I first met David Jacoby, the owner of the now-closed Backstreet Bistro, in the hollowed-out shell of what was once his restaurant, a vital and thriving community meeting place full of kibitzing, Hungarian Mushroom Soup and Corned Beef Sandwiches. Amongst the few remaining remnants, I sat on one of two chairs and waited. I watched David greet two men with a furniture dolly, obviously friends who’d come in to load up and wheel out an aging ice machine that David had given them. As they wheeled out the ice machine, they chatted briefly about David’s future. It was obvious to me that David had made an enormous impact on the community he fed for over 20 years. I had met him for the first time that day, but for the rest of Santa Fe, he’ll be sorely missed. It was a privilege for me to sit and talk with a man in the midst of such a monumental decision to so radically change his life. We got to talking.
Mark: What feeds you and what do you feed?
David: I nourish the world. I’m a giving person. My gift in life is sharing my passion for cooking with people. It’s just instinct to get up and to do what comes naturally. I have the passion to work hard; I have the passion to cook. I love to cook. I’m a Leo, and Leo’s like to shine among people, and I love to share my passion with them. It’s the way I was brought up, the love’s there everyday.
Mark: Everyday for over 20 years, you met the day knowing what you were going to do. You certainly can fill your days with errands, but what’s it like now meeting each day with uncertainty?
David: It’s new. Definitely different. There’s always a lot going on. I’m really enjoying staying home and cooking for fun again, cooking as a hobby, reading books in the morning, and having lots of fun. There were a lot of things I’d thought about but never had time to deal with. Now I have time to deal with things, and reading is definitely broadening my range.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about vegetarian cooking. I have a couple of new vegetarian cookbooks, and they’ve really wowed me–I didn’t know about this, or know that–I have to get that and try this. I’m opening up again. In the last 25 years, food in general, the public’s knowledge, and their passion to cook, eat and try new things has really blossomed, and it’s continuing to grow, and now I’m growing again. I haven’t grown in a long time. I was in this little rut, where once in a while I’d find a different soup to make or a different little something to make at home–but now, I have time to deal with it. Now I’m becoming more creative, more aware of what’s going on. I’m basically running around trying to catch up to myself.
You asked what’s it like to meet each day with uncertainty. I’m at that age now where it’s really what I should be doing, and it’s been a long time coming and I’m enjoying it. Time for me, which I’ve never had before. Attending to what I’ve been neglecting all these years.
Mark: What were your earliest food influences?
David: My mother’s parents owned a bar-restaurant-rooming house a block from Coney Island Beach. My grandmother was the chef. My other grandmother would cook all this Old-World food, kasha varnishkes, flanken, bottles of soup for us every Friday, as if my mother didn’t cook. It was very funny, she’d call up, [my father’s name was Nathan]. In her heavy Yiddish accent, “Nathan, come over, it’s ready.”
I also worked at a kosher take-out when I was in 10th-11th grade, Chicken and Stuff. The woman made everything herself, it was all from scratch. The local ladies would come off the train, grab stuff and go home. She made knishes, perogies, potato nik, noodle kugel. She made the very best knishes I have ever had.
Mark: How did you start cooking?
David: I started cooking when I was very young. My father was a restaurant supplier, mainly in the meat business; we ate the best of everything. At a very young age, he showed me how to steam corned beef, how to cook hotdogs and steaks in the broiler and grill–and that’s how I got into food.
But I really started to cook after I left home and moved to Denver. I missed the food I had at home. So I called my mother, and she gave me advice and confidence, and I began to cook on my own. Right away, I realized that I was having a good time; I read books, practiced and I just pursued it.
I remember when I was 10, my father would pile up a few boxes of skirt steaks, and as a little kid in a meat coat and hat, I’d be pulling and trimming steaks. I’d cut all the tips off, put them on the side for myself to take home. Then on a Saturday afternoon, I’d invite the boys over, “Hey, let’s grill steak tips.” And we’d sit on the front porch in Brooklyn with a hibachi, grilling skirt steak tips.
