Many chefs tell stories of learning the basics of their trade while spending countless hours in the comfort of a warm kitchen watching their moms or grandmas create everything from Sunday night dinners to chocolate chip cookies. But that’s not the case for The Spoon Trade’s executive chef Jacob Town, 40, who jokes he learned to cook because he wanted to eat good food.
“I always say I became a cook because of my mom’s lack of ability to cook,” Town said from the Grover Beach-based restaurant he co-owns and runs with his wife, Brooke, 39. “I grew up eating Hungry Man (frozen) dinners and fast food, microwaved quesadillas and microwaved hot dogs,” said Town, a Santa Maria native. “You know, really cheap food because my mom just didn’t cook. So I think out of necessity to actually have somewhat of a quality meal, I kind of took (cooking) on.”
Today, the Towns strive to serve high-quality comfort food—everything from tri-tip tartare and Ramen bowls made with bone broth that simmers for 36-hours to cheeseburgers served on fresh, house-made sourdough buns and fried chicken and waffles.
Born in Santa Maria in 1979, Town said he knew from an early age he would someday be the chef of his own restaurant; his wife not so much, though Brooke often played “restaurant” as a kid.
“We’d make something, my mom would sit down and we’d serve it to her,” Brooke recalled.
Although Brooke never planned on becoming a restaurateur during her younger days of playtime with her girlfriend or even prior, she says now, “It’s funny because I look back and I was always sitting on my dad’s bar eating cherries and Cheetos and drinking orange juice, being the keg master. But back then, probably not.”
It wasn’t until she and Town met almost 20 years ago in May of 1999 while helping open Pismo Beach’s Cracked Crab that she knew being restaurant owners was in the couple’s future.
“We were basically the first employees ever hired at that restaurant,” Town said. “I cooked the first meal—a bucket (of crab)—and she served the first bucket. I got my inspiration to be a chef … from working at the Cracked Crab. And it inspired us to want to do what we do now.”
The Towns were married in 2006 and opened The Spoon Trade in August of 2015, after many years of working in some of San Francisco’s top restaurants, including Gary Danko and Nopa, and following a trip across the United States in a vintage VW bus. The young couple moved to San Francisco about two years after meeting so Town could attend culinary school and Brooke art school at San Francisco State University. After finishing their respective programs, Brooke took a job at a local gallery and Town started down the road to becoming an executive chef.
“We were on our way,” Town said of the couple’s relocation to the city by the bay so many years ago that also led them full circle, back to where they are today.
Brooke was born in Colorado. Her family moved to California when she was young, relocating to San Luis Obispo County. She attended Judkins Middle School in Pismo Beach and graduated from Arroyo Grande High School. Town attended numerous elementary and middle schools from Santa Maria to Orcutt and Lompoc to Vandenberg. He also spent a year of high school in Oregon, graduating from San Luis Obispo High School. His parents were divorced at a young age and he bounced around quite a bit as his mother moved from one town to another, he said.
After finishing culinary school and an internship at the Napa-based La Toque, Town was offered a full-time sous chef position at the establishment. The couple relocated to the wine country as the offer from La Toque was too good to turn down, Town said.
“We were adulting for the first time,” Brooke joked about the relocation to Napa, where they rented a two-bedroom house and she got much of her front-of-the-house training while working for a corporate-based dining house there.
The couple only stayed in Napa for about a year before moving back to the city in 2006 as they both missed the hustle and bustle
“The city was where we wanted to be,” he said.
Back in the city, Town accepted a line cook position at Gary Danko, one of the city’s top restaurants, which he said was an invaluable learning experience. He was allowed to create dishes that were put on the menu and also promoted to a management position. He stayed there for two years.
“I put seven to 10 dishes on the menu at one of the city’s best restaurants as a 20-year-old. That was incredible for me,” Town said. “There was a lot of structure (at Gary Danko) so it also taught me how to think inside the box. It was a good stepping stone for learning food in a high-stress and structured, sometimes nasty, male-dominated, kill-or-be killed environment, something that I am not.”
During their years in San Francisco, the Towns also worked at other high-end, fine-dining establishments such as Rubicon, RN74, Piccino and Spruce in Pacific Heights. Town always worked the back of the house and his wife, who left the art world for a food-and-beverage career, at the front. Brooke gained much of her front-of-the-house experience while working for seven years at San Francisco’s Nopa, where she was hired as a floor manager.
“It was everything,” she said of the experience where she learned about community, hospitality, respect, organics, natural wine and so much more before making the decision to leave it all behind.
Town’s grandmother, who lived in Lompoc, passed away several years ago and he inherited one-third of her estate, which he said wasn’t millions of dollars but enough money to allow himself and Brooke to take a break from their 12- to-14-hour-a-day jobs and re-evaluate life.
The couple decided to “shut down their lives a little bit,” Town said, giving notice at their jobs, putting everything they owned in storage and moving back to the Five Cities, where they planned a four-month trip across the United States.
“We stayed everywhere from Walmart parking lots to penthouses in Boston, and we did whatever we wanted, which was pretty incredible,” Town said, noting that during their journey across the country, they studied American food.
The Towns visited 28 states in those four months, chalking up 10,500 miles of open road in the process and lots of meal stops in between.
“We ate fried chicken and barbecue,” Town added. “We ate anything and everything.”
Upon completing the cross-country culinary journey, the couple began scouting locations for their restaurant, which aims to produce naturally sourced and sustainable food and drink, eventually settling on Grover Beach. They made the decision to open their restaurant locally, knowing there was a connection in San Luis Obispo County that they wouldn’t have had in other locations.
“We knew we had at least some connection with the community,” Town said, “where it wouldn’t be just going somewhere and starting from scratch.”
The Towns pride themselves on having created a gathering space for the community with The Spoon Trade, where what comes out of the kitchen is in no way cookie cutter food, and the work is really hard but rewarding.
“We are changing the face of the neighborhood,” Town said. “Not necessarily because we wanted to do it at the beginning, but because we have to now.”
“My analogy is I’m riding a roller coaster without the seat belt on,” Brooke said. “I’m on the ride and I am not getting off. Sometimes it’s really fun and sometimes you go down that dip and you’re like, ‘Holy (crap) I am going to die.’”
The Towns also recently opened a bakery, Grover Beach Sourdough, across the street from their restaurant. The bakery is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week and located at 236 W. Grand Ave.
“People wanted bread. They wanted to buy bread, and we couldn’t make enough bread to sell extra, so we always considered (opening a bakery),” Town said. “Everything that we do at the bakery, we already did here.”
The Spoon Trade is located at 295 W. Grand Ave. and serves dinner nightly from 4 to 9 p.m. Brunch is served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends. Reservations are available on a limited basis. Call (805) 904-6673 for more information.