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Christopher Kostow on Collaboration and Culinary School

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Photo: The Restaurant at Meadowood

Last month, chef Christopher Kostow unveiled the impressive lineup of colleagues who will be joining him at The Restaurant at Meadowood for this year's 12 Days of Christmas dinner series. It's the sixth year the Napa Valley restaurant has hosted these dinners, which this time will bring in the likes of David Chang (Momofuku), Andy Ricker (Pok Pok), Ashley Christensen (Poole's Diner), and Rasmus Kofoed (Geranium, Denmark). And this is just one of the many projects Kostow has underway right now.

In this first part of a two-part interview, Kostow discusses what collaboration and travel has done to create a community of chefs. As he says, "it's amazingly impressive the quality of people who are cooking today and the intellect and the passion and the diligence and the charitable humanitarian side of it." He also weighs in on the great culinary school debate and explains how he's trying to create a "sphere of inspiration" at the restaurant.

(cold open)

Are you from DC originally?

I am.
You guys have a great food scene. I need to find a reason to get out there. I've heard it's awesome.

Yeah, it's grown quite a bit in the last five years even. It's an interesting place to be right now.
Well if you know anybody that wants to invite me to a dinner and give me an excuse to come to DC, I'd love to do it.

I'm sure a lot of people would take you up on that. I'll spread the word.
That's sort of the fun thing about our business now. There's so many forward-thinking and humble and hospitable chefs. You can make a life out of traveling around and cooking with people. It's pretty cool.

Yeah that is. How often do you get to do that?
You know, I don't do it as much as I probably should just because I stay pretty close to home. I like to be in the kitchen a lot. [My wife and I] have a six-month-old as well. I'm going to Lummi Island on Monday to do these First Harvest dinners. So it's myself and Grant Achatz and Virgilio Martinez from Peru and Blaine [Wetzel] from Willows Inn there, Dominique Crenn. It's going to be pretty crazy.

That's a good lineup.
I know, I'm a little freaked out, to be honest with you. It'll be pretty interesting.

Why freaked out?
You know, my cooking is pretty methodical. It takes me a long time to come up with ideas and troubleshoot and work through things. I'm much less a "grab ingredients out of the woods and cook 'em" sort of guy. I love the process. From what I hear, they send you to a place that's really inspirational, so I'm really looking forward to it. Just the idea of foraging with Grant Achatz just strikes me as ... It's exciting and interesting. It's such a collection of talented people.

And you recently announced another insane lineup for the 12 Days of Christmas. How did you come up with this year's lineup?
A lot of it is the older I get and the longer I've been in business, the more traveling I've done, the more people I meet, it's really just me inviting people who I kind of want to hang out with. The goal is that everyone invited has a good time. For me and my staff, I think it's an incredible opportunity to learn from these guys. It's an opportunity to share our ethos with the visiting chefs and then sort of hope they spread that word.

In terms of how we choose them, it's people whose food I really want to eat. It's not about high-end food, low-end food. It really doesn't matter. You've got Andy [Ricker] from Pok Pok, who is going to come in and probably do family-style Thai food. Rasmus [Kofoed] from Geranium is gonna do like super high-end intellectual Scandinavian food. So it's about who is interesting, who has sort of a unique voice, who is really owning what they're doing. It's such an awesome, awesome event. I don't think we imagined, when we did this five or six years ago, that it would become what it has. It's really been an enjoyable, although challenging event.

Can you talk more about becoming friends with these guys?
I'm not super ingrained in the international chef community. Geography plays a role. My working inward style plays a role. But it's amazingly impressive the quality of people who are cooking today and the intellect and the passion and the diligence and the charitable humanitarian side of it. It is unbelievable. That gets lost a lot in some of the hoopla and certainly a lot of the TV stuff. There are smart people doing really, really good work, and I wish at times the media did a better job at parsing and differentiating between these guys who are really trying to do positive things and doing great work and the guys who maybe are getting sometimes more of the attention.

But every event I do, I meet someone else who's interesting and who's inspiring in their own way. I don't know how people find out about what we do. I really don't. Because, like I said, we're not really out there banging the drum too much. So it's an honor when you get invited to do things like the Willows Inn thing with the likes of Grant Achatz or Virgilio Martinez, these amazing luminaries. Again, I'm humbled to even be in the same kitchen with these guys.

And I know last year you guys did Q&A sessions with Culinary Institute of America students during the 12 Days of Christmas. Are you doing that again?
The scheduling with the CIA school year isn't jiving. We're probably going to do things at Meadowood. We're going to invite local chefs and cooks and anybody that wants to come. We're actually hosting the event like a meeting room-style at Meadowood.