Mark: Do you consider yourself self-taught?
David: For the most part, yes, self-taught, and then working with other professionals. I’m neither a cook, nor chef; I’m a culinary artist, a culinarian.
Mark: …and, you learned along the way?
David: Yeah, street cook. A culinarian
Mark: You call yourself a street cook?
David: I’m just a guy working hard unconsciously. A simple guy who gets up, goes to work, works his ass off, goes home. I call myself a culinarian, as we all are, of different levels. That’s what I am. I’m not a cook, I’m not a chef, I’m a culinarian. The first article ever written on me in the early ’80s stated that the place that I cooked in screamed amateur, and yes, I am a true amateur. I am a lover of the game.
Mark: Deli food is your expertise?
David: I know deli [from] growing up in Brooklyn. On Baca Street, I didn’t have a full-on kitchen that I could cook everything in. So the soup, salad, sandwich evolved in what was just a little bit more than what they call a “cold kitchen” [a kitchen without a stove]. Permit wise, that was what I was allowed to do. And that’s what I specialized in.
Mark: What are those things that matter to you now? Finally, after all these years, you can sit back in the chair and just take care of yourself and Melanie.
David: It’s been barely six weeks; I’m still adjusting, but it’s awesome. I’ve earned it. I’ve been looking forward to it. I’m enjoying it so far and it’s more of what life should be, taking care of me rather than working 12 hours a day. I’m definitely a different person. Spending more time at the gym. I’m eating better. People ask me, “What are you doing with your time?” Things I’ve never done before. I have two more hours a day in bed. I sit down and eat, when before I used to stand and eat, always on the run. Breakfast and lunch, I never sat down. I’m enjoying my life at home now, instead of running it at the restaurant. Melanie even has me doing yard work, something I had never done before. Now that I’ve got all day for errands, I’m wondering how I ever got things done. I’m getting them done, but it takes all day. So now, I’m spending my time sitting and relaxing over every meal, cooking every meal. I go out after dinner for a walk. I can take a deep breath, ride my bicycle. And [I’m] binge-watching Bonanza.
Mark: Annie Dillard says: “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.”
David: Everyday is part of your life, they’re just all connected. But my life is different now–temporarily, I’m probably going to go back to work–I’m not going to own a restaurant, not going to have the responsibilities like that any more. But I need to work. I’m a little bit too young to stop working and I feel like I still have a lot to share.
I still want to cook–perhaps as a private chef–or fix-it kinda stuff or walking your pet, and as an all around at-your-service, all facets of home care, specialized in cooking. I hope to get like two or three clients, three-and-a-half, four days a week working––and that’s it.
Mark: What is your philosophy about cooking?
David: Keep it simple. Use the freshest, best ingredients you can find and don’t yuck it up too much. It’s the basics done right. It’s touch. It’s just like any other art–you could be born with it, born with the good touch, born with the good nose or palate. And just practice. You haven’t done a recipe until you’ve done it a hundred times.
I have the love. I have the deep passion and it’s there, it hasn’t ever dwindled. That’s something I miss, was being able to let that out. It’s bottled up a little bit right now–I am enjoying cooking at home, but to let it out, the product of my passion, to share. Life is nothing if you don’t share it. Cooking is an expression of love to me–if you don’t have the love, don’t do it.
Mark: Jimmy Valvano, the basketball coach, said: “To me there are three things everyone should do every day. Number one is laugh. Number two is think–spend some time in thought. Number three, you should have your emotions move you to tears. If you laugh, think and cry, that’s a heck of a day.”
David: Deep emotions. Everybody’s got emotions. You just have to let yourself out. You can’t hold back. You’ve got to release the passion. Don’t ever hold back or be afraid to be yourself.
Mark: What was it like to do an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives?
David: Hard work. But that was my TOP Goal. I always said to Melanie, “I should be on that show.” Customers would also tell me I’d be great. One day, they came into town–they were looking for somebody who made sandwiches, roasted their own meats, salads and made everything from scratch like I did.
