The "Jack" of All Trades

Words by Ashley Locke

Photos by James Acomb

Illustrations by Jamison Harper

 

“I’ll give you the background the way I tell it at the restaurant,” says David Bancroft. “Farmer, banker, business owner, restaurateur.”

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The restaurant? That’s David’s ’s award-winning eatery, Acre, located in Auburn, Alabama. The renaissance man he described? That’s his grandpa, Jack Pauline Kennedy.

David begins his story where his grandfather’s story starts, during the Great Depression. Jack worked his way as a cotton ginner through the worst economic downturn in American history —he was one of the first farmers in Alabama to have two cotton gins, and that helped him pull in extra business. After a time, he was able to make his way to Auburn for school, but it wasn’t long before he was shipped off to war. “When he got back, he married my Mama Jean,” says David. “Unfortunately, she went to the University of Alabama.”

Despite the college rivalry, Jack and Jean started a family. Their family and their farm began to flourish. “He had cattle and planted pines, cotton, and peanuts,” says David. “Then in the early 70s, he started a fish farm.”

The fish farm became a fish market. “People would come for catfish, and he’d grab a live one out of the tank.” says David. “No training, no procedure—just fresh.”

Jack’s vision went beyond farming—it expanded into the industries that affected it. One day he got tired of banks refusing loans to farmers, so he started his own bank. “That really led to him being an entrepreneur,” says David. “He approached things with no fear. He just went for it.”

No matter what he was doing, Jack hit the ground running. When David was born, he did too. “I have so many memories of feeding the fish and the cattle off the back of a tailgate,” he says.

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David was still a kid when the fish market really took off. His grandpa was looking for a way to sell his food faster, so he decided to open a restaurant. “I remember the grand opening... I was young, but I was old enough to know I loved to eat,” he says.

Often, the two of them would go fishing at the lake. When grandpa caught a catfish, he'd take it straight to the kitchen to fry for dinner. Jack’s restaurant worked the same way. “I learned all the processes and people involved and how much of the food was fresh. The catfish came from the cinder-block pool in the back. The corn, okra, and zipper peas were from a farm across the street. Food isn’t sourced like that anymore, but it’s getting there.”

David is one of the people helping it get there. He modeled Acre after his grandpa’s restaurant—not the food, but the way it’s made. The grounds are home to fruit trees and gardens lush with herbs, berries, and vegetables. The menu is decided by what is in season, and the meat is sourced from local ranchers. These days it’s called “farm to table,” but when David was growing up, it was just called “eating.”

Founding Acre was a natural step for David. His early days cooking with his grandpa stuck with him, and by high school he was making dinner for his family, baking for his teachers, and smoking brisket for his friends. In college, David took over the role of kitchen steward at his fraternity, turning their lasagna nights into much cooler cookouts. Senior year, he took a job at a local Auburn restaurant, the Amsterdam Café. “I jumped into a world of death-metal music and guys covered in tattoos and sporting  long ponytails,” says David. “I was not the norm at the joint, but I stuck with it. I had my role carved out.”

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Within a year, David was promoted to executive chef. His first order of business was getting rid of frozen fish. “I started offering fresh fish, and the customers noticed,” says David. “I didn’t have formal training, but I had training from Grandpa, and that took me further than training in a professional kitchen.”

David next began transitioning to local ingredients, and the restaurant started booming. He helped Amsterdam Café expand and start a catering program. “I watched the business go through an evolution in which I could spearhead everything. I was able to return to this farm culture that I was used to. The owners gave me the keys and let me go,” he says. “I can never pay back the experience that gave me.”

Then came Acre. “I don’t think I would have been able to see the end zone the way I saw it without my grandparents,” David says. “It would have been a vision without a path. That experience with Grandpa, watching the fish market turn into a restaurant— it gave me a path.”

It sounds simple now, but in 2008, farm-to-table was a challenge. There was no fresh food scene in Auburn. There was no one looking at restaurants and asking how to make food local and fresh until David channeled his grandfather, shrugged his shoulders, and says, “Let’s do it.”