In every life, there are the homes you’re born into and the ones you make yourself.
Acclaimed chef Brandon Sharp hopes to blend those two worlds with his upcoming restaurant, Hawthorne & Wood, by bringing a bit of California to Chapel Hill.
The North Carolina native left his Michelin stars on the West Coast when he returned to Chapel Hill in 2016. After two years leading fine dining restaurant Crossroads at the Carolina Inn, Sharp left last year to build a restaurant that’s all his own.
The restaurant is in the midst of a bare studs renovation of the Chapel Hill space off N.C. 54, formerly occupied by Raaga Indian restaurant. Hawthorne & Wood is aiming to open later this spring, possibly early May, Sharp said.
The name comes from the northern and southern California neighborhoods where his in-laws are from. The menu will draw much of its inspiration from California, Sharp said, where the chef has spent the majority of his career. He collected seven prestigious Michelin stars along the way, which are awarded annually to restaurants considered exceptional dining experiences.
“Over the decades I’ve worked for some smart folks and cooked for some good folks,” Sharp said in an interview. “I’m hoping to add to the conversation here (in Chapel Hill).”
Sharp graduated from UNC with a philosophy degree and trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., but got his start in the kitchen in high school, cooking at a Mexican restaurant in Greensboro.
His career includes time at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and acclaimed kitchens in San Francisco and New Orleans. He caught the Michelin Guide’s attention for his work at Solbar, the Napa Valley restaurant at the Solage resort in Calistoga, Calif. The restaurant received one Michelin star for seven consecutive years, starting in 2008.
At Solbar, even in the beauty and bounty of California, Sharp said his homesickness for the South made its way onto the menu.
“When (Solbar) opened, we served probably the only fried pickles west of Shreveport, and now they’re on every menu,” Sharp said. “We had fried chicken every Tuesday night; we had the best fried chicken in the state. We might have had a Michelin star, but we still had $35 prix fixe fried chicken dinner. They were touchstones of comfort and familiarity.”
Sharp’s career has mostly been in fine dining, so the move to Crossroads was only a geographic leap. The pull back to North Carolina was driven by family timing and the ascendance of the state’s culinary scene.
“My wife and I loved living in Napa Valley, but were ready for a change of pace,” Sharp said. “It aligned really nicely with the opportunity at the Carolina Inn, where I’ve spent two fantastic years that passed in the blink of an eye.”
When he first worked in California 18 years ago, Sharp said his mother mailed him a photo of the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets in downtown Chapel Hill. For years it was a faraway reminder of home, but a dozen push pin holes and moves later, the picture will move into Sharp’s most personal restaurant.
“We looked at a lot of spaces in the Triangle,” Sharp said. “I was adamant about being in Chapel Hill proper. It was always sacred ground for me. We didn’t want to put a restaurant anywhere else.”
Though the Triangle region is acclaimed for its restaurants and chefs, there likely won’t be a North Carolina Michelin guide any time soon. Sharp said he doesn’t miss the pressure.
“That first star was maybe the happiest day of my professional career,” Sharp said of when Solbar got its first star in 2008. “I tackled my sous chef and we all drank Champagne all day. ... But the pressure is so intense to keep the star. I’m feeling freedom from that system and have more of an ability to operate on my own terms. Getting a star was fantastic and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I’m happy to not have that metric.”
Sharp said he left Crossroads in 2018 to fulfill the dream of opening his own restaurant, a dream two decades in the making.
“Every line cook dreams of opening his or her own restaurant,” Sharp said. “This will be the first one brought to fruition from the ground up. This is the first one from soup to nuts. I’ll be in the kitchen cooking every night.”
For now, Hawthorne & Wood is a construction project, with Sharp posting near daily updates on Instagram of the tiling, cleaning, scraping and installing that comes with putting a restaurant together in pieces.
Hawthorne & Wood will have indoor and outdoor seating, or about 120 seats, plus a dozen at the bar and some cocktail lounge seating.
Sharp referenced the history of great restaurants in Chapel Hill and that he hopes his will soon be included among them.
“The cuisine we want to do is approachable and stimulating, with elements of mystery and surprise,” Sharp said. “I’m really, really excited to have the opportunity to create another restaurant Chapel Hill is proud of. That’s my long-term goal.”