For this English chef, home is the Colorado Plateau
by Peter Friederici
On Sunday mornings, all summer long, you can find chef John Sharpe at the Flagstaff Community Market, moving among the outdoor produce stalls with the practiced intensity of a hardcore bargain hunter at an outlet mall.
He tests the white peaches Rob Lautze has grown at Garland’s Orchard near Sedona: nice, but not enough of them for his purposes. Most of the crop froze this year, Lautze tells him.
"Oh, how terrible," Sharpe says. But he’s pleased to hear that Gravenstein apples are coming soon. Sharpe likes to bake with them, and they feature in his apple and green tomato chutney.
He pronounces it "to-mah-to." Sharpe hails from England, but his current surroundings are about as unlike that green and misty land as can be imagined. As chef at the Turquoise Room Restaurant in Winslow, Ariz., he cooks sumptuous meals from local produce amid the sere badlands and plains of the Painted Desert.
Sharpe came to the United States because he felt it suited his entrepreneurial spirit, and he spent the 1990s as a hard-driving restaurateur in southern California’s Orange County. In 1997, a friend bought and began restoring Winslow’s run-down La Posada Hotel, designed in the late 1920s by the renowned architect Mary Colter.
"He told me, ‘I need to put a restaurant here, but don’t know how to do it,’ " Sharpe recalls. "I said, ‘I’ll come up whenever I can free my ass from alligators.’ I had 350 employees, four restaurants.
"I had absolutely no intention of moving to Winslow," he says. "But one thing led to another, and that was it. I wanted to be a chef again."
Two years later, Sharpe and his wife, Patricia, moved to the Painted Desert. Orange County was booming, and had an unemployment rate of 4 percent. Winslow adjoins the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and its unemployment varied from 20 to 40 percent. The town’s main claim to fame was a line in "Take it Easy," a ’70s-era Eagles song about a guy trying to hitchhike out of town. Local tastes ran more to chicken-fried steak than to roast duck with quince and blackberry sauce.
But Sharpe set about establishing a culinary landmark, and he’s succeeded. Gourmet magazine has praised the restaurant. Interstate 40 travelers expecting a truck-stop meal are surprised — most, but not all of them, pleasantly — by Sharpe’s cuisine. Some Winslow residents are regulars, and other northern Arizona residents frequently drive long distances to eat at the Turquoise Room.
Although Sharpe came to Winslow from afar, he doesn’t see the Turquoise Room as an alien import. While he flies in fish from Alaska, he loves the freshness of local foods, and he likes to support regional suppliers. He employs and trains local people — Native American, Hispanic, Anglo. He buys churro lambs — a breed adapted to aridity — from a Navajo family. He buys traditional piki corn bread from Hopi women, and goat cheese from farmers nearby.
He also haunts the weekly Flagstaff market, seeing what turns up. On the same day that he finds out about the Gravenstein apples, he buys three flats of beefsteak and heirloom tomatoes, choosing the soft ones other shoppers eschew. He can use them, soon, for slicing or sauces. He buys basil, melons, okra, and eggplant raised near Phoenix. He’ll turn the eggplant into something he calls "native ratatouille" — supplemented with corn and tepary beans — and he’ll have some left over. "I’ll make something else with it, too," he says. "I’ll figure it out on the drive back."