Meet Owner and Co-Executive Chef Sunny Gerhart, a James Beard Foundation “Best Chef Southeast” Semifinalist, and learn about his journey to opening Wilmington’s Olivero Kitchen + Cocktails.
After honing his skills at culinary school in Washington D.C., Chef Gerhart relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he worked alongside renowned restaurateur Ashley Christensen at Enoteca Vin before serving as the Chef de Cuisine at Poole's Diner. He later founded Raleigh’s successful St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar. In 2023, Gerhart extended his culinary prowess to Wilmington, introducing Olivero in the Castle Street Arts & Antique District.
Read on to find out about Chef Gerhart’s influences for Olivero and his personal connection to this part of Carolina coast:
What led to your decision to open Olivero in Wilmington?
My connection to the area runs deep. My father served in the United States Marine Corps for 30 years. Our family was stationed at Camp Lejeune, further up North Carolina’s coast, during the time I attended high school. This allowed me to spend time surfing in nearby Wrightsville Beach. Later, I moved back to the area, lived on a sailboat, cleaned sailboat bottoms and waited tables.
I have always been in love with Wilmington. When the historic 1940s building on the corner of Castle and South 3rd Streets became available, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We feel incredibly fortunate to have been embraced by the city, and folks – both locals and visitors – seem to truly enjoy the time they spend at Olivero.
What inspired the restaurant’s blend of Spanish, Italian and New Orleans influences?
Olivero draws inspiration from my mother’s side of the family. They’re rooted in New Orleans, but her grandparents are originally from Seville and Sicily. Flavors from those regions can be found in Olivero’s dishes like the N’duja Stuffed Dates, Lasagna with Octopus and Chorizo and Chicken Milanese with Manchego Cheese.
What other Olivero menu items do you consider must-tries for visitors?
I highly recommend the Agnolotti with Butter Beans and Parmesan. The Twice-Cooked Pork Shoulder with Roasted Peppers and Fennel, along with the Charred Brussels Sprouts Cacio e Pepe, are also popular. And we are known for our serious cocktail program featuring amaros and vermouth.
How has Wilmington and its beaches influenced your vision for Olivero?
The wonderful seafood, of course! We prioritize locally-sourced ingredients. My good friends Ana Shellem of Shell’em Seafood and Jim Casey of Smiley’s Seafood have been great inspirations for us. We are looking forward to getting to know our new city and its nearby beaches better so that we can explore even more of what the local farmers, fishermen and artisans have to offer.
Beyond ingredients and flavors, I’m inspired by the city itself and love walking around downtown, especially at night. The cobblestone streets and historic buildings and homes remind me of Charleston and New Orleans, but Wilmington is a truly distinctive place.
How do you envision Olivero being part of Wilmington's unique food culture?
The area has charm and room for growth. There are so many cool places to eat and drink in Wilmington. Everyone has been so welcoming, and we can’t wait to meet more folks here and contribute to an already wonderful culinary scene.
We love our neighborhood and are excited to be a part of the growing Castle Street community. It’s walkable to other downtown neighborhoods, and it has up-and-coming restaurants and some rad shops like Gravity Records. We are super stoked to be here!
What advice would you give someone planning a Wilmington and Beaches vacation?
Book a vacation rental, B&B or hotel, and start your Wilmington adventure with a meal at Olivero! Also make reservations at hotspots like manna ave. 123, Seabird and Dram Yard Restaurant to indulge in fresh local flavors. Be sure to grab a coffee at Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods, one of my go-to coffee shops.
Spend time exploring Wilmington’s vibrant downtown on foot. It’s a beautiful, friendly place with so much to see and experience: the Riverwalk, historic architecture and great restaurants and bars – not to mention three beaches just a short drive from the city. You won’t regret visiting!