Quick Take:

Stefen Shatto, the new executive chef at Solaire at Santa Cruz’s Hotel Paradox, is drawing on more than a decade of fine-dining and hospitality experience to tackle a particularly ambitious project: developing an elegant, inclusive atmosphere at the 10-year-old restaurant. His ultimate goal: to draw visiting guests and the locals back to Solaire — and earn the first Michelin star in Santa Cruz County.

Chef Stefen Shatto likes to build things. In his personal life, he’s built a guest house at the edge of a forest, a tiny house on a 30-foot trailer, and converted a Sprinter van into a liveable space so he could travel around the U.S. As a chef who has sharpened his knives at fine-dining restaurants all over the world, Shatto has also built the menus, teams and concepts behind several high-end dining establishments in Northern California and on the Central Coast.

Now, as the new executive chef at Solaire, the restaurant at Santa Cruz’s Hotel Paradox, he’s tackling a particularly ambitious project: developing Michelin Guide-worthy standards at the decade-old restaurant while also overseeing the banquets, catering and in-room and poolside dining at the 170-room hotel. His ultimate goal: to draw visiting guests and the locals back to Solaire — and earn the first Michelin star in Santa Cruz County.

It’s a big job and Shatto has his work cut out for him. Solaire launched with a competitive menu when it opened at the end of 2012 under chef Ross McKee. Its elegant coastal cuisine featured fresh seafood, quality steaks and seasonal ingredients like wild mushrooms and fava beans, and its serious cocktail program led many to regard it as a top-tier restaurant in the area.

But over the past several years the menu has been simplified, especially since McKee left in 2016. More recently, it offered familiar American dishes that would be easy to execute while the kitchen was being remodeled, like burgers, mac and cheese, fried calamari and sandwiches. As a result, it lost its reputation as a fine-dining location, despite being inside one of Santa Cruz’s few midrange hotels.

  • Pork belly bao buns at Solaire at Hotel Paradox.
  • Ahi tuna wontons with guacamole and ponzu at Solaire at Hotel Paradox.
  • Stefen Shatto, executive chef at Hotel Paradox, aims to reinvigorate and elevate the dining experience at Solaire.

In the past few months, much has changed. An extensive remodel of the hotel and restaurant is now complete and Solaire is almost unrecognizable — in a good way. The restaurant feels fresh, open and far removed from busy Ocean Street. The new design leans into its nature theme with plenty of quirky, artistic touches — moss-covered domes bulge over dining booths with bronze butterfly wing-shaped light fixtures, and chunks of driftwood and tree stumps act as side tables and decorations. Two ghostlike dancers made of wire contort over the hostess stand, balancing candle-shaped lights on their feet and hands. Behind them, two giant, geometric faces stare down from the ceiling of the bar area like the faces of God.

When it comes to the menu, Shatto aims to draw on his background working at high-end hotels, restaurants and catering companies to elevate the dining experience. “Santa Cruz doesn’t have a lot of higher-end food, no offense to Santa Cruz. But that’s what I’m trying to push,” he says. “I found the right outlet where I can shine and it’s what I’m here for.”

Shatto is no stranger to fine dining or hotel hospitality. He began his career as a teenager by working in several restaurants with James Beard awards and Michelin cred, specializing in French cuisine. Drawn to California because of its beauty and the quality of its agriculture, he moved to the Golden State after culinary school.

In 2011, at just 21 years old, he served as the executive chef on the opening team at Il Vecchio in Pacific Grove, creating many of the Roman trattoria-style dishes still in use by the popular restaurant today. During that time, he completed four stages, or internships, at restaurants in Italy, furthering his knowledge of European cuisine. More recently, he was also a member of the culinary team that crafted the Wagyu-focused menu at SteakCraft in Carmel.

  • Brandon Harris, food and beverage director at Hotel Paradox, garnishes a cocktail at Solaire.
  • Brandon Harris, food and beverage director at Hotel Paradox, with a cocktail from Solaire's new beverage program.

After leaving Il Vecchio, Shatto became the chef de cuisine at Field to Table Catering & Events, a boutique catering company specializing in exclusive events at remote locations throughout the Central Coast. There, he really got a feel for large-scale events. “We would have five weddings on the same day, reception parties the day before followed by a brunch party on Sunday,” he says.

It wasn’t long before he found his niche at hotels. Shatto led the kitchens at the award-winning Grange Restaurant & Bar at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento, Schooners at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa in Monterey, and was the executive chef at the Inn at the Pier in Pismo Beach.

