The S.B. Questionnaire: John Downey

Inside the Culinary Mind of Santa Barbara’s Longtime Chef

John Downey (April 9, 2015)

For 33 years, Downey’s has defined fine dining in Santa Barbara. Just take a look at any Zagat Guide from the past couple of decades, and you’ll see that the State Street restaurant is always atop the list of best places for gourmet food and great service.

Chef and co-owner John Downey’s cuisine is unparalleled. He was born in England and, by age 19, was already cooking for Queen Elizabeth on her ocean liner. He came to Santa Barbara in 1978 with vast knowledge of English, French Nouvelle, and New American cuisine, which he decided to put to use in his namesake restaurant in 1982. His establishment is cozy and extremely personable, all overseen by John’s wife, Liz, whose friendly demeanor and vast knowledge of wine will put any diner at ease.

He stepped away from the kitchen to answer the Proust Questionnaire.

Who do you most admire?

I think that would be Chef Walter Thomas, who was my college instructor where I first started learning my trade. He had been head chef at the Savoy in London and semi-retired to teach young people how to cook. As much as I learned to cook from him, I learned integrity in the kitchen and that has been a benchmark of my successful career.

What do you like most about your job?

There are a lot of rewarding aspects of my job. First and foremost is probably the idea of actually creating something with your hands. You can check this out by asking any of the attorneys or computer programmers who have switched careers and joined the ranks in the kitchen. After I have prepared a good meal for a guest to then hear them say, “That was one of the best dinners I’ve ever had in my life.” This may be an exaggeration on their part, but it certainly is good to hear. And then there’s the excitement of running the kitchen on a busy Saturday night; it’s a bit like conducting an orchestra for an extended version of Beethoven’s Fifth, but with flames and hot pans flying around!

What is the quality you most like in people?

Integrity — because that’s how I roll. Humility also. My first job at the Marlborough Head Hotel in England was owned by an interesting couple. The lady of the house would bluster through the kitchen sometimes and make some food or other, shove it under my nose and tell me it was the best thing ever. Tell me! I have always considered it’s up to me to decide how good it was. Yes, humility is a quality I like to see.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Well, there’s a rule of thumb in the restaurant industry that says one in four make it for four years; one in 10 make it for 10 years; Downey’s has been going strong for thirty three years. I rest my case.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Okay, as corny as it sounds, when our two kids came into the world, for the first few days I was most certainly on an entirely new plane of happiness. I still have many moments like that with my family; maybe not as intense, but still very special. Sitting at the side of a Sierra lake, my wife Liz contentedly reading her book while the kids and I mess around with fishing poles…that’s pretty darn nice.

What is your greatest fear?

Dropping dead at the stove and getting hauled out of the kitchen feet first. There’s just so much more I want to do before I go! Seriously though? Plane crash wins, hands down. I’m not scared of flying though because the odds are pretty good.

What is your greatest extravagance?

After consulting with my wife Liz, I can fairly honestly say that I don’t really have an extravagance. To borrow words from Captain Barbosa in Pirates, we are but humble cooks. Aaarrr…

What is your current state of mind?

I am content. I have a great job, a great family, and a successful business that pays the bills. Okay, maybe a new Jag would be nice….

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Whiners! People who carry the world on their shoulders. People who see our successful lifestyle and say, “Must be nice.” Yes, it is nice, but success doesn’t just happen by itself. My wife and I work really hard for a lot of hours that most people never even think about. We are busy working behind the scenes doing a dozen different jobs long before we open the doors to business at 5:30 p.m.

What do you most value in friends?

I have five Facebook friends. Do they count? I have friends back in England who I have known for fifty or sixty years. We still stay in touch although we live half a world away. I know that if ever I needed help they would be there so I guess loyalty would top my list of qualities.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Probably my slouchy back. Since childhood I’ve always been relatively tall and, as a teenager, my doctor told me that I lowered my head to be closer to the level of my peers. I never got over it, but now my son has about five inches on me. So in looking up to him, maybe there’s a chance to reverse it!

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

”Pick up, table 8!” And if doesn’t happen right away and I have to repeat the phrase more than once, I have been known to add the words “Gosh Darn It” (or something similar)!

Which talent would you most like to have?

Oh yeah, this one’s easy. My alter ego would love to have me skilled as a fine woodworker. I intend to build a wooden boat one of these years and I hope that by doing odd projects around the house that I will have accrued enough skills to make it a boat that I can be proud of.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

It would be to go ‘round again! Despite what my kids think, I am so damn smart now! I would love to take these smarts back to my twenties and do it all over again.

Where would you most like to live?

Come on…this is Santa Barbara. I may not be able to see Russia from here, but at least I can see the sea. Though a second home in the Sierra Nevada might be nice; and maybe a third in Devon, England.

What is your most treasured possession?

A couple of years ago, my mother produced a treasure trove of very old small black and white photos of her young family. They are mostly little two-inch images that were probably taken with an old “Brownie” box camera. It was a Eureka moment. Despite my good intentions of making hard copies of our own digital images, it just never seems to happen. I don’t imagine our kids will stumble upon a long-forgotten back-up CD in 60 years’ time and be able to see themselves as infants. The current technology will be left behind and unreadable. Sad.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Jack Sparrow. Captain Jack Sparrow. My grandfather was named Jack and my grandmother’s maiden name was Sparrow. Don’t we all want to be a pirate sometimes?

Who makes you laugh the most?

I do! I make my family laugh too. I get, “Oh no. Here we go. Dad’s telling one of his stories.” But they always end up laughing anyway. There’s a few of the old English comedians who do it for me too. Tommy Cooper comes to mind. Also because I have so much Irish blood in my veins I can laugh about Irish jokes and still be politically correct!

On what occasion do you lie?

I recently heard on NPR that all of us lie on average 20 times a day. You see, there’s one right there. I did hear something on NPR, but honestly I don’t remember exactly how many times a day they said we all lie!

What is your motto?

I like to quote my father who used to say, “Good enough ISN’T good enough.” That’s a good rule to live by.


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