David Burtka says it's on you if your kids are fussy eaters

The author and celebrity chef says life's a party, so invite the whole family

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 27, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

David Burkta. Photography by Jill Greenberg, jillgreenberg.com. Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at alreadymade.org.
David Burkta. Photography by Jill Greenberg, jillgreenberg.com. Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at alreadymade.org.

If life is, as Cordon Bleu trained chef David Burtka says, a party, then I am the guest hiding in the bathroom. But I'm trying to get better, with a little help from my friends. 

David Burtka knows how to have a good time, and now he wants everybody else too as well. The former Hollywood caterer is also an actor, a singer and dancer who's appeared on "How I Met Your Mother," (with his husband, Neil Patrick Harris) "The West Wing," "American Horror Story." Three years ago he hosted the award-winning Food Network special, "Life is a Party with David Burtka." Now he's got a new book called "Life is a Party: Deliciously Doable Recipes to Make Every Day a Celebration," in which he makes the case for the power of partying. He joined us recently to talk about glitter, Goldschlager and getting your kids to eat something other than nuggets.

This is obviously a super fun, happy book. Every single picture, everybody just looks like they're having the time of their lives. You go through the seasons of the year. You have 107 recipes. Crafts.

Over 300 crafts. Really good party tips. Playlists.

Hacks, if you want to make a recipe simpler, if you want to make it a little more advanced.

You also write in the introduction something really important — why we need to do this. This is not just about gorgeous and aspirational, although it is gorgeous and aspirational. But we need to gather, we need to bring people together. You say that there are so many things we have to do. There are so many things we are obliged to do. But there is a reason for doing the things like this that we want to do, and the people that we want to be with. This is really a manifesto in some ways too, David. I want to get to that.

I love it. You know what? I think we live in such trying times right now. I think there's a sense of us being on our phones, and being upset politically, and what's going on in the world. I think we all need a bit of a laugh. We all need to gather together, grab our family and friends, and put together a time that we're sharing memorable moments and being able to smile. I find so much joy in the fact that this book is out, and that hopefully people will read this book and take away some great, wonderful ideas to create beautiful memories for the rest of their lives.

That's what it's about. It's about creating memories. In our family we use the phrase, "life-affirming." You have to put your head up every now and then, and look out of your gopher hole.

For sure. What other thing do we have? We have family, we have friends, what other common bond do we share? Food. We all have to eat, so why not eat with each other, and make it good? I really enjoy the fact that I'm able to share this with everybody, a glimpse into Neil's and my lives and how we party. None of this is made up, this is all parties that we actually threw.

There are sixteen parties in the book, you really threw eight of them.

It was wild. We would do the kid stuff in the morning, the breakfast stuff in the morning, and then we'd do the adult stuff at night. So we would have the snow day with all of the kids bundling up, and playing games, and being outside. Then, at night, I threw a full on New Year's Eve party. I had thirty people at my house reenacting New Year's Eve in February. It was amazing. It actually felt like it was New Year's Eve, because we were counting down. We're still finding glitter in our house.

You're talking about these parties that you have with your husband and your kids, and you talk about that in the beginning of the book, too. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration coming from your family. That this is part of what you learned as a kid, and something you were passing on to your own kids. I feel like sometimes that thread gets lost.

My family entertained all the time. Every weekend was a different birthday party, christening, retirement party, whatever it was. Our family lived about 45 minutes away from all of each other, some closer than others. We'd always get together. Everyone would bring their famous dish to pass, or we'd try new things, and there'd be a huge spread of food. The kids would play, and there'd be music, sometimes there'd be dancing. It was just the way of growing up, it really was the way that we lived. We had this instilled in our minds.

I learned how to make a crudite plate, I learned how to bake. We'd make tiny meatballs. We'd all gather in the kitchen. Tiny meatballs is a team sport in Michigan. That's just the way we lived. My mom instilled that in me, and I'm so glad that she did, because I'm able to share it with everybody else, and then pass it down a generation.