Coming to Santa Cruz wasn’t just the next step in a professional journey; for Shatto, it means coming home. He was born in Santa Cruz but raised in Iowa on a homestead with eight siblings.

“That’s where I started cooking. We had our own garden and farm animals as well,” says Shatto. He and his brothers and sisters helped take care of the animals and plants, and Shatto often helped out in the kitchen: “My first memory is cooking bacon when I was 5. I just fell in love with it. I even had a little stepladder.”

For most of his adult life, he’s tried to find a way to return to his hometown. “I’ve been looking for a place in Santa Cruz because I was born here, but I never really got to experience the culture, and it’s really more my style,” says Shatto. “I’m laid-back, but also super professional. I want to merge those ideas with local ingredients and elevated dishes.”

  • "The Birds and the Bees Nest" dessert at Solaire.
  • Edamame dumplings with maitake mushrooms in a kombu broth.
  • Harissa chicken with leek risotto, fennel and apple at Solaire at Hotel Paradox.

Shatto’s presence in the new Solaire feels fresh and exciting. Trained in French cuisine, 33-year-old Shatto’s culinary style also incorporates Asian influences — a bulgogi-style burger on a bao bun is forthcoming, as is a buckwheat noodle dish. He particularly appreciates how different Asian cuisines use vegetables. At one point, he became vegan “to feel what it’s like to be this person on this diet and having that struggle with menus.” The experience forced him to be creative in the kitchen, and although he’s back to being omnivorous, most of the menu at Solaire can easily be adapted to remove animal products.

Some things guests won’t find: ingredients like processed sugars, white flour and trans fats that are said to cause inflammation. “New generations are getting more sensitive to certain foods, especially dairy, sugars, highly processed foods and premade things. I like making things fresh to order and having them be raw if possible, or pickled or fermented, to add more culture to your stomach,” explains Shatto. “If I can make it gluten-free, I will certainly try.”

The goal is to create a menu that’s as healthy as it is delicious, and inclusive to as many guests as possible. Shatto wants to make sure that everyone enjoys their time at Solaire, no matter their dietary restrictions.

Neither beauty nor flavor is sacrificed in the end result. For one elegant vegan appetizer, half-dollar-sized, hand-cut dumplings stuffed with edamame float in a clear kombu broth with delicate maitake mushrooms, al-dente edamame beans and springy pea shoots. A beet and citrus salad rises above the mundane by sitting on top of a decadent, hummus-like hazelnut puree dressed in a lively burnt orange vinaigrette. In one memorable entree, plump, just-set scallops and prawns crown an exquisite seafood pasta with handmade pappardelle bathed in a saffron-scented cream sauce.

Shatto aims to give guests a sense of place with his menu by drawing inspiration from the natural world and incorporating local ingredients whenever possible — even ones that are grown right at the hotel. Working with Santa Cruz Bee Company, he’s raising bees on the roof of Hotel Paradox. He uses the honey in desserts like “The Birds and the Bees,” a pretty dish composed of a pot de creme made with coconut milk and chocolate with a hazelnut and date crust, covered with a coconut-based white chocolate colored with matcha powder and decorated with a cookie molded to look like honeycomb. “It’s a piece of art on the plate,” says Shatto.

The healthful ethos extends to the bar program. There, he is working on incorporating housemade shrubs, seasonal ingredients, local kombucha and CBD infusions, as well as an extensive selection of alcohol-free cocktails. “It feels weird to cheer with water,” Shatto says. “We want to make sure everyone is having a good time and create an environment where people are excited to be here.”

Will he be able to draw the attention of the mysterious Michelin reviewers? It’s more important to Shatto to draw the local community into the restaurant. But he has experience working in a half dozen Michelin-noted restaurants and is working to transfer his knowledge to Solaire. In addition to the necessary staff training, he’s implementing sustainability measures and limiting food waste. He’s even mindful of the type of paper and how much ink is used to print the menus.

“I’m very detail-oriented, which is why I’m always coming out to the front of the house to check on things to see the flow or just add to the experience. Otherwise, I just try to make the food as beautiful as it can be on the plate,” says Shatto. “That’s always Michelin-quality.”

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Lily Belli is the food and drink correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Over the past 15 years since she made Santa Cruz her home, Lily has fallen deeply in love with its rich food culture, vibrant agriculture...