What happens is somebody from the show comes to town and they hit the streets with questionnaires. Afterwards, she called me, and said, “Everybody’s answer was the same in that town, You!” Unfortunately, I ended up not getting on that particular show. But when I mentioned The Smoked Turkey Wild Rice Soup, the one that won The Souper Bowl, she said they were doing a Thanksgiving special. Then she asked, “What else do you do for Thanksgiving?” Well, I sell a ton of pies. “What kind of pies?” “OK, we want to do the pumpkin, we’ll stick to the classics.” We made it on The Thanksgiving Special. We had fun with lots of hard work. You have to do everything four different ways, the beginning, the second step, the third step. You have to have it ready at two different shootings. It’s intense. I had to close the Bistro for two days of filming.
Mark: I thought your restaurant had this strange charm, especially how nondescript, uninviting and industrial it looks from the outside.
David: I didn’t call it Back Street Bistro for nothing. People would mention it all the time. The loading-dock-type stairway in back or the side entrance. But then you’d walk in, WOW, this is cool. I was picked second-most-popular restaurant in last Santa Fe Reporter magazine–it was a popular place, especially in the beginning.
Mark: Escoffier said, “To know how to eat is to know how to live.”
David: True. Food is a major part of most peoples lives and even more so in this town. This is a food-loving town. This is an eating-out town. Some people get enormous enjoyment from eating, it’s one of the ways we connect. Like the roasted chicken. What do chefs make when they’re not working? A roast chicken. Simple. We all love roast chicken. Throw a few potato pancakes on the side and you’re living large. My mother comes over and I make that for her once a month, and she always wants me to make extra for her to take home.
Mark: What do you think of cookbooks?
David: I’m a cookbook cook. Every morning when I get up, I’m reading cookbooks again. I’m inspired by them. I’m gaining knowledge and it’s refueling my passion. That’s how I got started. I’m reading cookbooks, writing down ingredients. Practicing, refining it. Cookbooks are great; I own several hundred.
Mark: As you move on now after closing the Bistro, do you feel complete? Is there anything you’ve left unsaid?
David: There’s always things you want to accomplish even if you had three lifetimes. I feel like I gave it my all for 23 years. I gave this town my life for that entire time and they were appreciative and I thanked them for supporting me. Now, I’m glad not to have to work that hard everyday. I can’t do it at this age anymore, not like I used to. Yet, I miss all those people, I think about all those people. I miss that little interaction–the joking around–I knew about these people’s lives, their families. I’ve watched babies grow up and have babies. The Snowbirds would arrive in town and come straight to The Bistro to get a meal before they went home. People would call me up asking me to prepare their favorite dish.
I recently got a letter on my blog from a woman with a huge family who comes here every August. They would take up the whole community table–order pies and things from me. This has been going on for years and years. I have pictures with them. I have letters like, “Bill got sick and died over the winter.” I know these people personally. I am somebody to them, and they’re somebody to me. I had personal attachment to a lot of these people.
Mark: Any regrets?
David: My only regret is that I didn’t get in business earlier in my life, but that’s just the way it was. When I went into business, I was hating life. I was a 35 years old, wondering if I was ever going to be anything. Then all of a sudden, I was who I wanted to be. If I have any regret, it’d be not doing it earlier.
Mark: What are the things you’re taking with you and the things you’re leaving behind?
David: My legacy is a good one. What I’m taking with me is that I did what I wanted to do in life, on my own terms and I rose to the top. I became what I always wanted to become. I didn’t ever think about what I was doing–it was just me being me. Just doing what I thought I needed to do and never thinking about what was coming of that. I just cooked and ran the place and the people responded. I never thought about what people thought. I don’t care–”It’s great,” or “I love it,”–if they love me, a positive response, great, makes me feel good, but it was not what I was after. I was just letting myself out, doing what came naturally.
Mark: What would your last meal be?
David: Haagen Daz Vanilla. I want to die with a pint of Haagen Daz in my hand…or eggplant parmesan.
Story by Mark Oppenheimer