That was really one of the best parts of last year's 12 Days, because we had the new kitchen which made it entirely more functional and because we incorporated these more overarching ideals behind it with the gardens and the CIA and the wineries and all these things. I think the chefs left inspired. And I know that the event just felt so positive, so good. It was unbelievable. We talked about last year being the last year. But it was so positive. It was awesome.

So last week we ran a rather lengthy article about the pros and cons of culinary school, especially given tuition rates. What are your thoughts on the debate?
I didn't go to culinary school. You get out of things what you put into them. You can learn a lot from culinary school. Part of the issue is culinary school is just like any school. It has to teach to some degree to the lowest common denominator sometimes, you know? That can be challenging for really ambitious cooks. Also cooking is about repetition and doing things over and over again until you have some degree of mastery over them. By nature of school, the path is linear. So you're learning one thing and then you're moving onto the next thing and so on and so forth. So while you emerge with a cursory knowledge of a lot of things, you're not emerging with any real knowledge of much.

I value very much our relationship with culinary school because what they do is good work. The facilities they have are great, the teachers they have are great. Personally, if I had — what's it cost now? 50 grand? I would take that money and I would go work for free for two years at the best restaurants that would let me in the door. That's what I would do, frankly. That's more aligned with the path that I took than the path of culinary school.

But these lawsuits, these kids who are like, "Well, I was told I was going to make 70 grand a year." Fucking Google it, you know? Did you really think you were going to make 70 grand right out of school? Did you even do a modicum of research to realize that you're actually making 30 grand when you come out of school? These lawsuits are equally frivolous, frankly.

Yeah and all these reality TV shows aren't really helpful in making you think that you've got a good chance of coming out of this famous and rich.
You know, the reality is you do have a better chance or becoming famous and rich. It's a lot easier than it used to be. It's crazy. I don't want to get into that, but it's amazing. You can go on TV, run around doing whatever and you can emerge and be well-known. It doesn't mean you're going to have any longevity. You see all these guys come off TV shows, opening their restaurant and they're closed in a year, two years.

Running a restaurant is really hard. That's what is not universally understood. There's no shortcuts in this business. You've got to go through it. Guess what? Dinner goes until 11. You're going to be there until 1. There's a lot of shit that needs doing. It's hard. Period. So one way or another either you do the work or you do something else.

There was an article in the New York Times about New York restaurants not being able to staff their kitchens. I don't personally have that problem, but you hear that problem a lot, which is counterintuitive with all these kids going to culinary school. But the reality is they're not staying in the business, I don't think. I don't have the numbers, but I don't think they're staying in the business.

That's what David Chang was saying, he estimated it was a 90 percent or more.
I would agree. But now the culinary schools, what they're doing is they're also focusing on all these non-restaurant jobs within the industry. Come to culinary school and you can become a food stylist. Come to culinary school and you can go on the Food Network. You know? Maybe they're in the business ostensibly, but not necessarily in the kitchens. There's a reason 20 years ago it was criminals and lunatics who were in the kitchens. It is not an easy job. Maybe they're styling food or something, but you don't see them in the kitchen too much.

I was looking at your website and you guys also have just a ton of projects going on.
Yeah. We engaged in what I call sort of a sphere of inspiration. We work with a lot of artisans all within Napa. Really beautiful, beautiful stuff. We are obviously working on the book. We had the Montessori project, which is the gardens we run in conjunction with the Montessori School here in town, which is just like a revelation. We grow on the land there, we host the school and the kids every quarter up in the restaurant for a community lunch. It's just this awesome, awesome manifestation of this overarching philosophy that we're trying to embody. We really have stepped up our foraging program a lot. And then there's the products that we get from the Valley that we cultivate or that we create ourselves or so on and so forth. We're busy people.

I don't want to be a farmer. I'm not going to start raising animals. I want to be in the kitchen. But what I really want is 500 people working on a thing, not me. It's not about this being my thing. The more people who are involved and inspired, the better off we are, the better off they are, the better off the product is. And we really have begun to look at dining in the restaurant, we want it to be a celebration. You're not coming to church when you eat at The Restaurant at Meadowood. You're going to come and there's going to be a celebration of the people and products of the place and that's frankly what we spend our time doing.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of the interview in which Kostow reflects on what success means to him and talks about how a recent bar expansion has changed the energy at Meadowood.

· All Christopher Kostow Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Restaurant at Meadowood Coverage on Eater [-E-]

The Restaurant at Meadowood

900 Meadowood Ln St Helena, CA

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