In part two of our interview (see part one here), Chef Christopher Kostow continues to talk about the importance of telling a story at a restaurant, his fears looking ahead, future projects — including a new book — and his desire to just be a regular dude.
Do you think that for a restaurant to be exceptional it absolutely must have a sense of place?
Yes, absolutely. I think a truly great restaurant has to have a story they are trying to tell. You know, food and restaurants are pretty blunt instruments. If I were a little smarter and a little more talented, I would rather have been a poet. But I'm not [laughs]. So we have these pretty blunt instruments with which we have to weave the tale. And I think to have a restaurant that has technical fireworks and some delicious things is not enough. The true mark of a three-star restaurant is that it's a place that tells a story. Traditionally, they also have a strong regional connection and speak to the area.
Every restaurant has to have some values associated with it. You invariably, through the course of any action, are showing principles, values, priorities. So if you try four different restaurants, you are going to see what they care about without anyone having to tell you. What are they saying with how they serve the food? What are they saying with the products used? What are they saying with the techniques employed?
Every experience tells some story, so we're simply trying to tell the story that we are in a place — beyond the vineyard — that is beautiful, dynamic, elegant, and also rustic. That's what we are trying to show, but hey, it could be easier to just write a story. But over the course of time, I think if you do your job right, to some degree you can tell that story.
You talk a lot about telling stories — you said you'd be a poet if you were more talented — which suggests evocation.
Evocation is exceptionally important to us. I believe the difference between a young chef and a mature chef is the difference between provocation and evocation.
When you're young, you want to elicit a reaction and want to show more than you want to tell. So, obviously, it's going to be inherently more dependent on technique and the notions of "Hey, look what I can do! Check out how this liquid nitrogen feels in your mouth!" You're trying to provoke.
But when you get a little bit older and start living in the country and start wearing grandpa sweaters, as I do, you'd rather just have someone come over and tell them a tale. That's just a natural maturation process, I think.
How do you look towards the future? What are your goals and what might you be afraid of?
I look ahead and see potential pitfalls. I'm thirty-five, have three stars, am making a good living. Looking at it from the outside, you might say the world is my oyster. But there are pitfalls out there. They may come in the form of something that distracts you from your food. It can be overextending yourself, which is really my biggest fear, because I really want to do everything — write the books, help people, make the restaurant the best in the world, grow all our own vegetables. That is difficult, though.
I see what we have now as a platform. We are just beginning. Look at this restaurant: for all intents and purposes, it's only four years old. Where we can go with that restaurant is endless, and I think there are other projects on the horizon as well.
Can you talk about any of them?
Let's see how to put this. All I can say is that there's a book that I'm working on with Jenny Murphy. It will be about a new Napa and its effect on our cooking. It will focus on the people and places and the big picture — as little "look at me" as I can possibly achieve. The extent Meadowood will figure into it is to be determined.
I think that there are other opportunities within the Meadowood realm for us to pursue in the near future. Meaning, it's important for us to be very close to home in the foreseeable future.
I'd like to pursue projects that don't require me to spend my life in an airport, and I'd like to avoid becoming a personality. I want to live an honest and true life and still see my wife.
What does the word "personality" mean to you?
I think it's about authenticity. I think personalities sell more widgets than a normal person. I'd like to be true to myself and not become a brand, I guess, or become a caricature of myself. At thirty-five, there's the potential for that if I'm not careful.
How often do you think about this stuff?
All the time. It gets especially heavy when all these opportunities come your way and people start asking for things. I like to say "yes" a lot simply because I like to please — chefs are like that. There's also an inherent insecurity among chefs, where they see other chefs doing something and freak out because they aren't involved. I'm still trying to figure all these things out, but like I said, what's important to me is to do the food I want to do, create the product I want to create, run a successful business, and see my wife. Also, I want to run a positive restaurant, a place where people are happy to work there. Those are the most important things, and everything that comes after that is gravy.
I want to be a normal fucking guy. Maybe I'm just getting boring, but I don't always want to be seen as a chef.
What do you mean by that?
It's that idea of personality. It may sound silly, but I just want to go to ball games and take a walk in the woods. This job and this industry has become this all-consuming thing. Sometimes I just want to be a regular guy.
Then how do you deal with the tension between that and wanting to write the books and have one of the great restaurants of the world?
You have to have the humility that can only come when you realize that your cooking is in service of other people. When you do that, that automatically prevents you from becoming a schmuck.
Do you feel like you're in the minority about feeling this way?
By no means. I think that greatness and integrity and honesty are pretty consistent through each person's pursuits. In other words, you're not going to see a person who creates this beautiful, articulate, compassionate restaurant doing something shitty on the side. You know what I'm saying? And at this level of cooking, there are some pretty amazing people. There are some people that I'm ridiculously honored to be mentioned in the same breath as — and that's not false modesty. Look, tonight I'm doing a dinner with Keller, Boulud, and Alain Chapel's son. There are good models out there.
But I think that for some people, priorities can change and they don't care if they're looked at as schmucks. But I definitely don't want to come off as this guy bemoaning the industry. As terrible as some of the stuff is, as crappy as some of the stuff you see on TV is, it's fine. Maybe that's the 1.0 that will make people seek out people like Thomas, the 2.0's.
As a chef, you kind of play this weird God character. You create your own world. You decide whom you allow in your own kitchen and how you are going to shape them and talk to them, so all that these people complaining need to do is shut the door and do their thing.