While I’ve devoted the last three years to asking taxi drivers to deliver me to their favorite places to eat, Dave Freedenberg (alias Famous Fat Dave) has spent the past seven doing restaurant reconnaissance from the front seat of a New York cab.
“Every time I drop off a fare, I always ask, ‘Where do you eat?’ Always,” he told an NPR reporter in a 2007 interview, “Let’s say I’m taking someone to 98th street and Amsterdam and I ask them where they’ve eaten. If they’ve lived there for 30 years they’re gonna know better than Frank Bruni, ya know?”
Over time, he assembled a collection of food finds so spectacular he started feeding them to family and friends.
But it was a conversation with a cab driver in Cairo, Egypt that eventually persuaded him to create the Five Borough Eating Tour on Wheels of Steel. Now the Hungry Cabbie averages four or five tours a week, and passengers in his classic Checker have included the likes of Anthony Bourdain (“He’s a total sweetie. Really gracious to fans.”).
Despite his success, there’s more to Famous Fat Dave than his cherubic smile and his gastro-adventures behind the wheel. As you might expect, he has a dazzling food pedigree, having done time as a cheese monger at Murray’s, a hot dog vendor at Nathan’s, and a pickle guy at Guss.
But how about the fact that he just finished his Master’s in Public Administration and International Economics at Columbia? “There may be a time,” he said, “When people aren’t paying me to eat.”
For Dave, “life, love, sex, death and history” all come into play in his relationship to food – and in his relationship with New York. During his first years in the city, while working toward a Bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in politics at NYU, he always assumed that he would go back to his native Maryland or settle near Washington, DC.
A summer driving a bread truck around the five boroughs changed his thinking: “I realized that I love every inch of this city. People say New York is a walking city, and it is in Manhattan. But once you get out to Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx, it’s a driving city. Nine tenths of the landmass of New York City is outside Manhattan – and there’s so much to see.”
At the end of 2001, Dave gave up the bread truck to become a yellow cab driver – and his devotion to Gotham grew more intense as he morphed into a perpetually hungry yet savvy hack, “I got to a point where I got super Zen. People say they want to be cab drivers because they want to be independent. The truth is that every asshole on the street is your boss.”
“But the cab is yours,” he went on, “When you’re in my house, you can’t mess with me. I kick people out of my cab if they’re being mean. I’m not gonna be anyone’s whipping boy.”
Could his advice be more perfectly timed for a lady cab driver in training?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the adventure with Famous Fat Dave, when we break bread at his favorite restaurant in Little Egypt, and I ask him where and what he would eat if he had only 24 hours left in New York City.
Photo courtesy of NPR