Jacob Siwak grew up in Clayton attending Central Reform Congregation. He graduated from John Burroughs School and Washington University, having majored in film. He initially moved to New York to work for producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men,” “Lady Bird”) before heading down a different path.
“I always liked to cook,” said Siwak, 28, whose parents are Gianna Jacobson and Todd Siwak. “I was very lucky to grow up with my mom as cook in the house. She is an exceptional cook. I would be lying if I said anyone but her got me into cooking.”
Jacobson, who is half Italian, might have jump-started her son’s interest in cooking, specifically Italian cooking, but he eventually went on to study the cuisine in Italy, both in Rome and in Bologna, where he trained with some of the world’s best in hand-rolling pasta. He also attended the International Culinary Center in SoHo and worked as a maître d’ and cook at Olmsted, an acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn.
Those experiences led Siwak to open his first solo restaurant a few weeks ago called Forsythia, where he is chef-owner. The intimate, rustic Italian restaurant located in New York’s Lower East Side was supposed to open Memorial Day weekend, but construction was paused because of COVID.
As a result of the pandemic, Siwak was able to make some adjustments, including installing a new heating and cooling system to optimize air flow, an air unit to pump extra fresh air into the space and an outdoor area covered on three sides that’s waterproof and can retain heat while opening to the sidewalk.
Over the summer, he and his team opened a pop-up kitchen in the East Village, where they offered a takeout tasting menu and at-home meal kits. Customer feedback was so enthusiastic that reservations at Forsythia are in high demand.
“Our focus is on Roman food and central Italian,” Siwak told me when we spoke last week. The menu features seasonal antipasti and innovative handmade pasta dishes that sound ridiculously yummy. When I took a leap and asked if there was anything “Jewish” about the cuisine, Siwak chuckled and explained that there is a “huge overlap in Roman Italian and Jewish cooking.”
“We even have things on our menu that are typical Roman Jewish dishes,” he continued. “When artichokes are back in season, we have a dish we’re bring back called carciofi alla guidia, which means ‘artichokes the Jewish way’ and originated in the Jewish ghetto in Rome.
“For our holiday tasting menu, we plan to offer tortellini en brodo, which is a soup, but the broth will be my grandma’s matzah ball broth. There are a lot of ways Jewish cooking weaves its way into and throughout Italian cooking.”
In fact, it seems as if Siwak’s Jewish upbringing also figures prominently into another reason why he was eager to start his own restaurant.
“What I’d really like to do is change the paradigm for the way employees are treated, especially in New York City restaurants,” he said. “Historically, it’s pretty crummy. People are overworked, overstressed, don’t get enough sleep, etc. etc.
“I would really like our restaurant to be run with an understanding of what a good work-life balance looks like — what having a life outside of the restaurant looks like. I think a lot of that compassion was instilled in me through my Jewish learning.”