A magazine once dubbed him the Star Maker. A former student affectionately referred to him as “the old wizard.” Whatever you call him, an awful lot of chefs, some now with Michelin stars, are very grateful to Sheffield College chef-lecturer Mick Burke, who has just retired.
So when his friends, staff and former students organised a farewell lunch for him at Sheffield’s Copthorne Hotel there was a big turn-out to pay tribute to the 62-year-old chef whose culinary skills,particularly in patisserie, are a legend in the industry.
They weren’t just content to sit down to a slap-up meal and swap stories. Some, like Rupert Rowley, of Michelin-starred Baslow Hall and Nathan Smith of the Old Vicarage, both Burke protégés, teamed up with chef-lecturers Neil Taylor and Len Unwin to plan and cook the lunch. Joining the brigade was Will Haythorne of Jersey’s Langueville Manor, where another of Mick’s Michelin Men, Andrew Baird, is in charge. Andrew couldn’t make it but gave the nod to Will, another ex-student, to lend a hand.
Naturally the college, which is losing the brightest star from one of the country’s leading catering sections, made the most of the do: trainee chefs helped out the star names while other students brushed up their waiting skills under the eye of lecturer Maxene Gray.
It’s a good job there was so much talent in the temporary kitchen offered by the Copthorne. It was Friday the Thirteenth and bad luck struck early when the power went off and stayed off. Food had to be cooked in the hotel’s kitchen and ferried upstairs. “The room we used turned out to be a changing room!” grinned Rupert. But only afterwards.
Guests wouldn’t have known as they tucked in to game terrine with anise, a terrific crab and lobster ravioli in langoustine sauce, roast sirloin and a wickedly citrousy lemon tart. “That’ll have woken you up,” said Andrew Baird, drily, retired executive chef of the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel, a lifelong friend. One of Mick Burke’s greatest strengths was his connections. He could send students to the best places, get the top chefs to do demos, and call in favours. I recall him getting Michael Gaines down to star in the new kitchens that he had a big hand in commissioning in 2009.
His involvement didn’t stop at picking up the phone. The room was full of tales of him ferrying students to competitions in his own car or a minibus, from which they all seemed to return with a medal, very often gold.
“He gives back twice as much as you give him,” said Tom Lawson, now co-owner of the often dazzling Rafters restaurant. “It’s just his enthusiasm as a chef and his ability to instil that in you,” added Marcus Lane, previous owner of Rafters. He, like other former students, now grown up and perhaps wealthier than him, still refers to ‘Mr Burke. Why? “To me he is till my lecturer.” Among other well known local chefs there to pay tribute were Jamie Bosworth, Richard Irving, Christian Kent and Chris Hawkins.
Mick, a miner’s son from Bolton on Dearne, was the first boy in his domestic science class at Pope Pious secondary school, Wath. Going home with his box of buns on the bus could be challenging. He studied catering at Rotherham and passed with honours as student of his year. Before long he was at Claridges, later coming back to Sheffield’s Grosvenor Hotel as chef tournant, the bloke who can fit in anywhere when needed.
But Mick never stopped learning. He went to Granville (a predecessor of Sheffield College) to take his 7063 City & Guilds and finished up student of the year again.
It was around this time he thought of a career in education. As one of his colleagues put it, he could have worked anywhere and would doubtless have influenced many chefs: by choosing education he influenced thousands. It was his pastry work that singled him out. Typically, he made sure he had the right teacher, Roger Taylor, then pastry chef at the Connaught. At this time Mick was lecturing at Granville and the course was in Birmingham. He would teach until noon, catch the train at 1pm and not return home until the following morning.
Mick is 62, still relatively young. “I have worked here for 37 years and 109 days. There is life outside Sheffield College,” he said enigmatically. Whatever it will be, and he was giving no clues, he will be up to his old wizardry.
*Mick said the lunch had disrupted his retirement plans – it was held on the day he and his wife Jill had designated ‘Tidy Friday’
*Each table had a butter hedgehog, in memory of a competition for a themed dinner, in the college’s case Sheffield Steel. Asked by judges how the hedgehogs fitted into the theme a bright female student explained that in Sheffield the little beasts hibernated in the city’s warm steelworks