I got into cooking in a sort of a weird way because of my mom. I was living as an actor in LA, and not really having the best time of it. You go out for a lot of stuff you don't necessarily want to go out for. Your agent's telling you, "Just go out for experience. People will see you," and blah, blah, blah.

I wasn't loving it. Then my mom ended up getting chemo, and dying twenty days later. She had leukemia. I thought, I can't go back to acting and get rejected for stuff I didn't want to do in the first place. Neil was working, and that made it a little bit worse for me. I thought, what do I love doing? What's therapeutic to me? I love cooking. Whenever I was stressed I'd make a new stock, or try out a new recipe of a cake. It was something that I really enjoyed. I went to cooking school. This is so weird, but my mom ended up giving me some money in her will. The money turned out to be to the exact cent of what cooking school cost. Is that crazy?

That's great though. It feels very serendipitous. It feels like a sign.

I ended up becoming a chef and working as a caterer, working with a bunch really great, stellar chefs. I started posting stuff online about recipes I was doing, and stuff with my kids. People started saying, "Why don't you do a book?" That's sort of how I had this book happening.

This is a labor of love. You said that you were extremely hands on.

Every little piece is me. From the writing to all the recipes, testing the recipes. Even the photo shoots. Most of the props and things are my dishes and my décor, especially in the Halloween section.

It took two years to do. Most cookbooks take about a year from start to finish. But I was adamant about shooting it seasonally, so you can see the fall colors changing, you can see the spring tulips in bloom, the fresh produce, the snow. The kids in the snow with the cocoa shot is just a great, great shot.

I want to do a lightning round with you. I'm going to be the naysayer, and I'm going to give you the reasons why someone would say, "I can't entertain, not me. I'm not a party thrower." You're going to reassure me. Ready?

I'm too busy.

You have time to watch TV don't you?

I don't know, do I? I may have scrolled through 10,000 pictures of puppies on Reddit today, but I think I'm too busy.

If you are too busy, and you don't feel like doing it, then don't do it. I mean, honestly. If it doesn't call to you, go to another party. Go to a party where someone else is entertaining that loves to do it. If you're too busy and you can't do it, then don't do it. But if you want to put in the time, and you want to make a difference in other peoples lives, then go out and do it.

Next one:

I do want to entertain, I love to entertain. But I'm on a really tight budget. I look at this book and there are lobster tails, and beautiful fine china. I can't do that. Help me.

Sure you can. Because you've got friends and family, don't you?

They can contribute one of the meals, or one of the dishes, then everyone else can pitch in. You can do a group effort, you can do it together. So, why not?

Absolutely. Pot lucks, right?

I think the day of pot lucks is upon us, I think we need to do more of it. We're on our phones so much, we need to be more social.

Maybe we could call it crowdsourcing. 

Last one:

I really like secretly do want to entertain, but I'm really like an anxious, shy person. I'm afraid people are not going to like my parties, or they're going to judge me, or it's going to go badly. I'm getting myself psyched out.

How do you know if you're not going to ever try it? You have to just jump feet first. That's what life's about, right? So go ahead and do it. If you fail, you fail. Who cares? You learn from it. You do it again. That's what we tell our kids all the time.

How many times I made this lemon sole recipe, it was beyond. Like, seven times. Finally I got it to work. But my kids, for a week, were saying, "Oh my God, lemon sole again? I can't eat another bite of fish in my life."

I love that you have kids who can get to a place of, "I can't eat another bite." What is the secret of that?

 think a lot of people placate to their kids. A lot of people will just say, "Well, just try it. Okay, then don't try it. Here's a chicken finger." I think a lot of people will just say, "Here's another meal," or, "This is your meal and I'll eat this."

We only had one option. "What's for dinner?" "This is for dinner. This is food. Food, it's what you're eating." There's not an option. A lot of people will give the kids the option, but the kids aren't going to starve. If they're not going to eat it, then they'll be fine. It'll be all right.

