A Hunger for Knowledge

Photo by Johnson Kam

Mia Pollini
Staff Writer

While sitting down on the third floor of the UCSB Library, Thomas Lytel-Stark takes off his blue striped scarf, folds it, and places it neatly on the table. With his bag on the table as well (which he’s had for 15 years) and his grey Kangol bucket hat coupled with a dark gray overcoat, Lytel-Stark is an interesting combination of charming and intimidating.

Without hesitation, Lytel-Stark is warm and open as he launches into his life story, something that native Californians (especially ones under 20) aren’t super familiar with.

“I give people a lot of credit,” Lytel-Stark said in response to my quizzical look. “I was born in Tennessee — people don’t usually make quick judgement about one another there.”

Lytel-Stark was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Sep. 19. Currently, he is a non-traditional, third year transfer student in his 50s majoring in communication and minoring in history.

Before studying at UCSB, Lytel-Stark worked for the engineering department of a structural steel company — for twenty years. Lytel-Stark said that as the economy started “going in the toilet,” his 55 hours at the steel company were cut down to 40.

As he found himself with 15 free hours, Lytel-Starkwent to the Columbia College Culinary School two to three days a week, driving about 50 miles away from his home in Modesto. In the sixth round of the company’s layoffs, Lytel-Stark was on the chopping block. Fortunately, he already started to reinvent himself, getting in contact with a headhunter and ending up in Modesto.

Modesto is just the most recent of many habitats Lytel-Stark has thrived in. At age 17, he moved from his hometown, Chattanooga, to Alexandria, Virginia, before having a “fast-paced” life in Camden, New Jersey until moving back to Chattanooga for a bit. Then, he went to Nashville where he lived with his uncle before some time in Georgia. After Georgia came Madison, Tennessee. And then Kentucky. Then Modesto. And now Santa Barbara.

When I commented on how much he’s moved around, he chuckled and said, “I have the dented furniture to prove it.”

Any time Lytel-Stark visits a new place, he goes to the library and the post office because “those are the places steeped in that area’s history.” Plus, Lytel-Stark enjoys research and reading. He considers himself an astute and curious learner, a skill he said he developed later in his life.

Going back to when he was 18, Lytel-Stark delved into his high school days. While he attended a comprehensive high school that was more vocationally focused, Lytel-Stark had two to three hours of a certain shop (drafting, electricity, ect.) along with his regular classes. When he got to his senior year, Lytel-Stark worked with a concrete forms company. With his own money, Lytel-Stark believed that he was on top of the world. “Thinking that I knew it all was probably the worst thing in the world,” Lytel-Stark said.

Flash-forward twenty years to Lytel-Stark losing his job at the steel company. He said something that completely encapsulates his thorough, well-spoken, soft, and sturdy essence. “I could say I have regrets, but I look at it as an experience,” Lytel-Stark said. 

Most recently, Lytel-Stark attended Modesto Junior College for three years and transferred to UCSB last year. Lytel-Stark lives with four roommates in Isla Vista and works for Special Events Catering. They provide lunch and dinner for different faculty, clubs, or societies who may be interested in their services. There was a pause in our conversation as Lytel-Stark scrolled through the photos on his phone and pulled up images of mouthwatering food.

Lytel-Stark recently considered working for a program that goes and makes lunches for kids two to three times a week but thought better of it. “I didn’t go to culinary school to feed children hamburgers,” he said. 

Lytel-Stark’s passion for cooking is apparent, and he tenderly explained that his grandma had a garden the size of half a basketball court. She taught Lytel-Stark to cook at age 8. In fact, Lytel-Stark owns 176 cookbooks (12 are vegetarian and vegan focused).

Throughout his years of traveling and growing, Lytel-Stark met different people in different areas, and it seems to all come back to the same thing for him: food. And while he’s great at feeding the people around him, Lytel-Stark himself is arguably hungry himself — for knowledge and for experience.