We recently took a gander at Goose & Gander in St. Helena where chef de cuisine Howard Ko, hired last month, blew us away with his palate-pleasing creations that are as beautiful as they are innovative. Considering Ko, 30, worked with some of the most acclaimed chefs in the country and beyond, including mostly recently at three-Michelin starred The Restaurant at Meadowood with Christopher Kostow and The French Laundry with Thomas Keller, his talents shouldn’t come as a surprise. We just didn’t expect to find such a chef—Ko also cooked in the kitchens of Melisse in Los Angeles, Hanilkwan in Osaka, and DB Bistro Moderne, Picholine and Daniel in New York—at Goose & Gander, the three-year-old public house more known for its fantastic cocktails by Scott Beattie and scrumptious burger. We simply had to sit down and chat with Ko to find out more about him as we think he’s on track to turn Goose & Gander, owned by Andrew Florsheim and which also has a wonderful sommelier in Alex McCrea, into a destination restaurant.
What’s your background?
I’m from L.A. I grew up in Koreatown. Both my mother and father are from Korea. I started cooking because my aunt is a big chef in Korea and my other aunt owns a couple of restaurants in Japan. I fell into it and just love it. I went to school in Pasadena for a year for baking and pastries. Obviously I wanted to do the culinary side, but I wanted to learn the pastry side as well so it’s interesting. After that I went to New York and went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. After that I kept going to Restaurant Daniel on the weekends, peeling potatoes and cleaning mushrooms. It was hard but it was worth it. I learned a lot about the sense of urgency and hard work. The early half of my 20s, being in NY, was probably the most fun and best experience so far. I met a lot of people that I still keep in contact with in NY. The food scene was so great out there.
This is your third Napa Valley restaurant so you obviously like Napa, I guess?
Yes I do. When you think about Napa, people are so dedicated to their craft here. Christine [Kim is] the gardener [at Meadowood] and is so dedicated to growing the right thing for the restaurant. All of the winemakers here, everybody is so dedicated to the culture here in Napa and the produce here is beautiful.
I would think that would be a big plus for you because your dishes are beautiful. Could you do that in New York?
New York has its challenges, especially with space. You work basically out of a closet doing 250 covers. Here, I have Forni-Browns, which gives us our greens and he will specify any size of greens. I was thinking of a dish to do a hand salad. Basically it’s a salad and all of the insides will be all of the purées. Everything will be inside of the salad and you can’t even see it. There’s a specific size [green] that you need for that. He’s the one. I tell him about my idea and he sends me samples of what he thinks will work with my ideas. That collaboration is beautiful.
What attracted you to Goose & Gander?
Jeff Spiewak was the GM here at the time. [He} knew me from Meadowood and said that he wanted to change this place to a little bit more of a small plates concept. Being from LA, which is the small plate concept nation, that really attracted me here—to be able to showcase my food. It’s exactly why I wanted to be here.
What’s the reception been?
There are challenges of course. There are people who are used to a certain type of cuisine, and there are people who want something different. It’s trying to find that right balance to move slowly and not shock people as much but keep it interesting.
What’s been the most well-received dish so far?
The summer berries, buttermilk and rose sorbet is the one. It’s very different than what this restaurant is used to but it’s been received quite well.
How do you come up with these creative dishes?
It’s imagination partly… A lot of it too is me sitting down with my sous chef like Jeff Larson and Carl, and sitting down and talking about how we move forward with these ideas, what do they think, because collaboration is definitely a better dish than if one person creates it.
Did you dine at Goose & Gander before you came onboard?
Yes I had. People just know Goose & Gander for the burger mostly. I want to be able to change that. I know that it fills the seats here. When they sit down, I want to surprise them. ‘Wow, I can get the crudo here. I can get the tartare here. I can get so many different things.’ There are so many different techniques and flavors that they can kind of make their own tasting menu, for example, in a more casual setting.
Will you eventually change the menu completely do the menu?
I’ll keep the burger on. I think I’ll get pitchforked [if I don’t]. And it’s a great burger. Kelly McCown [the former executive chef] is a great chef. I love the burger myself so I would not want to take that off. There needs to be salads that people want. You have to think about the locals here as well who may want to just come in for an arugula salad. We’ll start changing; we have to do it gradually. Even though we want to attract the tourists and make them excited, we can’t forget about the locals who have been supporting Goose & Gander for all of this time. This restaurant has been successful more each year without me; I don’t want to upset the loyal fans of Goose & Gander. But at the same time I hope they can see that I’m trying to make this a better place, a place that is more interesting and not really seen in a casual way in the Valley. That was the one thing that really attracted me here. If you go down Main Street, it’s all the same classic cuisine. It works for all of the other restaurants, but it’s not just the type of restaurant that I want to have. I’ve always thought that when I ate here, the food was good but the drinks were delicious. I want to be up to par with how the drink program is. As we move forward, people will understand that we have great drinks and interesting food as well.
Goose & Gander is located at 1245 Spring Street, St. Helena, (707) 967-8779. The restaurant and Basement Bar are open Sunday through Thursday from noon until 11:00 p.m., and stay open until midnight on Friday & Saturday. Starting July 1, the Basement Bar is open every night until midnight.
Photos courtesy Wendy Suh