammed’s death. The charges were ultimately dropped and the venue was allowed to reopen. Bursik’s recent retooling of the menu represents the final touches to DC9’s re-launch in the aftermath of that tragedy.
She tossed out several old barroom standbys, such as quesadillas and mozzarella sticks, while rethinking other lingering old favorites, including the fried pickles. “I kind of changed the breading around, so that they’re a little bit crisper,” she says.
She also introduced new items, including smoky deviled eggs made with pimento cheese and heavily dusted with paprika, as well as fried chicken that’s been brined in buttermilk and salt for 24 hours.
The soul food staple might sound like cheap eats, but it comes at a more upscale price than DC9 regulars might be used to. “It’s been a little bit of a hard sell at $12,” Bursik says, “but there are people who come in once a week and have the fried chicken.”
For a chef with such a refined pedigree, Bursik has tried to keep her aspirations in line with the realities of the facility. “I’m limited not in the quality but in the adventurousness of it or scale of it by the venue,” she explains, noting the confined space of the kitchen. “I’m not going to be putting out pastas and raviolis that I’ve been making for the past three years in this kind of environment.”
One fancy idea that quickly found its way to the dustbin: “I had this great idea for pickled shrimp, which is something that my grandfather from New Orleans would serve at every family function and big holiday,” Bursik says. “I love it and it’s delicious and I was looking for something we could prep ahead and just put out on a plate. It’s an oil-marinated shrimp with herbs, onions and capers, and bay leaves. Everybody I pitched the idea to was kind of like, ‘Really? Pickled shrimp? I don’t know if that’s the best place for that.’”
DC9 is an ideal venue for a burger, however, and Bursik has tried to make her mark on that barroom staple, by importing fresh brioche buns from Philadelphia’s LeBus bakery—at least until she can find a local producer who makes ones equally tasty. “We were looking at a local bakery just last week,” she says. “Unfortunately, I didn’t like their buns as much as the ones we’re getting now.”
If she’s looking for further inspiration, her former employer Frank Ruta’s joint is a good place to start. For all the fancy quail liver and coddled pheasant egg on the menu, Palena is also known as a place with a great burger. Albeit one with homemade buns and truffle cheese.
“Maybe one day I’ll make a burger as good as Frank’s,” Bursik says.
DC9, 1940 9th St. NW, (202) 483-5000
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery