Chef Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood On Keeping It Real
by Geeta Bansal
Christopher Kostow is in the swing of the new season at The Restaurant in Meadowood in Napa Valley, California as he ties up last minute details for the opening of his new restaurant Charter Oak. As Executive Chef of the three Michelin-starred restaurant of the luxury resort he has been propagating haute cuisine based on seasonal ingredients sans technical wizardry. All within close proximity of other starred and famed establishments in the Bay Area, certainly no easy feat. A onetime philosophy student at Hamilton College, this Chicago transplant is deeply entrenched and invested in the Napa Valley that has been his playing field for the past nine years.
Kostow, who helms one of the best restaurants in the world, has a wicked sense of humor as illustrated by the hilarious videos posted on Instagram during the World’s 50 Best restaurants last year when they were listed at #67 Such self deprecation requires bravado but also confidence stemming from having arrived at the apex of the culinary world. Before heading to California, Kostow trained and worked in France at bistros as well as Michelin-starred restaurants including Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier. Prior to arriving at Meadowood in 2008 he had put in stints at Campton Place in San Francisco and Chez TJ in Mountain View where he reeled in two Michelin stars for the restaurant. In 2011 the three Michelin stars arrived in recognition of his holistic approach at Meadowood followed by the Best Chef West award by the James Beard Foundation in 2013. In 2017 he is nominated for the JBF Outstanding Chef honor along with other peers across the country. His book “A New Napa Cuisine” published in 2014 relates his journey and offers an insight into his work at Meadowood.
Guests at the restaurant drive through the sprawling luxury resort to arrive at the free-standing restaurant. The interior is a study in understated luxury reminiscent of an old-world country estate. Guests step through the massive front door into a chic lounge area with leather chairs, fireplaces and vintage books. The wine country chic decor belies the sophisticated food and the faultless service that follows. The vaulted ceiling supported by red wood columns and granite tables in the softly lit dining room offers a serene space to enjoy the tasting menu. A seat at the Chef’s Table is what food enthusiasts swear by or the bar with its three-course menu comes at a friendlier price point.
Depending on the season the chefs counter menu can showcase a, oyster with kohlrabi, beef smoked in dry onion tops, cherry trout with a buckwheat skin, eel smoked over Cabernet staves (it is the wine country after all), lamb stuffed Egyptian-style baladi, or a decadent egg yolk cooked in chicken fat with homemade marmite and sourdough fingers to dip into, finishing with a chocolate walnut pan apple pastry cup or a beeswax candle warmed truffled crimeaux de citeaux with honeycomb, all paired with wines from the considerable wine list.
A taste of Kostow’s cuisine in the elegant restaurant at the luxury resort comes with a hefty price tag. A seat at the Chef’s counter will cost $600 excluding libations and service charges. The restaurant recently adopted a pre-paid policy along with a price hike while switching to the TOCK reservation system.
When I last caught up with him he had just returned from a trip with his wife and two young daughters to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico and was excited about final stage of construction of the new restaurant. His partner in this new culinary venture is his front of the house collaborator Nathaniel Dorn while in the kitchen Chef Katianna Hong will be translating the forward-thinking chef’s ethos on to plates.
Is the construction of your new restaurant Charter Oak in Napa nearing completion?
The construction has been a long process as it’s a very big space. The building is almost done and looking really good and we are hoping to open the doors in May.
What is your favorite design or structural element in the new space?
I think it’s the overall vastness and scale of the space with twenty-foot-high ceilings. It has a beautiful courtyard with mulberry trees and red brick that give it a sense of grandeur in a Californian style. It’s not the European style which is pretty much impossible to replicate but the old Californian sensibility. The decor is very minimal as we are trying to showcase the building with exposed red brick, blackened steel and old wood floors.
What will be different about the food or service as opposed to The Restaurant at Meadowood?
It’s going to be all family style and hyper casual and most things will be served off a large hearth in the middle of the room. The space is very big so it will lend itself to a self exploratory experience for guests. It’s also an opportunity for us to support a young chef. Kat has been with me for five years and she is going to do a really good job there.
Is there something that will surprise guests?
I think the absence of service will surprise guests as it will be a very hands off approach to dining. There will be no wait staff fawning over tables and there will be white coats but only running the food and it will all feel very natural.
