Brandon Sharp: The Healthy Cooking Award 2011

Bringing Michelin stars to healthy eating
Tim Cebula

How's this for a fresh bit of counter-programming: In the Age of the Pig—when salumi-focused restaurants serve up lardo (pure, cured pork fat) on toast, and bacon has been beatified—Brandon Sharp thinks fat is overrated as a flavor factor. In fact, Sharp says, "Fat is a flavor inhibitor. Fat will coat the tongue, and it won't let flavors come through."

Fresh thinking, because conventional wisdom persists that fat is the essential flavor carrier, and the amount of fat (and salt) lazily used in many restaurant kitchens is staggering. But Sharp's knack for coaxing out flavors from produce, grains, and lean proteins has him cooking up some of the tastiest light-conscious food in the country right now. As executive chef at Solbar, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Solage Calistoga spa resort in the Napa Valley, Sharp cleaved his menu in two: "hearty" dishes to the right, and "healthy, lighter" dishes to the left. Despite the spa location, you can banish any thought of sparse, stingy "spa food" from your mind. Furthest thing from it.

Indeed, the lighter stuff shines. An early summer menu featured chilled Nantes carrot soup with Indian-spiced yogurt, icicle radish, and navel orange; spicy shrimp lettuce wraps with nam pla dipping sauce; and a cast-iron casserole of spring vegetables with spiced bulgur, sheep's-milk feta, lemon--red pepper broth, and a bright addition of spearmint.

Sharp uses acids, such as citrus juices and vinegars, spicy heat, and a measured amount of salt to amp up flavors in low-fat foods. It's not about health as much as pleasure. "It's a balancing act, and a fun one," Sharp says.

Sharp did study cuisine minceur, the French movement in the 1970s that deployed far less butter and cream to reveal essential flavors. The movement waned, but awoke chefs.

"Brandon has always been a rather serious person, chef, and husband whose cooking represents the very fact that what we eat has serious ramifications," says Chef John Besh, owner of several highly acclaimed New Orleans restaurants, including August, where Sharp once served as chef de cuisine. "With impeccable credentials, he commands his kitchen with confidence and poise, while at the same time he has the charm and soul of his Southern upbringing that one can taste in every bite."