‘What a friend’
It was standing room only when several hundred community friends and colleagues in the culinary milieu gathered at noon Friday to celebrate the life of beloved chef James Sly at the Carpinteria Arts Center on Linden Avenue, just down the road from Sly’s restaurant, which became an institution during the 10 years he and his wife Annie owned it from 2008 to 2018.
Chef Sly died of a massive stroke at the age of 67 on Aug. 23.
Recalled Chef Michael Hutchings:
“To have his own restaurant was a lifetime dream for James, who boasted that he made ‘Tired Old Favorites.’ I was there to help with the opening night on Aug. 8, 2008, as a reciprocal gesture for his help in opening my restaurant, Michael’s Waterside, across from the Bird Refuge, in September 1984. James came up from L.A. for two weeks to help me open up. He slept on the office floor. What a friend.”
Especially popular at Sly’s were the Blue Plate Specials, a different one every night — Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes on Monday, Gumbo New Orleans Style on Tuesday, Chicken Paprika with Buttered Noodles on Wednesday, Beef Stroganoff on Thursday, Bouilliabaise on Friday, Slow-braised Short Ribs of Beef on Saturday and Old-fashioned Chicken Pot Pie on Saturday.
The two chefs were friends for 45 years, first meeting in 1974 at the Chez Cary, a deluxe restaurant in Orange County.
“James was a handsome, mustachioed young man and a wit even then. I trained him on my station as chef grillade, and I recall him reaching under my knife and getting cut. Stitches with a scar to this day. A sort of blood brother by accident,” said Mr. Hutchings.
They reconnected two years later at a food competition in the Disney Hotel, where they chatted about his working apprentice trip to France at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and the Hotel Ritz in Paris.
“I was blown away with the knowledge he gained from the experience. He waxed on about foie gras, tiny French beans with flowers still on them, the variety of seafood from the Mediterranean, wild mushrooms from the local forest. I felt like I knew nothing,” said Mr. Hutchings, who came to Santa Barbara in 1981 to work with Paul Vercammen at the Olive Mill Bistro on Coast Village Road in Montecito.
In February 1984, he chaired an event at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito for the American Institute of Wine and Food founded by Julia Child and Robert Mondavi.
“I called James and asked him to cook at the truffle station. At that event, he met Ann Pinkow. The rogue asked her out, and two months later whisked her off to work a summer job in Nantucket. A year or so later they married on his lunch break, celebrating with hot dogs, then back to work to preside in the kitchen of the 1789 Restaurant. They were both perpetually grateful for that fateful encounter,” Mr. Hutchings said.
In 1989, Mr. Sly became executive chef at El Encanto Hotel, and he and his wife moved to Carpinteria. Soon after, Mr. Hutchings discovered that computers were another skill where his friend excelled..
“I owned Michael’s Waterside then, and he persuaded me to computerize my restaurant. All of a sudden, I had three Macintosh computers and fell under his tutorial umbrella. James was a great advocate for Apple computers and helped many people learn the magic. He was Mr.
James Apple Computer. He helped numerous people navigate the complexities of Mac. We would sometimes see the sun come up after a night on the computers,” said Mr. Hutchings.
In 1999, Mr. Sly became chef/manager of Lucky’s on Coast Village Road in Montecito until he opened Sly’s in 2008.
“James was a very giving, generous person. I think he would prefer to solve some else’s challenges than his own. He lived in several worlds — as a car tech writer for VW & Porsche and European Car from the 1970s until shortly before his death. He had a large circle of ‘gearheads’ who met regularly for brunch at Sly’s to talk cars,” said Mr. Hutchings. “He was a humble, unpretentious man who did not flaunt his wide knowledge and deep intellect. The theme of our lives has been the passion for food that ran through it and his deep abiding friendship. We have been joined at the whisk over four decades.”
Julia McHugh, a public relations pro, and the Slys have been best friends for years, ever since she and Mrs. Sly were in a book club together.
“Annie and James liked to ride bikes around Carpinteria, and James got them head sets so they could talk to each other during rides. If the batteries wore out, James wanted to go home. It wasn’t fun for him if he couldn’t talk to her,” said Ms. McHugh. “Annie told me that her husband was her best friend. ‘He always made me feel good about myself. Whatever he was doing, he wanted me to be part of it. They say opposites attract, and we were different in many ways. But somehow, we went together, like peanut butter and jelly. James would wake up in the morning funny,’ according to Annie.”
The couple were married for 33 years.
Ms. McHugh said her favorite food at Sly’s were the skinny onion rings.
“He somehow managed to have them salty without being too salty. Annie said he was not a snob about anything. He was a sponge for knowledge and information. He would learn from anyone, even McDonald’s. That’s where he got the secret to the onion rings. He found out about the powdered salt they used on their fries.
“The book club had holiday dinners at Sly’s, and there would be plates of onion rings on the table for everyone to share, but then, James would send out a plate just for me, so I wouldn’t have to share my favorites.”
Ms. McHugh also recalled one night 10 years ago when she was driving back to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles, “having miserably failed an oral exam for professional accreditation.
“It was 9 p.m. so I called Annie to see if James was holding his ‘chef’s table’ in which he’d have dinner with pals in Sly’s bar. She said, ‘Come on over,’ and I did to find a plate of Spaghettini Carbonara (one of my guilty pleasures) and a glass of red wine waiting for me. I started to cry all over again. James hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, ‘You know you’ll ace it next time.’ I did.”
Tim Brown, owner of The Santa Barbara Smokehouse, came to Santa Barbara from the United Kingdom in 2000 and met Mr. Sly for the first time when he was a chef at Lucky’s.
“He was such a lovely man. When he used to cook his Yorkshire puddings for me and Diane my wife, nothing in this world came close. He is going to be missed in the community, and we are all saddened by his loss.”
John Dixon noted that Mr. Sly was a founding sponsor of The Restaurant Guy blog and supported the column during the 10 years he owned Sly’s.
“Sly would periodically send me food news tips without using his real name and is the person who, years ago, came up with the idea of using reader ‘Annie’ (his wife’s name) for all anonymous tips published in the column. Reader Annie continues to appear in The Restaurant Guy several times a month, and, each time she does, consider it a wink from James Sly.”