We spoke once about white tablecloth dining for your next project. Is it not this one?
No (laughing) definitely not since it is the opposite.
Are cutlery drawers at tables a part of this hands-off approach?
Yes, there are cutlery drawers at tables.
What kind of guests do you envision at Charter Oak as opposed to Meadowood, which is a resort setting?
The clientele will run the gamut of guests looking for great dining and sophistication. We will probably have people from every walk of life and place. It is what drove this concept of simplicity. I feel that people who know a lot about food will appreciate the beautiful simplicity. People who don’t on the other hand can still appreciate it as it will be understandable. It was very important for us that we were able to appeal to a vast majority or a wide swath of people that come to visit Napa Valley. From a socioeconomic and food point of view we will have a little bit of everything.
I am assuming that the price point will be quite different from Meadowood.
Yes, it will be very affordable and approachable even though Napa Valley is a little bit more elevated in price point than other places. Charter Oak will be very comparable and competitive to other casual restaurants in the area.
Does location affect the ability to draw diners to Napa since it is not a large metropolis? Do you get a lot of international visitors?
I think that more than distance we are impacted by weather and traffic. The sheer number of people coming to the valley is such that it keeps us very busy. We are obviously not waiting for people to walk in the door and we also get guests from the luxury hotels around us. I would say our clientele is probably 15% to 20% international.
The Instagram videos you posted last year about placing #67 on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list were hilarious. What were they about?
We don’t want to come across as bitter or angry but we believe very strongly in the work we do. To be told that we were #67 in anything was to us a bit funny and irritating at the same time. Lists like OAD which I think is ridiculous where we are rated #6 for example and the guy doesn’t know my name and has never even been here. As for the voting for lists like San Pellegrino are they saying that so many people went to Lima? No way! Or to Moscow, no way, so you can question many of these rating processes. On OAD we are very well considered on the list but every year they call me Craig Kostow and talk about dishes we had ten years ago on the menu. For ten years that we have been open he has never visited so how does he decide this list. The problem is that chef’s grant validity to these events by appearing there or by participating.
Is that the reason some chefs don’t even show up at the 50 Best awards?
I don’t think I would show up. It’s all very self-congratulatory and whether you are #3 or #103 on the list it doesn’t matter. The idea that we all get in a room, patting each other on the back! It’s crazy. We are just chefs; we aren’t curing cancer or anything. Chefs or restaurants who are smarter than me do take advantage of the business these lists bring in and they make very specific campaigns to be on these lists.
What bothers me is that the rest of the journalistic world is all about the headline that reads” Worlds Best Chef” cooking a dinner or something . It isn’t just like adopting a phrase that someone verbalized like Worlds Best Restaurant chef doing a pop up for example. So, are they saying it is the World’s best? Have they even been there? No, it’s just what the list says.
Doesn’t that stem from the fact that most people writing these stories don’t have knowledge or understanding of the chefs or their work?
That is true because they don’t understand the chef or the work they are doing, they haven’t experienced the cuisine, don’t understand the differences between chefs and simply put they have no context. It’s like me becoming an opera reviewer. What do I know about opera? Nothing and I can go to one and say yeah sure it was great.
How significant is the role of food critics these days, since social media has enabled anyone to be a critic? Do they still influence public opinion?
We are in a fortunate position right now, and it may not last forever, but we don’t really worry, for instance, when a journalist comes in for dinner. We ourselves have such high expectations which are way higher than anyone else would have from us. So the idea that we are going to be worried when someone walks in the door doesn’t apply. If we are worried, then that means that we are not doing our jobs well. We need to please ourselves and work up to our own standards and expectations first.
Granted that we have a greater degree of knowledge in order to make these experiences vis a vis are we doing a good job or not according to someone else. It is scary to be granting the power to opinionated knuckle heads to judge us. Sure, they have the power to and do change opinions. I feel there is a mudding of waters by Michelin or Pellegrino sponsored list and now what seems like a million other lists. The average consumer on face book doesn’t know the difference, they don’t know which one was anonymous, which one was paid for. Every day there is a list that taps the top ten restaurants of Napa or Tulsa or someplace else and eventually the diners cannot differentiate after being bombarded repeatedly with this information.
