Chef Jackie Cooks up Latest Chapter in Remarkable Career with Jackie’s Bistro
It only takes a moment to see the distinctively different textures and themes of Jackie’s Bistro – the orange walls adorned with all manner of metallic sculptures in the shapes of sea creatures and musical creations, the soothing tones of live jazz wafting through two adjoining dining rooms, and the warm and intimate feel of the popular new St. Pete Beach establishment on Corey Avenue.
But what makes the place stand out most is its distinctively different owner, chef Jackie Smit – and her engagingly eclectic menu that draws a steady flow of locals and tourists to the spot that opened in 2013.
Jackie, a native of Long Island, has packed in enough experiences along the way to fill a book – studying at the famed C.I.A. (the Culinary Institute of America), honing her skills in European family kitchens, opening the Palace Bar and Grill on Miami’s South Beach, working with the likes of legendary chef Wolfgang Puck and restaurant/food industry guru Joyce Goldstein, continuing her chef’s journey at Windows on the World in the 1990s, and later settling in Tampa Bay to lend her expertise to such local fixtures as Bern’s, Parkshore Grill, Mazzaro’s and Madfish.
Small wonder that Jackie is indeed writing a memoir of her life in the food business, featuring a title with fitting pizzazz, “Oh, Jackie.”
She’s already completed 12 chapters, she says, but making time to write is tough given the way she has thrown herself fully into her new venture, with plans to open two spinoffs in downtown St. Petersburg (one on Beach and one on Central Avenue) and a third in South Tampa. With her place open Mondays through Saturdays every week, Smit is almost always on the job.
“I’m here to open at 10 a.m. every day and close at 11 p.m.,” she says in a native New York accent. “This is my life.”
Jackie was hooked, and she knew from then on that she was going to become a chef. Her studies at the Culinary Institute of America provided an important foundation, and paved the way to another formative experience in Europe for five years. “I worked with old ladies, grandmothers, in their kitchens and learned so much,” she explains. In Miami, the education continued. “I came up with the concept for Miami Subs, even though I didn’t get paid for it or any of the rights for it – that’s okay, it made me stronger,” she says. “Then, in 1984, I had the first restaurant on Ocean Drive in South Beach, The Palace Bar and Grill – on 12th and Ocean.”
Jackie savored her time working in San Francisco with Puck in the mid-1990s. “He was a go-getter,” she recalls. “I learned a lot from him. You learn from every chef you work with.”
That knowledge came in handy when Jackie arrived in Tampa and helped remake the menu at iconic Bern’s, broadening it beyond steak to include seafood. She added more flavorful flair at Mazzaro’s Italian Market in St. Petersburg, and was with Steve Westphal and Tyson Grant as Parkshore Grill came to life on Beach Drive.
Now, finally, she has a place that bears her own name. It started with one dining room, but in no time Jackie purchased what had been a clothing store for three decades and added a second room – dedicated to her love of jazz (and where you can often hear the superb tenor sax jazz stylings of St. Petersburg’s Henry Ashwood). The walls of both rooms feature the modern metal sculptures of an artist friend, Vincent Anthony of Redington Beach (and the décor is also for sale).
“I just got sick and tired of working for somebody else and making them money,” she says. “So this is what I had to do.”
The offerings on the varied and creative menu reflect her many influences. “I’m doing gluten-free, carb-friendly, heart healthy – and I constantly challenge myself. I change the menu every three months and just keep the food energizing and different. I don’t want to be like a beach restaurant. You won’t find seared Mahi tuna here, because everybody does that. Instead, I’ll do Mahi Napoleon – I take Portobello mushrooms and ugly tomatoes and a fresh Buffalo mozzarella, and a blackened Mahi. I do food that stands up and hollers at you. I have a macadamia nut-crusted goat cheese on a watermelon wedge that I won a competition with against 300 chefs.”
In fact, Jackie regularly competes against the chefs on the hit Food Network show Chopped – taking on the same challenges in her kitchen at home and keeping a log of what she learns a lot the way. It’s all part of the never-ending learning process for the chef who dared to dream big – and continues adding to her amazing story as she goes. See more about Jackie”s restaurant at the Beaches Visitors guide. See Jackie’s website.