Carolyn Jung / November 2011
Food Arts presents the November 2011 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Mark Harmon, principal and chief executive officer of Auberge Resorts, a collection of eight luxury/resort hotels, among them the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina; Element 52 in Telluride, Colorado; Encantado in Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the dazzling Esperanza resort in Los Cabos, Mexico. Perhaps it's only apropos that Harmon be recognized this year, the 30th anniversary of the Michelin-rated restaurant at Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, California, the flagship resort in Napa Valley built by his father that started it all (two other properties, Calistoga Ranch and Solage Colistoga, are also in Napa Valley).
Harmon, 55, not only followed in his father's footsteps, but has sprinted past them. Robert Harmon, principal and chairman of the company, who previously developed condo resorts in Lake Tahoe and Hawaii, founded Auberge du Soleil with Claude Rouas, the legendary French restaurateur who owned L'Etoile in San Francisco. At a time when Napa Valley was essentially farmland and the thought of a fancy restaurant prompted rather quizzical looks, the elder Harmon and Rouas had the foresight to create a breathtaking hillside property. In 1998, Mark Harmon created the company's development arm, Auberge Resorts, to expand on his father's vision by creating other premium properties.
Like his father, Mark began his career as a lawyer, as did his brothers, who also are partners in the company now. After six years of practicing law, Mark inadvertently found his calling when he helped to open Piatti restaurants on the West Coast, after the first one was established in Yountville by his father and Rouas. "As much fun as it was opening restaurants, I marveled at how Auberge had transformed itself into an international destination," Mark says. "Restaurants can last for a long time, but a hotel can last hundreds of years. I found that I loved the permanence and the ability to create something that's a complete experience."
Now, the father of three does just that, combing the world with an extremely selective eye for very special properties to develop. Almost every one of them is constructed from the ground up, many with the backing of investors rather than scarce bank loans. Every property is unique in character and intimate in size with about only 50 rooms, which cost more than $1 million each to build. Personal touches abound--from fresh guacamole prepared in your room upon check-in at Esperanza to the parting gift of frozen grapes to nibble when checking out of Calistoga Ranch.
Harmon couldn't be more excited to see construction underway on new Auberge resorts in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and New York's Hudson Valley. "I never have so much fun as when I can come in and say, ‘This is how something should look and why,'" he says. "It's been an incredible ride."