Do the chefs help popularize these lists, or is it the other way around?
Some very well-known chefs were around at the inception of this stuff and chefs give these lists validity. If the chefs didn’t show up for the awards or didn’t put it out on their twitter feed, then they wouldn’t enable this process. No doubt it benefits us and having three Michelin stars has provided consistent business to The Restaurant
Are the three Michelin stars more validating than all of these lists?
I feel all of it has value relatively since this business is about attracting guests and talent to your team and all that. It’s nice to get the three stars but at the end of the day I don’t think much about any of this. It’s not what drives our team.
Does that realization come in a later stage of your career?
That is true because by then you have put more into it and so then the idea that someone else is going to tell you if it’s worth it or not seems silly after all these years. If your whole career or credibility is based on some guide or list that seems like an uneven exchange of your energies and emotions.
Is fine dining an elitist concept in the US?
People here in the US don’t think much about paying $1000 for a television but will not be so willing to pay that for a meal. It’s really a question about our value system and in Europe people don’t readily buy huge expensive cars like they do here. As for if it is elitist, it’s certainly expensive but that doesn’t make it elitist. It all depends on how you execute your products, how you interface with your guests, with your community and the media. That can make it elitist because it can be perceived that way. The price is the price as any other chef in the same situation (three stars) will tell you and regardless we are all busy. So it isn’t that we have to justify what we charge our consumers.
Do you feel media raises people’s expectations inordinately?
If we are going to charge $400 for dinner, we better make it exceptional irrespective of anything. So I think people should come in with incredibly high expectations but having said that there also seems to be a meeting halfway between the guest and the restaurant. Some people come in and want the Alinea effect with smoke and mirrors. Others want more French style lobster poached in butter and so some people do come in with all these preconceived ideas instead of going in with an open mind. If people do that and meet the restaurant halfway and we are executing correctly on our end, then the experience is worth every penny for sure.
While preparing the menu for the season or choosing products, what do you want your diners to experience? Is the visual effect or the flavor first?
The possibility of elegance and luxury in otherwise simple things is what we want them to experience. It might be a risotto made with the seeds of a cucumber for example or a single potato pulled out of the ground and things of that sort are most interesting for me to present. Then it puts the onus on us as you have to make sure that it’s really well done otherwise you are serving a mediocre potato for a $100/ person. That is not honest cooking according to me.
We have a vision of the art of Wabi-sabi or the art of the imperfect like serving things out of the ground as they are. (Wabi-sabi is a Japanese view of the acceptance of imperfections) But we are really cooking and not putting a potato on a plate but without over manipulating it. We think we cannot make it better than nature made it but our job is just to showcase those things that we grow ourselves in the best way possible. To grow these products, we are selective in what we are choosing to plant and how we are growing them and what is the ideal time to harvest. Our goal is to make everything pure.
Are concepts like local, seasonal organic or non GMO understood and followed by only a small proportion of the population in the US and are they more of a trend?
In earlier times there is was no option other than seasonal but nowadays you can buy anything at any time of the year. You see that more readily elsewhere or in cities than you see out here in Napa. At the end of the day seasonal products taste better and are cost effective too. One night we were serving asparagus but we knew it wasn’t going to be as good as it was coming out of Mexico and it cost more because of the distance.
So I don’t think these concepts are a trend . Even creatively we need limitations, such as those that seasons can provide. You can cook virtually anything in the world but it’s really hard to cook good food. If at a certain time of the year (Summer) we have cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant, melons, whole beans etc coming out of the ground and line cod out of the water then that is what we are going to cook with. The end result in that case is always much better.
Sometimes if you travel to a city like SF and dine out every night then very often it seems like you are eating the same food though it may be plated differently. Why is that?
If you go to Tokyo during Ayu fish season you will find every restaurant serving it. It’s the same when you go to Lyon in France when a certain product is in season. There is something to be said about regionality in cooking of course but on the other hand there are trends encouraged by Instagram or social media in general. It’s very easy for people to appropriate what you are doing. Restaurants like ours are sort of incubators for these ideas that trickle down and eventually become part of the industry. That is true of every creative field like arts, architecture or fashion that ideas filter down.
