For David Burnell, family comes first. Local ingredients take a close second.
Burnell is the executive chef at Main Street restaurants Lena — a South and Central American based, new-age eatery — and Habana — a Latin-inspired happy hour dance club located below Lena. Burnell learned how to cook at a young age with help from his grandfather.
“Most of my best family memories have always been around the dinner table,” Burnell said.
Coming from Polish heritage, Burnell used to help his grandfather make traditional old-world dishes. When he grew up, he realized he had a talent for it.
“I grew up with the farm-to-table approach before it got popular,” he said. “At my old restaurant, my Saturday specials were always what I got from the farmers market. I have a garden at home, so I support the cause from grower to table.”
As a teenager, Burnell secured his first kitchen job as a dishwasher and then began to work his way up. He attended Schoolcraft College for culinary arts, and he’s been an executive chef at various restaurants around the metro-Detroit area for 10 years. He’s been at Lena for seven months now.
In September, Burnell decided to update the Lena and Habana menus. He wanted to make a push for a higher quality and a higher authenticity of food.
“We geared the menus towards closer, fresher, local ingredients, but also bigger, bolder spices, really taking South American and Central American food and bringing it up to a more modern level than what you would get on the street in Brazil or Argentina,” he said.
The challenge in coming to Lena, Burnell said, was learning how to cook a different kind of cuisine from anything he had served before. His previous job had been Italian fine dining, and he said being able to experiment more with different kinds of flavors and spices is exciting.
“I’m a big history buff, so I like to research food. I like to know where it came from, why it’s prepared that way and things like that, so coming to this restaurant was a good historical challenge for me,” he said. “It gave me a new set of goals to figure out ‘what’s this cuisine all about, and how can I modernize it for being in Ann Arbor and making it different from everything else on the block?’ ”
One way Burnell does that is by keeping his ingredients fresh and local. While he uses local produce and meat whenever he can, he said his favorite item to use in the daily specials is fresh fish — he lauded the ability to be able to have fish shipped from anywhere in the world, but he also said that a perk of cooking in Michigan is the access to the Great Lakes.
“My produce company that I work with here in Ann Arbor [Frog Holler Produce] sources as much local Michigan produce as possible,” he said. “I also try to bring in as much as I can with meats from Michigan, as well. Seafood, if it’s in fresh water…comes right out of lake Michigan.”
While Burnell said the Tampa Bay-esque Cuban sandwich is his favorite on Lena’s menu, he said he strives to create diverse plates every morning when he prepares the daily specials.
“When I get to the final dish, I say to myself, would I eat this or would I not eat this? Really it’s just putting different flavor profiles together to make something unique.”
While Burnell is no longer surrounded by the Polish food of his childhood, he still hopes to carry on the ideals instilled in him around his family dinner table.
“I would be perfectly happy with a food truck on a beach or near some water and to cook off a charcoal grill off the back of it. I wouldn’t really care,” he said. “As long as I’m producing good food and people are happy, then I’m happy.”
And he brings these values in his kitchen, as well. He said that things inevitably go wrong, but he’s learned how to handle any problems that arise. Food and those who prepare it together are like a family to him.
“I have bailed a couple of cooks out of jail before,” Burnell said. “I look over my staff, and I look out for them. I take care of my staff, and they take care of me.”
Food, for Burnell, is more than just a creative outlet or nourishment. He cooks to bring people together — to make them happy — and that’s why you can find everything from dancing to brunch to drinks to dinner at Lena and Habana.
In the end, Burnell just wants to give you the same feeling he had while cooking with his grandfather— he wants you to feel at home.
“I like to create just good, honest food that people will be excited to try,” he said.