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1973 James 2022

James Burke

May 12, 1973 — August 8, 2022

Philadelphia, PA

Chef Jim Burke, 49, who with his wife owned James, a celebrated South Philadelphia restaurant, and later taught in the culinary program at Drexel University before helping to repair another restaurant’s troubled work culture, died Monday after a two-year battle with a rare lung cancer.

“He passed just as he lived, with intention,” said his wife, Kristina, who was at his side at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Burke, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed in August 2020 with EGFR lung cancer, caused by a genetic mutation. By the time of his diagnosis, his wife said, the cancer had reached stage IV and had spread to his bones and brain.

Yet he faced cancer with “his customary grace and humility,” said Kristina Burke, whom her husband supported after her diagnosis with breast cancer in September 2019. The couple raised money for EGFR Resisters, a support group.

Kristina Benene and Jim Burke met in 1998 in the kitchen of Venus & the Cowboy, then a buzzworthy restaurant on the Parkway. She was having trouble using fractions to expand a recipe. While up to his elbows in sweet potatoes, he helped her. The equations, like their relationship, worked out.

Yet he faced cancer with “his customary grace and humility,” said Kristina Burke, whom her husband supported after her diagnosis with breast cancer in September 2019. The couple raised money for EGFR Resisters, a support group.

Kristina Benene and Jim Burke met in 1998 in the kitchen of Venus & the Cowboy, then a buzzworthy restaurant on the Parkway. She was having trouble using fractions to expand a recipe. While up to his elbows in sweet potatoes, he helped her. The equations, like their relationship, worked out.

They have a son, Daniel, 13, and a daughter, Sadie, 9 — both “great travelers and eaters,” Kristina Burke said. “Their favorite food is octopus, and they eat it all over. They always say their daddy’s is the best.”

Mr. Burke, who grew up in Jenkintown, got an economics degree from Franklin and Marshall College but felt more at home in the kitchen. He did not have formal culinary training, “just a lot of dedication and patience,” his wife said. “He worked in a lot of restaurants and read voraciously about cooking.”

Venus & the Cowboy closed after 10 months in 1999, and Mr. Burke took a job with Marc Vetri, who had recently opened Vetri on Spruce Street, becoming his first sous chef. “He was a soft-spoken, humble man,” Vetri said Monday. “I was so happy watching him grow through the years.”

The couple traveled to Italy in 2000, working side-by-side for 18 months as chef and pastry chef in a private villa in Tuscany. On their way back to the States, they stopped in Paris, where Mr. Burke proposed. They were married in 2003.

(The Burkes returned to Paris this spring with their children and renewed their vows. The kids did not cringe when their parents kissed. “They love to see us love each other,” Kristina Burke said.)

After their return to Philadelphia in 2002, the couple lived in Mount Airy, renting the top floor of a Georgian mansion while Mr. Burke worked at Vivo Enoteca in Wayne and later Angelina in Old City and Kristina Burke started a catering company and opened Miel, chef Robert Bennett’s bakery in Rittenhouse.

Then they set out on their own in Bella Vista by opening James, at 824 S. Eighth St., in late 2006.

In his 2007 review, Inquirer critic Craig LaBan called it “a fine rebuttal to the critics who say our best young talents only want to open BYOBs.” He called James “very much a complete restaurant, from its fine crystal stemware to a Eurocentric wine list and bar that offers some smart, unusual choices, including good craft beers, herb-infused New Age cocktails, and sparklers by the glass.” That year, Mr. Burke won a Food & Wine best new chef award. Two years later, son Daniel was born.

After James closed in 2011, the Burkes moved to New York, where he took a job with Angelina owner Stephen Starr and opened Caffe Storico at the New-York Historical Society. His next job, for chef Daniel Boulud at db Bistro Moderne, lasted only three months.

 

The family, now with Sadie, came back to Philadelphia after 2½ years. Mr. Burke taught at Drexel University and consulted. He was chef for the summer of 2016 at Morgan’s Pier, and launched Yards Brewing Co.’s brewpub in Northern Liberties.

When Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown was roiling after allegations about sexual harassment, owner Method Co. enlisted Mr. Burke to step into the kitchen and set things right.

It was a return to the day-to-day grind, but Mr. Burke thrived.

 

“Jim was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet in your life,” said Randall Cook, Method’s chief executive. “He’s everything you’d want in a person you’d work with: family-first, a natural teacher and leader, and a talented person. Usually, you don’t get that in one person.”

Kristina Burke said the restaurant “came back to life” under her husband’s mentorship. “It took a really special person to go in there and flip that around,” she said.

 

The one-year agreement turned into an upper management role with Method, a hospitality company with projects all over the country, including a hotel in Wilmington and a new restaurant in Philadelphia’s East Market.

Mr. Burke had been going in to work as late as May and worked remotely in June, his wife said.

Mr. Burke was a son of James F. Burke Jr., the former director of nephrology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and one of the region’s top kidney specialists at the time of his death in 2014, and Diane Burke, a retired social worker.

Besides his mother, wife, and children, he is survived by a brother, Dylan Burke, and sisters Laura Lloyd and Jennifer Purtell.

Services have not been announced. A GoFundMe for the family has been established.

 

Published 
Aug. 8, 2022
  • I cover the food and restaurant scene, including businesses and the people.
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