Is American gastronomy going to be affected by the win at Bocuse d’Or this year?
It’s great that they won, but Bocuse d’Or is not my cup of tea, and I don’t see the relevance of that to the state of restaurants in the country. Chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boloud are certainly trying to work on that.
Is it because it is adapting the French culture to ours?
It seems like you are playing someone else’s sport for sure. I don’t care if we are bad at it like soccer since we are bad at other sports like cricket too. I don’t think it’s a reflection of where the food movement is going. I go to Paris and I feel Paris is ripping off Brooklyn. Brooklyn more or less ripped off Portland and what is happening in Paris did not start in Paris. These are inherently American style restaurants.
What are the common issues facing the restaurant industry in the US these days? Are mid range disappearing in cities?
That is where it’s going with the costs of labor and rents. You are seeing a lot of fast casual and then the high end. Recently a lot of restaurants closed in San Fransisco within a short span of time even those by people with big names. Some were barely open six months.
What are the problems in the food industry that are not vocalized by restauranteurs and chef’s in public?
Just because of all the attention focused on chef’s and restaurants we cannot forget the economics of this business. That is totally lost on everyone who say Oh! Cooks should make more money or there should be more paid leave in restaurants etc. In that case you are trying to normalize an industry that is inherently not normal and has razor thin margins. Just because it’s popular or glamorized now it doesn’t make it any different from 50 years ago.
With the wage hikes are there eventually going to be fewer employment opportunities in the business?
It’s probably true and it will impact that and will lead to more automation. Look at the advent of new ovens where you can push a button and cook a chicken. There is a lot more of that happening and I feel there will also be less technical cooking since it requires more man hours. No doubt about it.
Are white tablecloth restaurants disappearing as even you have bare tables in your restaurant?
A lot of that is a reflection of aesthetics and the other is labor. It costs money to do that. I still like them even though we took ours off a few years ago. It’s also about the guests expectations. I don’t think guests these days expect that or equate what they are paying with cloths on the table. I don’t think many three star restaurants in the Bay Area have them anymore. I would go back to it if I did something high end but in a different way.
Do you think the days of so-called “molecular cuisine” over?
I understand what people mean by molecular cooking but all cooking is essentially molecular. If I make gelatin or pasta it’s all about understanding how chemicals react. The sort of overt presentation such as here’s a sphere of this or that is not seen much anymore. At least in three star restaurants no one seems to be doing a lot of that. It should probably disappear as it’s never going to be as good as a perfectly cooked potato for example. I have no desire to eat that food myself.
Are the young culinary school grads well grounded in the basics of cooking?
I was recently at the culinary school in Hyde Park in New York and it is a pretty impressive curriculum. As you know I didn’t go to culinary school and I was really impressed by the depth of the education they provide. However the end of the day cooking is about repetition and doing something a million times till you perfect it. So you are not going to come out of there knowing what you are doing but some of these schools are providing a good training.
You didn’t attend one so do you think this necessary or you are better off exploring your own creativity?
No matter what you do need to know how to do basic cooking. Creativity is not enough and the worst thing is when chef’s are creative without knowing the basics of cooking. That results in bad food and incidentally a lot of cooks who are self-taught trained themselves how to cook by studying. I spent a lot of time with chef’s like Thomas Keller or Charlie Trotter who didn’t go to culinary school, but they really studied on their own.
Does guests expectations rise in correlation to your stars and fame, etc? How do you rise up to meet those expectations?
There has to be a relentlessness about the whole thing. The whole team has to be always trying to get better. Just having your eyes open and being in the restaurant is important. For us it’s re doing our plate program, or expanding the garden, adding orchards or animals to raise so we can get better. The menu development for one never stops in our kitchen. Even on the day we are closed I am in here all day working on stuff and we have been doing that for almost ten years now. That is the reason why I don’t worry about what anyone has to say because we are pushing incredibly hard ourselves.
Chef’s egos rise in proportion to their celebrity or renown and it seems more in the US. Why?
