Chef Jason Paluska | Credit: Chuck Place

Chefs don’t tend to stick around long in the modern American restaurant scene, where ladder-climbing looks more rewarding than loyalty. But the longevity of Chef Jason Paluska is why The Lark remains a darling of the Santa Barbara culinary scene, a full decade after he was part of the team that opened this Funk Zone hotspot and fueled the seaside neighborhood’s ongoing maturation.

“One thing that stands out about The Lark is the big heart the team brings to it every day,” said Sherry Villanueva, who left her corporate marketing career to open the restaurant in 2013, then went on to open multiple eateries and hotels under the Acme Hospitality brand. “There is no better example of that than Jason. He and Skyler Gamble were both part of our opening team, and we would not be where we are without them.”

Raised in Houston, Paluska was lured to Santa Barbara (a city he didn’t know) after years of sharpening his skills in San Francisco (a city he loved). He’s since become ingrained in the community, raising twin 8-year-old daughters together with his wife in Carpinteria.

We spoke for nearly an hour on the phone recently, and Jason was as thoughtful, eloquent, and reflective as ever. I’ll mostly let his own words do the talking here.

On coming to S.B.:  It felt like a massive risk. I had plenty of stability living in San Francisco, and I wasn’t seeking to get out because I was somewhat obsessed with it. I grew up in Houston, which is pretty much the complete opposite of San Francisco. It just clicked with me on a different level.

Finding out about The Lark project was out of nowhere. I thought that maybe this was my chance to live in a quintessentially Californian place. Being from Texas, you’re always looking for the postcard.

I had only visited Santa Barbara once prior, and it just didn’t seem like a real place for me to land. It was almost too much of a postcard, where the ATM looks like a destination in itself. I was really overwhelmed.

We didn’t anticipate it being that busy. It’s such a big restaurant. I remember going to the Hungry Cat before we opened to see what people told me was the most popular restaurant at the time. If this is as busy as it gets, and there are like 35 people in here, how are we gonna fill rooms this big? I started to get pretty nervous about it.

So it was definitely risky for me to jump straight out and not really know if there was anything to catch me. It was a leap of faith. But I connected with Sherry immediately in our first conversation. I liked her as a person. I trusted her because she was so well-spoken and intelligent.

On sustained success:  I don’t have ego in regards to who I am. I don’t wear a chef’s coat with my name embroidered on it to tell people who I am. That doesn’t matter to me. Are we relevant? Are we good at what we do? Are we proud of what we do? That’s how I have always measured success.

Ten years ago on paper sounds like a real long time, but I’m still so invested and connected to it. I’ve grown to love and appreciate where I’m at completely. I was longing for San Francisco when I first arrived, but the longer you stay here, you really get to understand the reason why so many people seek out to be here. It goes beyond sunny days.

On the Funk Zone’s evolution:  Each day that I drive to work, I’ll park and notice that something has gone up or changed. Sherry had this cool vision and she was trying to get everyone on board. It’s really challenging to get people to believe when it’s just an idea on paper. It wasn’t like the neighborhood made me nervous, but it definitely wasn’t super attractive from a physical standpoint.

When we first opened, I got pulled over by the police a handful of times as I was leaving work super late in the middle of the night. “Why are you in this neighborhood?” they’d ask. Leaving work at 2 a.m. in the morning is very common in restaurants, but it was awkward. “Here’s my business card. Here’s my knife roll.” That was the state of things back then.

On their service:  We’re playing to a big audience, and we want to make sure everything we’re doing is super tight and well-rehearsed. We don’t want to be winging any detail at all. I’ve never once looked at the restaurant and said, “Okay, today’s an easy day. Let’s call it early.” We go above and beyond every day because we really take pride in what we do.

On the menu:  During the first six months of the menu, I was sort of mimicking things that other chefs had shown me in San Francisco. It was my first executive chef job. I was 31 when we opened, so my identity wasn’t my own.

The menu has stayed, for the most part, pretty consistent. We’ve stayed as hyper-seasonal as we can. But I’ve had a couple of super creative people in the kitchen, and I let them exercise their creativity and contribute to the menu. I want to make sure people in those positions feel like they have a way to contribute to what we’re doing.

When I write menu items, I start with a blank piece of paper and crunch my brain ’til something comes out. If I read a cookbook or am on social media too long, I’ll just absorb something else. I don’t want that to be the nature of what we do. I know food isn’t wildly original in any capacity, but I like the ideas to feel like they came from somewhere personal.

I’m trying to keep the food a little simpler, the plating a little simpler. We’ve got smoked ribs and potato salad on the menu with a caramelized peach glaze. It’s the most honest thing I’ve ever put on a menu. It’s as obvious as it gets. All the culinary school, fine dining techniques are there to make something as simple as that. When people connect with a familiar thing and it’s done well, they’ll come back.

On S.B.’s rising culinary star:  The secret is out on Santa Barbara. It was only a matter of time. The pandemic pushed people out of cities and had them looking elsewhere to live and thrive. Culinarily, it’s cool to see people move here and to raise the bar so high. I love that Bell’s got the Michelin star and put the Central Coast of California on a national scale. When restaurants elevate and really push their own bar, it pushes everyone else around them. That’s a really great thing.

I’ve always been excited and impressed by people who want to work as hard as they can to do what they’re doing. That becomes an energy that’s instilled in the food scene and shared between restaurants.

On cooking with Nancy Silverton:  One of the most influential meals I’ve ever had in my life was eating at Mozza. When she and Michael Cimarusti came to cook dinner with me here in February 2020, I’d never felt so Wayne’s World we’re-not-worthy. This dinner is donating back to the James Beard Foundation because they’re so invested in everything we support. It’s such an honor. 

The Lark’s Anniversary Dinner

To celebrate its 10-year anniversary, The Lark is hosting a $250 dinner on Thursday, August 24, at 5:30 p.m., prepared by Chef Jason Paluska and famous Los Angeles restaurateur Nancy Silverton, with wines selected by superstar sommelier Caroline Styne. See for information and reservations. 


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