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Christopher Kostow on Meadowood's Renovation, the New Menu Format, and His Upcoming Book

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Photo: Ulterior Epicure

Christopher Kostow, chef of The Restaurant at Meadowood, got on the phone this week to give an update on how his three-star Michelin restaurant has been doing since unveiling a major renovation in March. In the discussion, Kostow emphasizes the restaurant's change in menu format and new focus on personalization over the flashier physical changes to the space. He also addresses issues of price (there is a $500 tasting menu on offer), talks about his book plans, and explains why he isn't as big a part of the festival and event circuit as he probably could be.

We spoke just before the major renovations of the restaurant. Can you talk a bit about how that's gone?
I feel like I'm a kid going to the playground and obnoxiously showing off his new toys to the other children. Most of it has to do with the physical changes to the space, how awesome the new kitchen is, but there have been a lot of metaphysical changes to the restaurant that have been interesting and important.

Metaphysical is good. What are some examples?
The way we changed the menu. A lot of people are laboring over the question of menu format. It really dictates how a restaurant functions, how products are ordered, how a chef can communicate with the guests, and how the whole experience plays out. These days, it seems like many restaurants say, "Hey, here's the set menu, we know what we're doing, and this is how you're going to have it." They'll accommodate allergies and restrictions, if you have them.

The question we had was, "How do we create a greater degree of control in the kitchen and on the floor?" How could we control product and order smaller amounts of things and also create a great deal of personalization for the guests? Previously we had a four-course and a tasting menu, and we actually allowed the tables to do either. It was a bit of a shitshow, and I don't think it made for as great an experience. So, what we decided was to take away the physical and try to create as much conversation with the guests as possible before their arrival. It wasn't just about allergies or restrictions. It was about a general theme of likes and dislikes. We try to ask a series of questions that aren't too probing but give us a good idea. What kind of experience do they like? If I can keep those things in mind, then they'll have a better experience, most likely.

We have a list of dishes available, and the night before service, I'll sit down and write menus for the seventy people coming in the next evening based on the conversations that were had on the phone. That enables us to order perfectly. Also, the kitchen knows exactly what they are going to be cooking, so there isn't any wasted food. We'll print out the menus before they get here, and the guests can choose to see them before or after. Most wait until after. It's a curated experience, basically. It's about that fine line of having something done to you and having something done for you, and it ends up being a really positive experience. We don't even have to ring in tickets during service. Tickets are set up before service, which means that service is quiet and focused. The captains also have more time to interact with tables instead of having to stand in front of a computer punching buttons.

We've been able to achieve that rare thing: focus and specificity. The system is pretty well entrenched by now. Considering everything from our costs to the guests' experiences, it's been nothing but positive, really.

There are kaisekis in Japan that'll do a similar thing, having a conversation with guests. How common do you think it is in the States?
I think this desire to please the guests used to result in a six-page menu, as you'd see in the French three-stars. Then the pendulum swung the other way, where the restaurant would open a few days a week, have ten seats, and only serve one menu. I understand the economic reasons for that, but it sort of created this culture where people are at the whim and wish of what the restaurant wants to do. A restaurant that prides itself on its hospitality and its tactile, personal, emotional product — that doesn't make sense for them. I tell my guys, "We may not make everyone happy, but we are fucking going to go down swinging. We are going to try damn hard."

Now to the Ryan Sutton question: pricing. How has it been going with the $500 tasting menu?
We sell an average of eight a night, which is more than we expected. Because the chefs' counter is often booked, we'll also offer it in the dining room. Everybody has their job to do, and I can only speak to my own, and we're doing very well.

Do you find that some guests criticize it or express a level of doubt about the whole thing?
Not at all. Never. Again, it's this idea of going down swinging. If you are in my kitchen or you're at table 2, you'll see and you'll know that we cook with our hearts and our hands. The attention you receive, the food itself, the overall experience — I don't think we've had anyone question the value.

Can you talk about your book?
I think the book is slated to be done in 2036, and it's only going to be four pages. I know the trend now is that everyone has to do a book early because it has marketing and branding value. Previously, books were things that were done towards the latter stages of one's career. I'm somewhere in between. We're working very hard on it but not rushing anything. I think it'll get sold and it'll be a good project. The degree of permanence associated with a book is something that I don't lose sight of. If I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it as best I can.

What do you have in mind?
It's about one chef's relationship with a place. It's about me coming to the Napa Valley without really understanding what it was about and learning what lies beyond the vineyard, both physically and emotionally. It's about how this place took me from being a cook to being a chef. It takes a look at the talented, interesting, dynamic people that live in this place. A lot of them have contributed to the product that we do. It's using these people and activities — our plate-making, our materia prima, our garnish — and how they impacted our food. It's a cookbook of sorts, but it's a little less about me and a little bit more about us.

That actually segues nicely into what you discussed at Mesamerica: how you can negotiate having a sense of place while also expressing your own memories and experiences. You were born in the Midwest and ended up in Napa.
Over and over again, you find that there's nothing more impacting than people's food memories. I can only cook from what I know. As I talked about at Mesamerica, the one that creates gravitas in an otherwise cutesy-cutesy style of food is the American of cultivation and the Yeoman farmer. If you do a dish, maybe it is contingent on something you've experienced, but if you've growing that vegetable and you're out in the field, it creates a resonance that far supersedes your own personal experience. It's bigger than just yourself.

That's been sort of the bridge that we've used to tie this desire for naturalism, which is what we see around us, with this desire to speak truthfully about our own experience. It's the idea of craftsmanship that helps us negotiate those two seemingly disparate things.

Even though you've got three Michelin stars and are a well-known, young chef, you aren't really part of the festival, event, or congress circuit many renowned chefs are part of. Why?
You feel like there's this treadmill that you're on and that there's this set path of how you get recognition. You have to do these conferences and hang out with the right people, and if you really engage all that, it's never-ending. I just decided that I want to do the things that I enjoy and the things that I think will further myself as a person and as a chef. I really can't spend too much time worrying about the accolades that are or aren't going to come as a result of my own actions. Some people see me as too esoteric, not esoteric enough. For some, it's too fancy or it's too rustic. At the end of the day, you just have to do what you want to do.

I've been in this industry for a long time, which can make you a bit cynical. Sometimes, I'll see what other people do, and it kind of seems transparent what the end goal is. It's not for the betterment of their craft or of them as people.

It's about "Let's get famous" to you?
Yeah. "Let's get on certain lists." I mean, God bless, and everyone's life is their own, but I want to be happy with the work I'm doing and spend time with my wife and soon-to-be-newborn child.

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The Restaurant at Meadowood

900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, CA 94574

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