Many chefs have worked and lived in Calistoga over the years, but none has had the impact of Brandon Sharp, former executive chef at the Solage resort’s Solbar Restaurant. Now Sharp has left Solbar and will be moving to North Carolina, where he will be taking over the role of executive chef at the historic Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill. Sharp will keep his ownership stake in another Calistoga restaurant, Evangeline.
“The tug of home was getting strong,” said Sharp. “So my family and I are moving back to my home state and I’ll be working at a place that I’ve wanted to work at since attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But I’ll still be involved locally, coming back a few times a year to work with my friends and business partners at Evangeline.”
Sharp’s departure represents a real loss to both Calistoga and the broader Napa Valley, which is losing a culinary visionary whom Michael Bauer, the influential restaurant reviewer at the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote had finally brought the first destination restaurant to Calistoga since Jan Birnbaum closed Catahoula in early 2004. Bauer may have forgotten to mention the many other culinary institutions that have had their own special draw in Calistoga, but Sharp provided something that all the others did not: a Michelin star, which has become the litmus test for judging restaurants.
“The star was a really big deal,” Sharp said. “It was gratifying to have people come just for the food, but it provided external validation that we were legitimate and respected. The star is only one metric of success, but its impact is hard to overlook. As cooks in Calistoga, we wanted that because for years Calistoga felt brushed aside a lot of the time.”
Ironically, one of the original draws of Calistoga for Sharp was that it did not have the culinary recognition of other Napa Valley towns.
“There was very little pressure to conform,” he said. “Not being Yountville meant we had the freedom to explore, which was fantastic because when we first opened Solbar the menu was vastly different — ribs, burgers and Caesar salads — but I was given both the support and freedom to figure out exactly what seemed to work, evolving Solbar into what it is today.”
Sharp eventually created a whole new type of Napa Valley cuisine, combining farm-to-table regional ingredients with a French and southern flair.
According to Sharp, the urban myth that the Michelin star leaves with the chef is just that, a myth.
“The star stays with the institution, and there is both a system and culture in place at Solbar to ensure that quality remains intact,” he said. “In fact, I am very excited that Auberge has taken over the management of the property. Their reputation and experience will likely only enhance the experience.”
Before coming to Calistoga 10 years ago, Sharp had been the sous chef at Gary Danko in San Francisco. Before that, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Sharp had worked at the French Laundry in Yountville, Restaurant August in New Orleans and in the world-renowned Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, learning the ropes and how to conduct a star-worthy operation.
Growing up in North Carolina, Sharp’s culinary influence included eating cheese biscuits at his grandmother’s house.
“My grandmother did not make fancy food, but what she did with food was impart it with a spirit of generosity and hospitality,” he said. “Those experiences are probably where my desire to have people enjoy my food comes from.”
For new and future restaurants in Calistoga Sharp has some advice.
“Gaining the trust of the locals is critical. If they don’t support you, then what are you going to do during the slow season?” he said. “Also, new places need to be patient and build a critical mass and momentum. This can take years -- it took us three years to figure out Solbar. But the locals also need to support these businesses if they want them to stick around.
“Future demand for restaurant space will continue to rise,” he said. “With the new resorts and growing recognition it is pretty exciting to think about what Calistoga is going to become.”
Calistoga and the Napa Valley have lost a great chef. Sharp might not have been flashy, with a TV show, a trove of cookbooks or a chain of restaurants with his name on the door, but maybe that’s why his food never seemed to be about him or some ego-driven quest for ratings or status, but rather a desire to delight.
As for me, I’m happy that I’ll be able to enjoy some of Sharp’s influence through the capable hands of his business partners, Executive Chef Gustavo Rios and General Manager Sasan Nayeri at Evangeline. But I can tell you with just as much conviction that I am feeling pangs of sadness and jealousy when I think of those fortunate people in North Carolina who will now have access to a world-class chef in all the meanings of that phrase.
“At our last meeting with my crew at Solage I told them that my legacy is now done,” he said. “I told them that it is now their conviction and their effort that will retain and grow what we built. The way the chef world works is that you must stand on the shoulders of your mentors to reach new heights.”
Originally published in the Weekly Calistogan, October 2016