Ingredients for life: David Mahler creates a new recipe for his life, work

November 2012 Posted in Food & Drink, People
David Mahler

David Mahler

By Kristine Thomas

Brimming with energy and enthusiasm, David Mahler eagerly shares the details of how he decided to write a cookbook based on the cuisine he created while living in Costa Rica.

It’s not until he’s midway through his story he happens to mention he was knocking on death’s door at the time. An addiction to alcohol caused Mahler’s health to plummet. He had to start his day with a drink.

He realized he had to conquer the addiction or die. He’s been sober for five years.

Mahler will share his story on writing a cookbook Thursday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m. with the Silver Falls Library Writers’ Group. At 7:30 p.m. he will share photographs and stories of living in Costa Rica. The events are free and open to the public.

Today he says he’s not the same man he was five years ago when he decided to end his long and tumultuous relationship with alcohol. He used to start and end his day with a a couple ounces of vodka.

Chef of the Jungle
Silver Falls Library
410 S. Water., Silverton
Nov. 15, 7 p.m. – Writers’ Group
7:30 p.m. – Costa Rica travelog

His journey from growing up in the San Francisco Bay area to now living in Scotts Mills with his fiancée has its share of dead ends and new beginnings.

Laughing, he said not many people can say their first job became their lifetime career.

When he was 16, he asked his parents for a car. Their response was “get a job”, so he started washing dishes at a steak house.

On his third day at work, the cook quit and the owner told Mahler he was now a cook.

“I love to feed people,” he said. “For me, it’s something spiritual and soulful. Cooking is my passion, my art.”

He continued working in restaurants while attending UC Berkeley until he dropped out his junior year in 1971 to work full time in restaurants. He learned to cook by listening to and learning from the chefs he worked with in top restaurants in Boston, Los Angeles, Manhattan, Austin, Cape Cod and San Francisco. He studied classic French cookbooks and took a pastry class but it was his curiosity and passion for his profession that inspired him.

“I loved to travel and I loved to cook and I could travel to a new town and get a job,” he said, adding he worked at some of the finest restaurants in the United States.

In 2004, he was working in San Francisco and walking across the street when he was hit by a car.

“My entire left side was damaged,” he said. Next came the surgeries and rehabilitation. The accident left him depressed and he turned to alcohol, drugs and prescriptions to subdue his pain.

A friend threw him a lifeline when he invited Mahler to work at his restaurant in Costa Rica.

“I was fed up with life in general and needed something new,” he said. “I went to Costa Rica and knew I wanted to get out of San Francisco.”

While he loved his job and working in Costa Rica, he said living on the tropical island exposed his unhealed wounds. At every turn, he said, there was an opportunity to party.

“People would ask me all the time to have a drink with them,” he said, adding he started his day with four to five ounces of vodka. Drinking led to him losing his job.

Fortunately, he said, a friend took him to see a doctor who put him in an Alzheimer’s care facility for 30 days. He recalls going through  withdrawal symptoms  during a Christmas party.

“I entered the Alzheimer’s home in Costa Rica because after searching high and low, my doctor could not find me a room in a hospital,” Mahler said. “It wasn’t his first choice, and certainly not my own choice. It turned out well, however.”

After leaving Costa Rica, he went to Austin where the first thing he did was admit himself into an AA-sponsored treatment center called Austin Recovery.  “I stayed in the treatment center for 30 days before I moved into the ‘sober house.’ ”

In Austin, he attended Alcoholics Anonymous, “a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and helps others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” reads a statement on AA’s web page.

He found a job making sandwiches at Whole Foods. “I have had some good lessons in humility,” he said.

When the opportunity presented itself to return to Costa Rica and work at an eco-lodge called, “La Cusinga,” Mahler took it with the determination to create his own cuisine using local ingredients.

“Most of what was served in hotels was hotel food and the locals ate mostly rice and beans,” he said.

Mahler developed relationships with farmers. He worked with a goat owner to create cheeses and visited farmers’ markets eager to discover ingredients that would allow him to cook local. He bought fish off the docks and visited organic farms.

“I knew the names of the dogs and the children of the man I purchased my poultry from,” he said. “I didn’t serve anything that I didn’t know who grew it or who raised it.”

Each night, he served around 40 people a four- to five-course meal. “I never repeated a course,” he said. “If a guest came for a week, they never had the same meal.”

Guests at the lodge asked for the recipes and encouraged him to write a cookbook, which he did, called Cooking at La Cusinga with the Chef of the Jungle.

Creating the cookbook was a lesson in perseverance. He finally decided to self-publish. Despite the recipes jungle beginnings, Mahler said all the ingredients in the cookbook can be purchased in Oregon.

The journey from Costa Rica to Scotts Mills started as he was walking in the jungle wondering about the whereabouts of his first love. When he was 17 years old, he fell in love with a girl whose family went to the same resort every summer.

“She was the first love of my life,” he said. “She stayed in my mind as the ideal person.”

In 2010, he found her on Facebook, which she had just signed up for four days earlier. She was single.

He and Kathy began corresponding. He visited her in Scotts Mills. She visited him in Costa Rica. Then he moved to Scotts Mills in March 2011. They are now engaged.

He works Willabys Catering in Salem.

Without the support of his family and friends, Mahler knows his life would have taken a different course.

“There have been some magical figures in my life who have helped me along the way,” he said. He adds he’s grateful for every day and every opportunity.

“I knew it was in me to do to more but I was stifled by drinking,” he said. “I had not taken advantage of the skills God gave me. I am grateful for this second chance.”

David Mahler is selling signed and numbered copies with personal inscriptions of his cookbook for $20 (in person) and for $24 by mail. Contact him at chefofthejungle@yahoo.com

  1. One Response to “Ingredients for life: David Mahler creates a new recipe for his life, work”

  2. By barbara may on Nov 11, 2012

    Lynda forwarded me your wonderful letter from facebook and as she was home from Australia several months ago your name and other neighbors in the Glenside area came up. So glad you are doing well.
    Keep it up. Don and his wife have celebrated their 20+ birthdays with AA and I know it is not easy. Good luck etc. Barbara May

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