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Christopher Kostow on Revitalizing Meadowood and the Power of Slow Expansion

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Photo: The Restaurant at Meadowood

Napa Valley chef Christopher Kostow is a busy man. Yesterday, in the first part of this two-part interview, Kostow elaborated on the many projects his team is working on at The Restaurant at Meadowood, as well as the chef collaborations he has in the works. Here now, Kostow reflects on a recent bar expansion that has helped redefine and create a bigger tent for the three-Michelin-starred restaurant. He also talks about future projects, his own path to success, and the meaning of awards such as the James Beard award for Best Chef: West he won earlier this year.

So how have things been at Meadowood with the bar expansion earlier this year?
We're crazy enough to keep trying to improve things. All that we sort of put in place has totally changed the energy and feel of the restaurant. It creates a feeling of energy that it didn't have before. In the previous incarnation of the restaurant, you walked into the restaurant right into this bar, right into this sort of hushed place. Whereas now you have this intermediary place with a beautiful rotunda, fireplaces, a nice sitting room where we can accommodate the desire of different people for different kinds of experiences in a way that we couldn't. Now people come in for snacks and cocktails. Also now they come in for a three-course at the bar, which we can now accommodate owing to the rotunda. Or they could come in for the tasting menu.

So what you have is more locals coming in now because they can have the three-course a couple times a week. We have a much, much younger clientele of people who are just in the Valley and want to come have the cocktails — which are just out of this world good — and then the snacks that the kitchen is doing. It's just created this energy that I don't know we were cognizant of needing, really. Now when we have it, I couldn't imagine the restaurant any other way.

When did you start thinking that you wanted to do something like this then?
Well, we had a lot of things in development. We were starting with a problem. The problem, ostensibly, was it being an older building we had this setup that if you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had to go outside. There was this outside rotunda where the bathrooms were located. It was fine; it wasn't super pretty. So that was the jumping-off point. We had to alleviate some of these issues. We're lucky because we have an amazing architect that we work with. We have a visionary guy like [Meadowood founder] Bill Harlan. We have the input of myself and [restaurant director] Nathaniel [Dorn]. So problems become opportunities.

It increased dramatically the numbers of people we can accommodate, but as I said, it really changed the energy. And also the aesthetic of the restaurant. I don't know if you've been out to the restaurant, but the new remodel, it's just really sexy. It's really organic and really pretty and it just ties, to quote The Big Lebowski, ties the whole room together.

Why add the bar menu and snack program, too? Was that just because you had the bigger space you went for it?
Well, I think we were really happy with the cocktails that we were making. We just didn't have the format with which to showcase them. I think the snack program in the physical space we have now allows us to do it. I haven't seen too many restaurants where the cocktails so closely mirror the food in aesthetic and philosophy. We're sort of a little bit throwback in our cocktail style. Not throwback in terms of handlebar mustaches and paperboy clothing, but throwback in the style of just really clean, concise, delicious, vegetal forward, uncomplicated cocktails.

It's not as though we make money on snacks. It's not like we're doing it as a money thing. We're doing it because we want people to enjoy and appreciate the cocktail program. Again, it gives people an opportunity maybe before they go to dinner elsewhere or maybe people who had already been in for dinner on another occasion to come in and spend — whether it's five minutes or it's two hours and five minutes — time in the restaurant, seeing the style of food that we're doing as demonstrative by the snacks and really digging the cocktails that Sam the bartender is doing.

CNN had a piece recently about Michelin-starred chefs opening more casual offshoots of their restaurants, which has been happening for some time. But those additions at Meadowood seem to fit in this spirit of offering people the chance to experience a restaurant at a different price point.
Historically, you know, chefs would open their more money-making places. A lot of the three-stars I worked at in Europe, you had the restaurant and you had some other restaurant that was a brasserie or whatever. Our thinking was more in terms of we just wanted a bigger tent. We wanted to see more and different kinds of people. We wanted to be speaking to more and different kinds of people.

For us, a bar program and a snack program, it isn't us trying to necessarily generate tons of revenue or reinvent ourselves. It's more a question of what do we want the restaurant to be? Our price point in terms of the tasting menu is high — and frankly, as it should be given the way we do things — but that doesn't mean that we don't want to see locals or younger people who maybe can't come into the dining room. That doesn't mean that we don't want to see them, we don't want to cook for them, we don't want to show them our hospitality. So I don't look at this as our way of opening that other second moneymaking restaurant as much as I do redefining what our one restaurant is.

And you have plans also to open a barbecue restaurant and another more casual spot too right?
Yeah, we're still working on things. We look at it as more a marathon less a sprint. We want to do things the right way. For me, my number one priority is the restaurant. I could never put myself in a position where I'm doing other things that would in any way jeopardize that. So that really creates a very small window, you know what I'm saying? I'm pretty young and I'm pretty methodical about these things. So those things are all in the works as best as they can be. They're going to happen in the near future hopefully, but you just don't know and it really depends on what the right thing is.

