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Christopher Kostow on Vision, Stories, and Community

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Photo: Leanna Creel/Creel Films

The chef Christopher Kostow earned three Michelin stars when he was thirty-four. That was in February of 2010, almost exactly two years after arriving at The Restaurant at Meadowood. He had landed at the picturesque Napa resort after studying philosophy at Hamilton College and then working the kitchens of Daniel Humm and Trey Foshee, among others.

In the first installment of our interview, the chef talks about his youth and maturation, how Napa has changed his food, and how he'll never let Michelin stars be a burden.

You just cooked at Eleven Madison Park with Daniel Humm, who mentored you early on at Campton Place. Can you talk a little bit about the similarities and resonances you see between him and his restaurant and you and your restaurant?
I think there are strong similarities in the dynamics of EMP and Meadowood. At both places, you have very young people at the helm. What's kind of cool about both places is that we're sort of making things up as we go along. We're trying in our own ways to create something that is unique.

There is also a struggle parallel: we are both inheritors of restaurants. Daniel came in and inherited a restaurant that was moving in a certain direction, and it was sort of the same with me. At a certain point, I think both of us made a decision that instead of leaving to explore our vision, we were going to do it where we found ourselves.

I'm not saying the restaurants changed midstream necessarily, but I think there was a clear evolution.

What do you mean by the phrase, "Making things up as we go along"?
That was maybe a dangerous way of framing it. You try to look at things with fresh eyes, I guess. You need to have the courage of conviction to say, "This is how I think things should be." That's a hard thing to do in the world of restaurants. I look at Thomas Keller's places — those manners of service and systems of operation that have been stolen and replicated and looked up to — and it's clear that having a legacy like that is the goal. It's about constantly trying to innovate.

In the world of fine dining, it's very easy to wake up one day and be passé. You need to constantly work towards refreshing and innovating.

That brings us to the question of the three Michelin stars. There are a good number of three-stars that innovate, that constantly push, but the argument could be made that there are a ton that remain static and repeat what got them those three originally. How do you innovate with that potential burden?
It's interesting. I had a drink with our new somm last night, who is coming at this with pretty fresh eyes. He said that one of the amazing things about working at Meadowood is that I never mention the three stars. Now don't get me wrong: the day I got them was one of the greatest of my life, and I say that without hyperbole. But still, I won't allow it to be a burden and I'm going to own it the way I want to own it. It will only serve as an impetus for making things better and ideally will never serve as a burden or excuse for why we can't progress.

I'm young. I got three stars when I was 34, so by no means was I going to put it on cruise control. I understand the impulse to do that, especially when you realize the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into making these things happen. For me, what is exciting is the evolution, the constant reevaluation, the changing. That shit is fun. Right now the restaurant is closed until March and we're improving things. It's not a re-concepting, but to be able to think about coffee and tea service, menu formats, even the colors of the aprons you wear is pretty great. If I were ever to lose that, I'd probably just go to law school.

Let's go back to the start, to the idea of the inherited restaurant. What did you find when you got to Meadowood in 2008? How has it evolved, in your view?
When I got to Meadowood, I think it was a great restaurant, especially on the service side of things. People did their jobs very well in a beautiful space on a beautiful property in a beautiful part of the world. So, I didn't necessarily have to right a ship that was heading in the wrong direction. But there is no great restaurant in the world that isn't personal, that doesn't speak to the particular visions of two or three people involved.

I think the main difference, then, is that it's simply more me and it's simply more Nathaniel [Dorn, the restaurant's director] and it's simply more ours. We're very fortunate to have the partners that we do in that restaurant, who share our vision and are so unbelievably supportive.

What would you say your vision is?
I don't know if this would constitute a paradigm shift, but at a certain point I decided that I was going to be in Napa — that I was going to stay and do Meadowood. I don't want to sound too contrived in saying this, but once you figure out where you're cooking from, you're almost cooking in the service of a bigger ideal. It's at that point where there is some degree of clarity.

So, the food is going to go in the direction that best enables us to speak to the place and the community at large. I always used to say, "Let's make the restaurant as Meadowood-y as possible," and I still do. We want to create a singular experience.

But what does that mean?
I think it boils down to the fact that we're telling a story. Cooking becomes easier when you know what you're trying to say. What we're trying to say is, "This is our Napa." It's evidenced in the food as shown by the products and the plates upon which the food sits and the style, which I think is becoming cleaner and more pared down and less precious. It's getting a little more rustic, in some way.

We're able to tell the story of the people that helped contribute to the product as a whole: the people that grow our vegetables with us, because we do our own gardening, the people that forage with us, the people who make our china, the people who press our olive oil, and so on and so forth.

So I think we're cooking in the service or at the behest of a community at large. And when you do that, there is an automatic humility that comes into place. That is a saving grace for a chef like me, because it keeps you humble and gives you context and prevents you from being overly conceptual or precious with the food. It also prevents you from becoming a personality outside of the kitchen. We are very embedded in the community — in St. Helena specifically. Whether it's working with the movie theater or the Montessori schools, it is so important for us culturally within the restaurant to positively impact people. That invariably demonstrates itself in the experience as a whole.

You may disagree with this premise, but there are the restaurants that try very hard to tell a story, and that may mean that not every dish blows you away. In the end, if they are successful, it all comes together. Then, there are those that want to blow you away dish-by-dish and don't really care about anything else...
I'm both. I'm always both. I don't know if it's possible, but I want to blow you away dish-by-dish. With what you're paying, you deserve brilliance in every bite. Period.

I think you can still tell a consistent narrative and have every dish blow you away. Chefs can sometimes hate or have the tendency to ask, "Is it A) or is it B)?" But I think there's a lot that's possible, whether it's just in the food or your role as a chef in general: you can be a diligent in-the-kitchen chef and still have a wide impact and range of contributions outside. You can do a lot.

This move to a less precious, more rustic cooking: has it been gradual or was there a moment where you made the decision to change?
It happens very organically over the course of time. When I moved to Napa, I didn't realize the impact that living there would have on the food. You don't see how that place, unbeknownst to you at the beginning, will necessarily affect the way you look at food. There is no way you can walk those woods or walk those gardens or even drive from my house to the hotel and then go into a kitchen and start turning everything into a powder. There is something about the way in which you leave, the people you speak to, and the general rhythm of it all that invariably impacts the food. Again, I wouldn't say that we woke up and there was a lightning bolt. It's just that the place affects your vision.

Tomorrow, in part two, Kostow talks about whether a restaurant has to have a sense of place to be great, his goals, and his fears.

· All Christopher Kostow Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

The Restaurant at Meadowood

900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, CA 94574

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