It’s not just more American chef’s but chef’s in general are egoistical. By nature chfs are more insecure and ego driven people. You are in a business where you work super hard to get noticed and be appreciated. The kind of people who gravitate towards that are those that look for instant gratification and for whom the opinions of others are very important. Top Chef stuff is huge even in France from what I have seen. That I feel is across borders and in the US there is lower tolerance for some of the foolery that exists certainly in the French kitchens.
Is there a shortage of cooks in the US?
I think it exists everywhere in the world. Even when I staged in Michelin starred restaurants in France I would work different stations as a stage. They couldn’t staff their kitchens and that is why you saw all these Japanese stagiares everywhere. Most people there worked 40hrs/week so no one wanted to work 80 hours a week in a restaurant back in the day. It’s a huge problem in Europe even these days as well as no one wants to work such hours any more.
There is a shortage of service staff too. Is that why we see cooks bringing dishes to the table?
Definitely and we do that now and I think we are going to do exclusively that kind of service at Charter Oak . We are lucky that we don’t have any issues finding great people but moving into a more casual operation I can see that happening.
You have your own gardens and you use what you grow in the restaurant. Why are so many restaurants maintaining their own gardens these days?
At first, it’s about competition between chefs. When you see chefs who are growing beautiful things, others want to do that too. There are some social elements to it but at the end of the day these chefs are spending the money in pursuit of making their restaurant better. It is a monstrous undertaking to grow your own products. If it’s a trend, it’s not going to last long because it requires incredible commitment, financial resources, and professional expertise. We have a team of six people and allocate a large budget to the garden because it is central to everything we do.
Are we seeing a resurgence of the concept of terroir in the US with attention to products and is it uniquely applicable to French cuisine?
There has always been regional cooking in America. It’s totally French of the French to think that only they can reference terroir. I worked at one, two or three Michelin starred restaurants where the product they used was garbage.
Which young chefs in the US are ones to watch?
I don’t want to give names but I would argue that there are a lot of chef’s in small markets, small cities or out in the country who are doing better food than what you find in big cities. A lot of them don’t get the attention they deserve. There is a lot of interesting dynamic in America more than France or a lot of the other countries. Spain has a long history of cuisine but a lot of the modern Spanish cooking is just that. It’s predicated around where you are cooking and it’s not my thing.
You have two young children. In this rapidly evolving culture, what would you like to preserve for them?
Open spaces for one. Napa is very beautiful but it’s all privately owned now.
What would you like to bring back to the food culture? For the story to go on for the next generation?
Locally I feel as I said in my book it’s about a certain mindfulness of what’s happening around you. What ever results from that mindfulness is up to an individual or chef. As long as you understand the history of a place, support local people and help them pursue their own agricultural endeavor and bring along local artisans. The result will all be different for each individual. What is happening in Napa is that there is a very homogenous planned vanilla development because people don’t dig deep into what’s happening around them.
Is this a cultural effect?
I think economics plays a very huge role in this. If you are catering to wealthy tourists that impacts the food and if the cost of doing business is high then you won’t have young entrepreneurial chefs opening small progressive restaurants. It’s the economics in all the markets that drives the food culture.
What was your experience at Osteria Franscescana during the Gelinaz chef shuffle?
The whole experience was really fun and really enjoyable. The concept of popping up above all is all about opening doors to interesting collaborative processes. From an interpersonal relationship point of view it is really interesting to meet all these people. Restaurants can be very insular places where we are all are super focused on work . and pursuing our own stories. It is interesting to pop up in someone’s kitchen across the world and meet all the people involved. It was my first visit and it was great spending time in Modena with Massimo (Bottura) his wife Lara, son Charlie and the team.
You also participated in the Gelinaz event in SF last year. What is your opinion of such events?
I normally don’t do a lot of these events but I did enjoy it. As a concept it very different as there are a lot of events but the one in Modena for me was especially interesting. You experience your peers culinary work and culture in their own environment.
Last year you took a break from the Twelve days of Christmas. Is it back on for 2017?
Yes, we just took a year off and we are holding it again this year with a very insane lineup of guest chefs. It’s going to be very interesting is all I can say till we officially announce the event. We enjoy having our friends come and cook with us. It’s great for the team and the community who get exposed to these different chef’s. It’s been a great event for us and we are looking forward to the next one.
So, who is on this year?
(laughing) I am not disclosing that right now but stay tuned for the news!