For me, I marvel, frankly, at some of these young guys who come out of TV or whatever and go open like three restaurants in two years. I know you can do it. I know you can make money doing it. I think that's great and I don't begrudge anybody for doing that. I just don't think like that. So I'm going to be doing other things absolutely. But they're going to be done in a way that I believe is consistent philosophically with what we do in the restaurant. And done in a way that enables me to be the kind of person and live the kind of life that I want to live. I don't need to be famous. I don't need to be rich. My emphasis is on me and my family being happy. And my staff being happy. And creating opportunity and doing things positive for the community and so on and so forth. It's not about creating an empire.

Right. You've talked a lot about how you've embraced being in Napa and being a Napa chef. So what to you is the value of sticking with that community as opposed to expanding outward?
I like going down and doing a little thing for the old movie theater in town and standing there on Main Street and seeing 50 people that I know walking down the street. I'm just that guy. Again, it's a little bit of a throwback. We have a book that is actually halfway done which will be out next year that kind of addresses that idea of cooking with roots. In terms of the physical product and also in terms of the people that you surround yourself with and the idea of maybe becoming a voice for some of those people. And, in some ways, those people becoming a voice for you.

I think that there's a million ways to be successful and to make money. There's not a lot of ways — or I certainly don't see a lot of ways — to have a career and a life that are one thing, inseparable from each other. For me that has a lot of value. That's something that you kind of have to write in pencil. You can't write it in marker. It isn't that scale-able. It has to be something where you're ingrained in what you're doing and it's ingrained in you. That is inherently a positive experience and one that makes you a better person. But it's also a bit limiting in terms of opportunities that I would consider pursuing. I'm in Napa. Would I ever do something outside of Napa? I'm sure at some point in my career I will. But I really like being here now.

Yeah, you've got plenty of time.
I'm not nearly as didactic as I used to be. I don't begrudge anybody else's path or how they do things. I really don't. There's a million paths in this industry. But a man much smarter than me said to me recently that if you don't know what you want to do, then it seems like all paths lead you there. You know what I'm saying? Meaning if you start by knowing what you want to do and you start by knowing who you want to be, then decisions become pretty easily made.

Speaking of success, this year you also won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West. So let's start with the obvious question: how was that?
It was really fun. I've got to be honest with you. There's no objective reality in any of this stuff, any of these awards. Michelin or Pellegrino or James Beard. It's wonderful, frankly, to sit in Lincoln Center and see your little restaurant from St. Helena, California, be nominated for best service in the country and best chef on the West Coast. Win or not win, it's pretty awesome. To go with my business partner Nathaniel, who was nominated for best service in the country.

We've been doing this for not that long. We have a very small restaurant that we're still trying to improve all the time, and, again, it's such a thrill to know that we haven't been banging the drum. We've just been trying to make a beautiful product for some period of time. It's great for the restaurant, it's great for the staff, it's just great. And winning is just sort of icing on the cake at that point. Look at these guys: Corey Lee, Daniel Patterson. Come on. I'm always amazed. I say this with no false humility. I'm always amazed to be mentioned in the same breath as all of these other guys. I so appreciate their skills and their diligence. So that in and of itself is a win.

Did it affect things at the restaurant?
We're lucky we're a pretty busy restaurant, which is good. It all helps. It's hard to pinpoint what it is that drives things. I know that people mention it a lot. I guess I anecdotally can tell what things impact business just by guests talking about it. If it's something in a magazine or a newspaper or Beard or Michelin, you get a sense of what drives people to the restaurant. I think in the end we want a restaurant that's recognized as being a great restaurant even in years where we don't win awards or we don't have articles. That's legacy and that takes time. It's the long haul that we're prepared to do.

You sort of mentioned this, but what do you think of the Michelin stars and the Beards and the 50 Best and their relative impact on restaurants?
You can't argue against the fact that those things help business. It also changes business. Less the Beard awards, but you get certain kinds of clienteles when you win certain kinds of awards. Expectations change, which is fine. We actually kind of welcome that. But I hope to be a restaurant that people come to to enjoy it. Not a restaurant people come to check it off a list. Cooking for people who are there to have a good time is fun. Trying to meet expectations is fun. The idea of food as collection — like, "I've been to this place and this place and this place" — I don't see a lot of fun in that.

So all the awards are great. We love 'em, they help business. Winning three stars is one of the greatest moments of my life, frankly. Not to sound melodramatic, but that was a big moment for a chef. But in the end it's about, do you love what you're doing, do you love what you're cooking, do you love the people you surround yourself with? Do you appreciate your guests? Are you making them happy? In the end, that's the soul of the whole thing. So yes, those awards help drive business, but they'd better not create your identity.

I have always wondered about the list-checking of restaurants and why people do that. What do you think? Is it something you could have ever imagined yourself doing?
No. I don't know that I ever set out to be that guy or have that restaurant. It's a psychology that I don't totally get. Just like I don't get the celebration of a 13-year-old who is like a culinary prodigy. I want to give the kid a baseball and tell him to go outside. I think that food in its fullest sense is not about Flickr. You can't separate food from your life. This sort of clinical examination of food, I just don't get it. It just doesn't resonate with me at all. I think hospitality is important. Doing beautiful work is important. Doing things with a smile makes people feel good. That, to me, is of consequence.

As to whether or not we ever get on the Pellegrino list, who knows? I'm sure I could control that; I don't. But what's important to me are those things that we talked about. Believing in what you do and making people happy.

· 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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