Brandon Sharp, Executive Chef of Solage, Calistoga
Not everyone savors, or even appreciates, Eastern Carolina–style barbecue. Served chopped, with a thin, vinegary sauce, it is an acquired taste and is not widely prepared outside of eastern North Carolina. “It is just chopped mush,” says Brandon Sharp. Raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, he “enjoys it 100%, with an added sense of pride that no one who is not from there likes it.”
Ah, the barbecue wars. Food—style of barbecue, the best way to prepare grits, how to make a roux—is like politics in the South: Everyone has an opinion and everyone knows their way is the right way. Sharp’s position on the matter? “Eastern Carolina pork barbecue is far better than any other barbecue.”
Sharp grew up with an awareness of the power of food. “My grandfather cooked in a thankless venue,” he says: “the cafeteria for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Chapel Hill.” But every Wednesday evening, Sharp’s grandfather cooked to support the efforts of the University United Methodist Church in town. “From my grandparents, I learned to be satisfied cooking for, feeding and nourishing others,” he says.
Notwithstanding this weighty knowledge, Sharp says he did not set out to become a chef but cooked during summer breaks in college as a way to earn money. It wasn’t until after college graduation, while working in a restaurant on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, that he says he found himself drawn away from the fiction aisle to the cookbook aisle of the local bookstore.
Eventually, he ended up enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. It was during that time that he says a cookbook provided his real “eureka” moment. While flipping through Georges Perrier’s 1997 Le Bec-Fin, “I saw a veal chop photo with peas and veal jus. No flowers, no garnish, just three perfect things—and it can be haute cuisine. I nearly fell over,” Sharp said.
Terrell Brunet, an instructor (and Louisianan) at the CIA, confirmed the concept. “He taught me that it is not what you add to a dish but what you take away,” said Sharp.
After culinary school, Sharp headed west to become Thomas Keller’s chef de partie at the French Laundry. Returning to the South, Sharp learned contemporary French cooking with a Southern accent at John Besh’s Restaurant August in New Orleans before returning to California. His kitchen credits also include the venerable Gary Danko in San Francisco.
Sharp’s menu at Michelin star-rated Solbar reflects his “source local, think global” training. “Dishes with a Southern profile are often more approachable,” he says. That means pork loin with Anson Mills antebellum grits, pork rinds and house-made bacon. Or a crispy chicken sandwich with vinegar slaw and red-eye mayo.
Just don’t get him started on the cake versus pie debate.
Where are you from?
Greensboro, North Carolina
At what age did you begin cooking?
From whom did you learn to cook?
My grandparents, my mother, the line cooks at Chi-Chi’s, anyone who had anything to teach
Is there one dish (or ingredient) that defines the place you grew up? If so, what is that?
My grandfather’s grits and my grandmother’s cheese biscuits with butter and jam
What is your first food memory?
Popping popcorn with no lid on the machine on the back porch of preschool to feed the birds
What is your favorite food memory?
The breakfast casserole that my mom only makes on Christmas morning. Now that I live in California, my wife and my mother-in-law make it.
What is the first dish that you remember cooking by yourself, or mostly by yourself ?
In all my glory, I think it was Oodles of Noodles or mac and cheese for a good four- to five-year stretch there before I worked or lived in a house with any kitchen worth noting.
When did you first leave the South, and what/who was it that brought you out?
Going to Nantucket in summers during college to work in restaurants
Did you head straight to California?
No, it was a very winding path
Southern ingredient you can’t live without?
Louisiana Red Dot hot sauce
Southern food you miss the most, and the setting in which you most enjoyed that food?
Eastern NC pork barbecue, sitting on a tailgate
Favorite Southern dish?
How often do you have that food now?
Every Tuesday night is fried chicken night at Solbar, and the guys on my crew have mastered it.
Southern food you wish would never be served again?
Fried okra. It was offered to me at every school lunch and I still can’t get over it.
How do you incorporate Northern California and/or international ingredients into Southern dishes?
It’s a short leap. Northern California often has better versions of the ingredients I grew up eating—tomatoes, corn, beans.
Do you think your Southern heritage influenced your love and appreciation of food?
My grandparents cooked for scores of people every Wednesday night in the basement of the University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill for many years, and it’s from the two of them that I believe I learned to be satisfied cooking for, feeding and nourishing others. There’s instant gratification—for all five senses—in both the craft of cooking and the pleasure of eating.
Champagne, every time
Favorite Southern-based band and/or song?
The Steep Canyon Rangers. My brother, Graham, is the banjo player and lead songwriter.
Pie or cake?
Chocolate Pecan Pie from the K&W Cafeteria in Greensboro, NC. Get out of here with that cake nonsense, I can’t believe you need me to tell you why.