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James Sly was famous as the proprietor of Sly’s in Carpinteria, but he was equally well-regarded as a computer and automotive guy, part of a large circle of “gearheads” who met regularly for brunch at Sly’s to talk cars. | Credit: Paul Wellman/file photo

James Sly: 1952–2019

It’s been said that James Sly pioneered or cooked at the trifecta of great Santa Barbara eateries: El Encanto, Lucky’s, and his own Sly’s in Carpinteria. Though James was known for food, he was also known for computers and cars ​— ​specifically Apple and Volkswagen. He was so smart; he was our Google before there was a Google.

James had a huge respect for the raw ingredients he worked with, and he tried to let their qualities shine through in dishes he called “tired old favorites,” like scalloped potatoes and creamed corn, both crazy popular at Sly’s. Our menu was the result of over 50 years in various kitchens, restaurants, hotels, and private homes. He had huge respect for his staff, too, training each dishwasher to step up to the next job. James collected friends and discarded none.

I met James at an event for the American Institute of Wine & Food, which was started by Julia Child and Robert Mondavi. James was cooking at the truffle station. We went out and a couple of months later decided to take summer jobs in Nantucket at the Summer House. He cooked a couple of things for me, and they were outstandingly delicious, but mostly we went out. He realized that the Summer House was at a far end of the island and people might not want to go that far. He decided to invite all the taxi drivers on the island to the Summer House for a dessert buffet. He pulled out all the stops and created an unforgettable, incredible dessert buffet. Needless to say, every driver recommended the Summer House after that.

James loved the challenge of solving problems. People would call to ask him questions. He was so well read and so smart he almost always had correct answers. He was interested in everything and was a sponge for knowledge. He was technology editor for European Car magazine, and before that, VW and Porsche. He wrote the how-to articles: how to make your car go faster, how to make it handle better.

In 1989, James became Mr. James Apple Computer, his friend Michael Hutchings says: “He persuaded me to computerize Michael’s Waterside, and all of a sudden, I had three Macintosh computers. Under his tutorial umbrella, we would sometimes see the sun come up after a night on the computers. It was fueled by Armagnac. James helped many people learn the magic.”

He loved to share his problem-solving ability and had the knack of making people feel good about themselves. His young friend Sydney Eilbacher was 9 when he gave her a Swiss Army Knife after he saw her making something out of the bamboo in our backyard. “This man got a 13-year-old girl excited about a box of socket wrenches,” Sydney, who is now 23, exclaimed at James’s memorial service. She compared him to the Law of the Conservation of Energy, saying with feeling that she knew his energy was still around, that not a bit of him was gone, “just a bit less orderly.”

James was born in Fullerton, as was his mother, Pat, whose father was foreman at the Bastanchury Ranch. He was called “Jim” back then, his childhood friend Roger Yount says. The boys and James’s sister, Catherine, grew up among the orange groves and fields of mustard. I’ll let Roger describe James’s remarkable parents, who were happily married for 50 years: 

“Patricia Sly had a special blend of practicality, purpose, mechanical savvy ​— ​and creativity, artistic ability, travel lust, ever ready to encourage others to try anything and believe it possible. James battled bouts of croup as a child, and Pat sat bedside with him. When the vaporizer blew up, she and Jim spent days in the bathroom with the shower running for its steam. She was always there to take Jim to the library and then go back to the library and then back to the library again.

“Like Jim, his dad, Clarence, was a how-to guy. The Slys liked to camp, and when their friends bought a 16-foot Shasta trailer, Mr. Sly built a popup trailer ​— ​from the axle up. The parents would sleep in the trailers, and the kids got the tents outside. Jim said it wouldn’t be strange for his dad to take a week inventing and crafting a tool for a job that took only 10 minutes to do. Clarence was always Jim’s encourager.”

James’s dad taught him a tremendous amount about cars, woodworking, metalworking, and fixing everything — and he also taught James to be generous with his time, energy, and talents. James used to say he couldn’t stand if something was broken. He had to fix it. It was a Sly thing.

James attended Cal State Fullerton and graduated with a degree in linguistics. He was fluent in French and Spanish, and he could get by in German and Italian. During his junior year in college, Sly and his friend James Hayden signed on a ship and traveled to South America. He’d been cooking for a crew refurbishing a ship that was going to retrieve old phone cables for their copper off the bottom of the ocean. One day, the Clanaca, a 300-foot Swiss frozen-hold freighter came to port and was looking for cabin boys. Sly and Hayden were able to get passports at the Fed building in L.A. in just six hours and went to sea. The ship passed through the Panama Canal and came up to Puerto Rico. The two had had their fill by that time, took their pay, and spent time in Puerto Rico before making it back to Southern California. James went on to graduate with his class, taking 21 units and working as well.

Michael Hutchings spoke at James’s memorial, remembering their meeting in 1974 at Chez Cary, a deluxe restaurant in Orange County: “James was a handsome, mustachioed young man. He was a wit, even then.” For the next few years, James and Michael traded jobs or worked together at Southern California restaurants: “We chatted about his working apprentice trip to the Hotel de Paris and the Ritz in Paris. I was blown away with the knowledge he gained: foie gras, tiny French beans with the flowers still on them, the variety of seafood from the Mediterranean, wild mushrooms from the local forest.”

Many chefs that James worked under influenced him tremendously. He learned you can use the best quality ingredients and still charge fair prices. He learned that working in a European kitchen with 50 cooks is not the same as trying to run a business in the States.

James ran a kitchen a bit differently than most. He did not hire cooks for the hot line. He hired dishwashers and moved them up ​— ​his first restaurant experience had been washing dishes at a Marie Callender’s at age 15. Each person in the kitchen was trained to do their job and the next level job, too. If someone left, everyone could move up a position. James taught not just cooking, but life lessons as well. He was a father figure to many; he mentored chefs who now work all over Santa Barbara. He delighted in taking people under his wing, teaching them, and watching them succeed.

After Nantucket and the Summer House in ’Sconset, James was recruited to open the 1789 when the Clyde’s Group bought and remodeled it. The Desert Princess in Palm Springs was next, then Charlie’s at Hyatt Grand Champions. When the El Encanto offered him a job, we jumped at the chance to come back to Santa Barbara. We ended up living in Carpinteria by accident and fell in love with the town. We were delighted to open Sly’s in Carp on August 8, 2008, after seven successful years at Lucky’s. He felt tremendous appreciation for everyone, at the front and back of the house, who made success possible. He always put “Chef James Sly and Brigade” on the menu to share the spotlight.

James would say, “Life is good until it isn’t.” On August 13, he texted Hutchings: “Never a dull moment. Found blockage in my brain. Many tests today. How much salmon do you need?” He’d had a stroke, but his last week was a gift. It gave us a chance to say goodbye. That Friday night, shortly before 11 p.m., James, still not alone, let go of this life.

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