Cooks don’t have a tendency to stay round lengthy within the fashionable American restaurant scene, the place ladder-climbing seems to be extra rewarding than loyalty. However the longevity of Chef Jason Paluska is why The Lark stays a darling of the Santa Barbara culinary scene, a full decade after he was a part of the workforce that opened this Funk Zone hotspot and fueled the seaside neighborhood’s ongoing maturation.
“One factor that stands out about The Lark is the massive coronary heart the workforce brings to it on daily basis,” mentioned Sherry Villanueva, who left her company advertising profession to open the restaurant in 2013, then went on to open a number of eateries and inns below the Acme Hospitality model. “There isn’t a higher instance of that than Jason. He and Skyler Gamble have been each a part of our opening workforce, and we’d not be the place we’re with out them.”
Raised in Houston, Paluska was lured to Santa Barbara (a metropolis he didn’t know) after years of sharpening his expertise in San Francisco (a metropolis he cherished). He’s since change into ingrained in the neighborhood, elevating twin 8-year-old daughters collectively together with his spouse in Carpinteria.
We spoke for almost an hour on the telephone not too long ago, and Jason was as considerate, eloquent, and reflective as ever. I’ll principally let his personal phrases do the speaking right here.
On coming to S.B.: It felt like a large threat. I had loads of stability residing in San Francisco, and I wasn’t in search of to get out as a result of I used to be considerably obsessive about it. I grew up in Houston, which is just about the exact opposite of San Francisco. It simply clicked with me on a distinct degree.
Discovering out about The Lark undertaking was out of nowhere. I assumed that possibly this was my likelihood to dwell in a quintessentially Californian place. Being from Texas, you’re at all times searching for the postcard.
I had solely visited Santa Barbara as soon as prior, and it simply didn’t look like an actual place for me to land. It was virtually an excessive amount of of a postcard, the place the ATM seems to be like a vacation spot in itself. I used to be actually overwhelmed.
We didn’t anticipate it being that busy. It’s such an enormous restaurant. I keep in mind going to the Hungry Cat earlier than we opened to see what individuals advised me was the preferred restaurant on the time. If that is as busy because it will get, and there are like 35 individuals in right here, how are we gonna fill rooms this massive? I began to get fairly nervous about it.
So it was undoubtedly dangerous for me to leap straight out and probably not know if there was something to catch me. It was a leap of religion. However I related with Sherry instantly in our first dialog. I favored her as an individual. I trusted her as a result of she was so well-spoken and clever.
On sustained success: I don’t have ego with regard to who I’m. I don’t put on a chef’s coat with my title embroidered on it to inform individuals who I’m. That doesn’t matter to me. Are we related? Are we good at what we do? Are we happy with what we do? That’s how I’ve at all times measured success.
Ten years in the past on paper appears like an actual very long time, however I’m nonetheless so invested and related to it. I’ve grown to like and respect the place I’m at utterly. I used to be eager for San Francisco once I first arrived, however the longer you keep right here, you actually get to know the rationale why so many individuals search out to be right here. It goes past sunny days.
On the Funk Zone’s evolution: Every day that I drive to work, I’ll park and spot that one thing has gone up or modified. Sherry had this cool imaginative and prescient and he or she was attempting to get everybody on board. It’s actually difficult to get individuals to consider when it’s simply an concept on paper. It wasn’t just like the neighborhood made me nervous, nevertheless it undoubtedly wasn’t tremendous engaging from a bodily standpoint.
Once we first opened, I acquired pulled over by the police a handful of occasions as I used to be leaving work tremendous late in the course of the evening. “Why are you on this neighborhood?” they’d ask. Leaving work at 2 a.m. within the morning is quite common in eating places, nevertheless it was awkward. “Right here’s my enterprise card. Right here’s my knife roll.” That was the state of issues again then.
On their service: We’re taking part in to an enormous viewers, and we need to make sure that all the pieces we’re doing is tremendous tight and well-rehearsed. We don’t need to be winging any element in any respect. I’ve by no means as soon as regarded on the restaurant and mentioned, “Okay, right now’s a straightforward day. Let’s name it early.” We go above and past on daily basis as a result of we actually take pleasure in what we do.
On the menu: In the course of the first six months of the menu, I used to be kind of mimicking issues that different cooks had proven me in San Francisco. It was my first government chef job. I used to be 31 once we opened, so my identification wasn’t my very own.
The menu has stayed, for probably the most half, fairly constant. We’ve stayed as hyper-seasonal as we will. However I’ve had a few tremendous artistic individuals within the kitchen, and I allow them to train their creativity and contribute to the menu. I need to make sure that individuals in these positions really feel like they’ve a method to contribute to what we’re doing.
Once I write menu objects, I begin with a clean piece of paper and crunch my mind ’til one thing comes out. If I learn a cookbook or am on social media too lengthy, I’ll simply take in one thing else. I don’t need that to be the character of what we do. I do know meals isn’t wildly unique in any capability, however I just like the concepts to really feel like they got here from someplace private.
I’m attempting to maintain the meals a little bit easier, the plating a little bit easier. We’ve acquired smoked ribs and potato salad on the menu with a caramelized peach glaze. It’s probably the most trustworthy factor I’ve ever placed on a menu. It’s as apparent because it will get. All of the culinary faculty, fantastic eating methods are there to make one thing so simple as that. When individuals join with a well-recognized factor and it’s achieved nicely, they’ll come again.
On S.B.’s rising culinary star: The key is out on Santa Barbara. It was solely a matter of time. The pandemic pushed individuals out of cities and had them wanting elsewhere to dwell and thrive. Culinarily, it’s cool to see individuals transfer right here and to lift the bar so excessive. I like that Bell’s acquired the Michelin star and put the Central Coast of California on a nationwide scale. When eating places elevate and actually push their very own bar, it pushes everybody else round them. That’s a extremely good thing.
I’ve at all times been excited and impressed by individuals who need to work as laborious as they’ll to do what they’re doing. That turns into an power that’s instilled within the meals scene and shared between eating places.
On cooking with Nancy Silverton: Some of the influential meals I’ve ever had in my life was consuming at Mozza. When she and Michael Cimarusti got here to cook dinner dinner with me right here in February 2020, I’d by no means felt so Wayne’s World we’re-not-worthy. This dinner is donating again to the James Beard Basis as a result of they’re so invested in all the pieces we help. It’s such an honor.
The Lark’s Anniversary Dinner
To have fun its 10-year anniversary, The Lark is internet hosting a $250 dinner on Thursday, August 24, at 5:30 p.m., ready by Chef Jason Paluska and well-known Los Angeles restaurateur Nancy Silverton, with wines chosen by famous person sommelier Caroline Styne. See thelarksb.com for data and reservations.