Chef Cindy Black. Photography by Fran Collin

Chef Cindy Black

Night and Day

Read what Chef Cindy Black has been up to since 2013

Since childhood, Cindy Black has enjoyed baking. She credits her grandparents for teaching her how to bake with logic and intuition and without measuring ingredients. She’s also been a night owl, and on those nights she was up late as a youngster, she’d bake to while away the time.

Rather than wake her parents in the night with her kitchen noise, she’d take her prep work out into the yard; estimating portions and mixing the dough with water from the garden hose were among other “make-dos” to fit the conditions she was working in.

That sort of creativity has flowed into her current business with the Blue Owl, although she doesn’t get her water from a hose anymore. Cindy started her late-night eatery as a simple pop-up within the Zen Yai kitchen, resulting in surprisingly minimal start-up costs. And she ran it on weekends in a very DIY fashion. She ran the kitchen, service and order taking herself, with one friend watching the front long enough to call to her that customers were approaching. Perhaps you remember those times, rolling out of Velvet Jones, looking for a snack, and finding a somewhat shy but confident woman in the doorway of Zen Yai, with a flop of curly brown hair covering one eye, while the other is looking straight at you, and she’s patiently taking your booze-addled order for Thai Basil Tri-tip Sandwich or Porkducken.

Cindy may not be a Santa Barbara native, but her formal training and industry work is locally grown. She moved to Santa Barbara in 2003 and enrolled in SBCC’s School of Culinary Arts, completing the coursework and taking her first job at a local catering company. This job helped shape her range of professional expertise. She moved into pastry chef work at fine restaurants in Santa Barbara, including the Wine Cask and San Ysidro Ranch, but it was her time in catering that gave her the push to start her own business.

She quit her job and moved in with her sister to save money. She called some family to scrape together a couple thousand dollars. And within just two weeks, she opened her pop-up called the Blue Owl inside Zen Yai in downtown Santa Barbara.

Slow, organic growth sits comfortably with Cindy. She courted the downtown clubs with her delicious Asian-fusion sandwiches and fried rice. Soon she had a following from diners seeking late-night nosh that was not only very tasty but sourced locally and organically where possible. Cindy has a deeply held belief that food can be delicious as well as ethically sourced, approachable and affordable.

Now with her own location downtown on West Canon Perdido, and serving both daytime and nighttime crowds, it is a challenge to compete with other daytime restaurants that provide cheap sandwiches with mass-produced meat and non-organic produce. But business is growing as more people discover her ingredients come from the local food community.

She is taking a new approach to feeding her customers with a new sandwich line called Stankwiches. These have a primary ingredient that is fermented, like bok choy or cabbage kimchee and cheese. They are tangy, creamy, tasty and practically meat-free. While Cindy loves meat, she is conflicted about animal suffering. It is not enough to source locally and ethically—which is quite expensive—she wants to continue using meat, but as an accompaniment rather than a feature. Her occasional Sunday evening soup dinners may be primarily wholesome vegetables and grains, but the broth is a heady pork base, full of the umami we all crave. Her curry is vegan, with fine crisp-tender vegetables. Still, her curry and sandwiches are under $10.

What keeps Cindy motivated in the local restaurant scene? First, it’s the community that has rallied around her, from the pop-up days to her current Canon Perdido location. No matter if drunken revelers nick her silverware, her loyalty to the supporters who helped make her successful keeps her going. She also has a deep love her for dog, Hambone. When the Blue Owl has enough cash flow that she can hire additional management, she’ll have more time to spend with her pet, which is a bond as strong as family. And when the Blue Owl can be fully managed by her staff, she’d like to hold pop-ups in other cities, possibly New York.

Meanwhile, she continues her 4am weekend work shifts as well as her lunchtime service. She co-hosts pop-ups around town, and select Blue Owl sandwiches are also sold at the Santa Barbara Bowl. But does she have any special requests? Why, yes: Keep the late-night drunk chanting down, she says with a smile, we want to be able to deliver food orders fast, and people want to eat with a little peace.


Read what Chef Cindy Black has been up to since 2013

Rosminah Brown is a Santa Barbara native who types fast and eats slow. She once jumped in the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. She is still upset that JR’s BBQ closed. You can read her blog at Gutfud.com.

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