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Peerless owner sells restaurant to head chef

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Chrissy Barnett Donovan was in her early 40s when she opened Peerless Restaurant & Bar in 1997, and though it’s clear from both her words and the enthusiasm in her voice that she’s thoroughly enjoyed the experience, it’s also evident that she’s ready to move on.

Which she has, starting Tuesday. That was the closing date of Donovan’s sale of the Ashland restaurant to longtime chef Harlan Brooks, who’s worked at Peerless since 2011, the last year as its executive chef.

Donovan will continue to own and operate the adjacent Peerless Hotel, which was a condemned building when she bought it in 1990 before a 2 1/2-year renovation.

“It has been 23 magnificent years,” Donovan said. “It has just been an education, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to get to know people I would have never had the opportunity to have known, and it’s just been such a positive experience for me. But with any healthy company you need to have a succession plan, and that was the point that I was at with the growth of the business.”

Donovan said the restaurant reached a new high point financially in 2019 and was running, thanks to a great staff, as smoothly as ever. In other words, she said, it seemed like the perfect time to bow out.

“Everything was just clicking on all cylinders, and as the saying goes, you want to go out at the top,” she said. “And I really felt like I’m at the top and I need to start looking at what’s the next chapter for this restaurant.”

Donovan felt Brooks, 30, with his history at the restaurant and skills in the kitchen — Donovan calls Brooks the most talented young chef she’s ever known — was the natural successor. She approached him with the idea about a year ago and they spent the ensuing months working out the details.

“Everything has come together so beautifully,” Donovan said. “When two people want the same goal everything just blossoms, and that’s the way both of us felt. ... This restaurant has been like a child to me, and I felt like the child is an adult, and it’s time to let the adult child do their thing and for me to step aside.”

Brooks was hired by Donovan as a line cook in 2011 and has worked every station in the kitchen during his steady rise. He was promoted to sous chef, a position he held for two years, before moving up to chef de cuisine and finally executive chef last year. For about two years, Brooks said, he divided kitchen duties with former Chateaulin Restaurant & Wine Shop chef David Taub, who retired last year.

Brooks says he’s thrilled about taking over the restaurant, located in the railroad district at 265 Fourth St., though not much is expected to change in his daily routine.

“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s been quite the process as I’m sure you can guess, but as far as operations at the restaurant goes and my day to day, it hasn’t changed too dramatically. I feel very grateful to Chrissy for this opportunity.

“We’re going to continue to put the same tremendous amount of work into our cuisine and the same kind of gracious care into our service that we always have, and part of our program here is to constantly embrace the work of making ourselves better and making our menu better, making our staff better, making our surroundings better. So in that way things will always be changing here the way that they always have.”

Brooks says he’ll continue to work as the head chef and focus on the quality of the cuisine. To those wondering about what’s next at Peerless, he said the restaurant will continue its practice of changing its menu four to five times a year. The only real change, he added, is the planned addition of heaters on the patio and garden around the fountain, an upgrade that’s expected to extend the restaurant’s outdoor dining season starting in early April.

“In the spring and in the fall there’s a nip in the air after 5 o’clock, so it can be difficult when people want to sit outside,” he said.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4496 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Harlan Brooks is the new owner of Peerless Restaurant & Bar in Ashland. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch