Written by Bill Kopp
Tucked away in Sapphire is a hidden gem of a dining experience, Canyon Kitchen.
A look at the four-course, prix fixe menu at Sapphire, North Carolina, restaurant Canyon Kitchen reveals some fancy entrees. And the descriptions sound tantalizingly mouthwatering. But Chef Ken Naron plainly states his approach to food. “I don’t do too much to it,” he says. His guiding philosophy: Start with fresh ingredients and combine them in ways that make sense. “If you do that well,” he explains, “you don’t need to do a whole lot to the food.”
Situated near the base of a towering rock face on the edge of the Lonesome Valley community, Canyon Kitchen opened in 2009. The restaurant (capacity approximately 125 diners) is a hub for residents of Lonesome Valley—they get first crack at reservations—but draws people from all over. “When we open the [reservation] books to the public, it fills up pretty quickly,” says Naron.
Canyon Kitchen’s menu is the source of that popularity. It changes often, thanks in part to Naron’s creative restlessness. “I get bored,” he says with a hearty laugh. “It’s a weird thing. If I create a dish and people are loving it, and they’re loving it for two or three weeks, I’m like, ‘Okay, you’re loving it? I’m done.’”
Naron’s two-plus decades as a chef have placed him in some celebrated kitchens. His impressive résumé includes study at the California Culinary Academy, work at San Francisco’s Gary Danko and Restaurant Jardiniere, a Château du Sureau property, and other high-profile work.
In 2010 Naron and his wife moved to North Carolina. A few years later, he was asked to help out as line cook when the Canyon Kitchen found itself temporarily short-staffed. “They loved me,” he admits, “and I had a great time doing it.” When the Canyon Kitchen staff worked a function at New York City’s prestigious James Beard House, they insisted that Naron come along. “You’re part of the team,” they told him. He joined Canyon Kitchen full-time, initially as sous chef, in 2017. Today, he heads the team.
Typical of a highly talented and experienced chef, Naron builds his menu based on what ingredients are at their best in a given season. Even if something is popular, he’ll pull it off the menu if his access to a top-quality component is in doubt. “I look forward to see what’s coming down the pike. I get ready for that, and get that on the menu, as opposed to trying to hold onto a season that’s fading.”
Last fall, for example, Canyon Kitchen’s menu allowed diners to choose from among a beef tartare with a quail egg yolk and dandelions, a roasted fall squash with smoked duck breast, beets with trout and roe, and a tuna tataki on a bed of charred eggplant and sunflower shoots. The main course choices included squab, osso bucco, and short ribs. And Naron even put the relatively exotic—yet locally-sourced—red sunchoke on the Canyon Kitchen’s menu. Even with his deep and extensive culinary background, until recently, Naron wasn’t very familiar with the red variety of tuber species also known as a Jerusalem artichoke or earth apple. “If I see something I’ve never used—or that I haven’t used in a long time—that excites me,” he says. The dish was adventurous yet simple, elegant and crafted in a way that brings the ingredients together without obscuring the qualities that make each component special.
“I’m serious about what we do,” Naron says. “But I’m not crazy serious. I like to put out good food. I like for everybody to be focused but relaxed at the same time. Because the happier that my team is, the better the food.”
Canyon Kitchen has been closed for the season but will reopen at the start of May (hours 5PM-9PM). Visit 150 Lonesome Valley Road in Sapphire, 828-743-7696 / Lonesomevalley.com/cashiers-nc-restaurant
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