Seattleite Spotlight: Ericka Burke of Volunteer Park Cafe

The beloved eatery’s owner talks vegetarian cuisine, wine pairing and Seattle’s dynamic food scene.

Growing up, Capitol Hill native Ericka Burke frequented the many café and delicatessens located throughout her neighborhood. Though she initially studied acting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the American Music and Dramatic Academy in New York, she realized her true calling in 1994 when she opened Sweet Potato, a café in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Since then, she has managed kitchens in San Francisco and Seattle and studied under some of the nation’s most prominent culinary minds. Her latest gig: owner and proprietor of Volunteer Park Cafe, one of the city’s most innovative (and popular) dining destinations.

How was your inaugural restaurateur experience as owner of Sweet Potato?

I definitely got thrown in the fire because I had no formal training. But we grooved super fast – within six months, we had three locations. It was the early 90’s, when organics and juicing and all that had come on the rise. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were really on the forefront of this new food movement, and it was really well embraced. But I had no idea what I was doing.

What led you to attend a six-month course at Greystone, the Culinary Institute of America campus located in Napa Valley?

I was at a point in my life where I was able to do that. Coming from New York and having the experience of opening Sweet Potato, I realized that I needed some formal training if I wanted a future in this business.

How did this experience influence your career?

Hugely! I was of great fortune to study with Alice Waters, Joyce Goldstein, Rick Bayless – just some amazing chefs. Primarily, the influence came from Alice Waters and some of her protégées, and just really understanding the connection between farmer and purveyor and how important it is to know where your food is coming from.

What did you learn about wine and wine pairing during your 12-week course with Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible?

I learned a lot. Food and wine pairing is a very interesting path. A lot of people don’t taste the wines for its nuances. There are a lot of different directions you can go with wine pairing. You can go match-match, or you can take huge risks by taking a subtle nuance of juniper berry and pair it with a fish, for example. I like to go the more interesting route. It pushes us into more uncomfortable spaces, which I think makes us stronger.

In 1997, you were hired as Executive Chef at Carmelita, an award-winning vegetarian eatery in Greenwood. What did you take away from this experience?

It was a great experience for me, because you can’t rely on proteins. It’s much more challenging to work with only vegetables and grains, and it gave me a huge respect for that type of cuisine.

Why is cooking exclusively vegetarian cuisine more challenging than preparing meat dishes?

There’s so much more that goes into it. You can say, we’re going to have this great pork and then do this corn succotash, etc. But when you’re cooking vegetarian, you’re thinking, what’s my main, meaty part? At Carmelita, I did a Portobello mushroom that was roasted, sliced, stuffed and tied. A lot of the sauces took longer because you don’t have the bones, fat or animal components.

How has the Seattle food scene evolved in 15 years?

It’s come a long way in even the last five years. It’s a really great community to be in. Of course there’s always competition, but there’s also support amongst chefs, and also with the farmers.

You opened Volunteer Park Cafe in 2007, and the eatery has been a Seattle foodie landmark ever since. What made you choose the cafe’s current location?

When we first came across [the property], it scared me to death and I just walked away. My mind was so wrapped around the next hip, cool thing in a downtown location. I just thought it could never work. Then, a few weeks later, a little ‘ding’ went off in my head. I realized it’s the community hub, and it’s a nurturing environment with families. The building was a corner grocery store from 1905-95, so it’s always been a cornerstone of the community, and we’re trying to continue that.

How has your ownership/managerial style changed over the years?

It’s changed a lot since I first opened. Starting my career in New York, whether it was my place or working for other people, then moving to San Francisco. It was this rough, male-dominated, treat-each-other-like-shit environment. You know, knock each other down to get on top. And I didn’t want to do that anymore. I tried to find a staffing philosophy that meshed with our food and service philosophies.

Volunteer Park Cafe is a community-oriented place. It’s really important for me to serve really good, high-quality food because there are kids in the neighborhood, and I wanted to make sure we were doing our job. Life is too short to hate your job, and I wanted to create an environment that was nurturing and team-oriented. For the most part, it’s worked out really well. I have a staff that has stayed here for a really long time, and it’s really cool to see the dynamics between front of the house or back of the house. There are times at dinner when we’re crazy busy at the front of the house, and cooks take it upon themselves to roll silverware or fill water. It’s a really cool experience, because that usually doesn’t happen in this industry.

VPC’s breakfast/lunch and dinner menus are full of innovative dish ideas, such as Wild Boar Bolognese, Caramelized Banana Brioche French Toast and the Pot O’ Gold (a hollow pumpkin filled with polenta). What’s your culinary creative process? 

The process is what’s in season. I cook a lot of what I crave, and what I would feed my friends and family. I don’t like okra. So I won’t ever put okra on the menu. It sounds selfish, but if I don’t love it, I don’t want to serve it.

What’s your favorite dish in the VPC canon – and which wine would you pair with it? 

Right now, we have a tagliatelle pasta that has a corn cream, cherry tomatoes and shaved parmesan. Super simple, and very seasonal. I would probably pair that with our St. Vincent Muscadet we have on the menu right now. It’s a really mineral-ly, lean yummy wine.

Throughout your career, you’ve been a staunch advocate for regionally sourced food and ingredients. How can Seattle gourmands ensure they are supporting the local contingent when they eat out or purchase food at the store?

Most chefs and restaurateurs in Seattle are doing a really good job of that. If you’re going to local restaurants and not the chains, and you’re taking the time to go to a farmer’s market or PCC. Or become part of a CSA program.

You’ve had a relatively nomadic career. Is VPC your permanent home, or just the latest stop on your journey?

I think this is my permanent home.

Volunteer Park Cafe is open for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the weekends. Dinner is served from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.

Volunteer Park Cafe | 1501 17th Ave. E., Seattle | (206) 328-3155