Woog's World: Westport ingredients key to Alex Burger's recipe for global culinary success
Updated 6:46 am, Sunday, October 12, 2014
It's not often you read "Planet Pizza," "Daniel Boulud," "Thailand" and "Malta" in the same sentence. But those are some of the threads of Alex Burger's life. He's traveled a winding path -- from Westport to the far corners of the world -- without always knowing what's around the corner. So far, it has not led him astray.
At Staples, Alex was a musician: choir, orchestra, Orphenians. He always enjoyed cooking. One day, a friend told him to check out Culinary Club, for the free food. He was immediately attracted to Chef Cecily Gans' philosophy on cooking and life. Alex enrolled in her class, quit football, and got his first restaurant job at Match in South Norwalk.
As a senior, he thought his talent at math might lead to a job in finance. But he was more passionate about cooking. Chef Gans steered him toward Johnson and Wales University, where he could learn about the entire restaurant industry.
It was a wise choice. At the end of sophomore year, Alex was ready for a mandatory externship. Accepted into a study-abroad program, he had two choices. He could go to a huge resort in the Caribbean with a great social life, or study at a one-star Michelin restaurant in the New Forest of England, apprenticing under a chef inspired by the landscape. He would work nearly 100 hours a week and earn 100 pounds a month. Alex chose that road less traveled.
Thrown into the fire pit in England, he nearly cracked. But he stayed eight months, and when he left he was offered the job of sous chef.
Alex spent the next year living with his mother, saving money and working at Planet Pizza in Westport. The manager, Luciano, mentored him. One day, he took Alex to eat at the restaurant Daniel in New York. The meal was fantastic, and Alex asked for a tour of the kitchen. He introduced himself to the executive chef, and said that one day he'd be working for him. Dubiously, Jean Francois asked for his resume.
A week later, Alex was called for an interview. He started at the lowest position at db Bistro Moderne, but within a year, became junior sous chef. A year later, he was executive sous chef.
Alex stayed with Daniel for four years, until the travel itch again kicked in. Through mutual friends, he got a call from Eneko Atxa, a two-star restaurant in Spain's Basque country. Alex had a job -- if he could start in two weeks.
"I learned a new way of thinking," he says. "It was so modern, I had to throw away my classical French training and start over. But no matter where you go in the world, cooking is an international language." He adapted quickly.
Then came a one-star restaurant in France, L'Auberge de la Feniere. It was back to his French cooking roots. The language Alex learned in Daniel's kitchen came in handy.
A chef at Daniel offered him the banquet chef position. Six months in, he took over Feast & Fetes, Daniel's catering company. Despite working endless hours, he met the woman who is now his fiancee.
Alex also got an email from Eneko, who described a project he was working on in Thailand. Alex was the first person he wanted to lead that new restaurant. But Daniel did not want to lose him, and offered him a different job -- in Asia. Alex was all of 25 years old.
He took the job in Thailand. The main reason: "I knew it would be the uncomfortable unknown that I had loved to explore so much."
With his "strong New York chef attitude," and an eagerness to learn and adapt to a new culture, Alex spent a year building a team. He hired a core group of chefs, trained them in Spain with Eneko, and then opened Iniala Beach House and Aziamendi Restaurant in Asia.
The first season was very good. With rainy season coming, his business partner, Mark Weingard, flew Alex to Malta to choose a restaurant space for a 100-day pop-up Aziamendi.
Alex calls it "one of the best learning experiences of my life." He brought 15 staff from Thailand to Malta. The restaurant was a complete success.
The other day, Alex returned to Malta from Westport. Now, he heads to Bilbao for a week of menu planning and research, before reopening Aziamendi Thailand.
It's been quite a ride. Alex has cooked for royalty, celebrities, entertainers, politicians, top chefs, personal idols, and most importantly, his friends and family. He's been on a three-part "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," too.
Alex appreciates the chance to move anywhere in the world and find work, without speaking the language. He's pursued his dreams -- and it all started here in Westport. Thanks, Chef Gans. And you too, Planet Pizza.