Canyon Kitchen: Here Come the Sun(chokes) and Other Delights

written by Bill Kopp

A look at the four-course, prix fixe menu at Sapphire, N.C.'s 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 approx. 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 kidding, but just a little. The first course of Canyon Kitchen's menu in October 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. (Each of those selections includes several other delectable ingredients, but we have only so much space here.) The main course choices included squab, osso bucco and short ribs.

Ken 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," he says, "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."

In October, that approach meant that Naron was able to 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.

"I've been cooking for 24 years now, and I've never seen a red sunchoke," he admits. "And if I see something I've never used -- or that I haven't used in a long time -- that excites me," he says.

And what he does with the sunchokes -- red or otherwise -- is inspired. Naron describes the second-course selection as "Sunchokes three ways. There's a confit egg yolk on there. And we do a sunchoke pureé with a little brown rice miso," he says. And that gives the dish some unexpected umami. "You're like, 'What's that?'"

"Then we roast sunchokes really simply with olive oil, salt and pepper," Naron continues. "And then we shave some to make crispy chips." Finally, he plates the dish with a drizzle of the herbed oil used to confit those egg yolks. The dish is 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."

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