There was a paper I wrote in cooking school about how we all have different taste buds. There are super taste buds, super tasters, and there are non super tasters. There are people who actually taste things differently than other people. There could be that. You do grow out of food tastes and in your life. Give it time. We have a rule in our house, you have to at least try it. If you don't like it, you don't have to eat it, but you have to at least try it.

Then it's not fraught. That's how people get, I think, messed up about food, and eating.

There are a lot of people that grow up with that. Their parents didn't know how to cook, or were really picky. They learned that. But also, I think you can train your baby, as well. I read a book called "Hungry Monkey" by Matthew Amster-Burton. It debunked all the trends that you're supposed to do with kids. At six months they are able to process salt, they are able to process herbs and spices. I went to the farmers market, got carrots, and pureed them and put curry in it. I got peas and I put mint with it. I was able to give the kids flavors, apples, and cinnamon, and nutmeg and they grew up tasting flavor.

I think a lot of people get the jar of baby food that has just pureed nothing, no salt, no flavor, and they grow up eating bland food.

Which is super American, too. You were just on "Rachael Ray." Rachael Ray writes in her books about growing up Sicilian. You're born eating spicy food. That's just what you do from the time you're a toddler, just gnawing on delicious, spicy meat. Then that's what's normal to you. I think there is a fear of that.

I want to ask you about this because it's getting to the point where there is such a de-emphasis on basic cooking skills, and just basic skills in general. There are a lot of people out there who don't know how to even enter their kitchen, and don't know how to chop up a carrot, David. What do we do to remove that intimidation? You do that a lot in your book where you say, "It's okay to just order some food. It's okay to just make that Lipton dip."

Look at some of the recipes, see what you can do, see what you aspire to. But also, if you can't, then source out the phone. Put it on nice dishes you have. I worked for Sharon Stone once and she got Kentucky Fried Chicken, put it on nice china, and no one knew.

It doesn't really matter. As long as you're with your family, and friends, and you're having a good time. That's all you have the permission to do. That's it.

No one's going to judge you as harshly as you would judge yourself. If you bring people into your home, and you're welcoming, and you're open, if you get the invitations out, you're there.

Another thing I talk about in the book is, when you go to a party, what's the one thing you say to the host? "What can I do?" So have a list of ten things that people can do for you. People end up being in the kitchen anyway.

Think ahead of time of what their tasks can be.

People take that in, and they really feel that they are a part of something, they've created the night with you. It's more special.

I think that there is this culture of perfectionism where everything has to look great, and like it has to be a one person show.

It's all over Instagram. Everything has to be an Instagram moment.

Well, okay, because you have the cutest Instagram in the world. Your family is super cute. Every picture in this book is everyone looking like they are having the absolute time of their lives, and I believe they really are. But, it can't all be like that all the time.

Just bring me back down a little bit to reality. Just to give me just a little taste that it's not always golden. Have you ever had a party disaster?

There are a few things that came to mind. There was one Thanksgiving where I was in New Mexico, and I was cooking for Neil's family. It was the first time that I was really cooking for them. I made these enchiladas that were stuffed with sweet potatoes. It was a red sauce with enchilada with sweet potatoes, and the marshmallows were on top. I put it under salamander and I burnt the shit out of it. It was a crust of black. I ended up having to scrape that off.  

Because nothing burns like sugar.

I remember one Halloween party we had, there was a friend of ours. It was a late drunken night, and he decided to pick Neil up in his costume and jump in our pool. But in doing so, he slipped, and he gashed his whole foot and leg, and ended up having to go to the emergency room. That was a disaster.

Out of all of these disasters, though, there was one time growing up my mom attempted to make Beef Wellington. She burnt it so badly. It was a big family party, I think it was even Christmas. So, our grandmother, in pure, amazing fashion, got all of us together, and we did Goldschlager shots in order to get through the meal. That's something about coming together, being family. If things screw up, they screw up. Just drink.

In case of emergency, just bust out the gold Goldschlager. That's the number one party tip.

From Grandma.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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