SALT OF THE EARTH: Christopher Kostow

Photography Andreas Branch

You can tell a lot about a man by his socks. Christopher Kostow, executive chef of the Restaurant at Meadowood, is proudly showing off a gray pair splashed with bold pink polka dots, which, coupled with his chef’s whites, utilitarian khaki pants, thick-framed glasses, and comfortably worn-in leather loafers, creates an interesting contrast to the idea of what a Michelin-starred chef should look like. Like his socks, Kostow is fun, tongue-in-cheek, and carefree. And as one of only ten three-Michelin-starred chef’s in America, he’s an anomaly. Then again, Kostow is about to break new ground by introducing the world to a new kind of Napa cuisine.

This October, the 37-year-old chef will debut his first cookbook, A New Napa Cuisine, where he discusses the transformative effect Napa Valley has had on his perceptions of cooking and craft, and how he plans on taking the farm-to-table concept to another level. “Philosophically, we’re creating the idea of Napa Valley cuisine, which hasn’t really happened before. Its about a creation of a style of cuisine that’s specific to this Valley. There’s been a ton of great food here and a ton of great chefs, but we wanted to do a food that comes from here versus a food that just happens here.”

“The Valley had a long agricultural legacy before there were grapes. It’s not just about the product—it’s about the connections to the land and the connections to the history of the place,” he continues. “It’s about our artisans—everything is made by local artisans within the Valley. It’s about erasing the line between the food and physical plate and making really seamless dishes. We use what is made here: there are the unused elements of the grape, the leaves we smoke over wood, honey and beeswax and olives, all these things that are specific to this place. That’s our framework.” The lucky guests of Auction Napa Valley are going to experience that framework firsthand, as Kostow has agreed—for the first time—to create the menu for this year’s big event which, incidentally, will be held at a place he knows well: Meadowood.

The Restaurant at Meadowood kitchen

“The theme of the wine auction this year is Napa Valley, and there’s a sort of prominence in that I’m looking at this meal a coming out party for this idea which we’ve been slowly crafting within the walls of this restaurant. It’s a really great opportunity to say, ‘Hey, look at this thing that exists and makes people proud to live here.’ It’s beyond the beauty of the place; there are so many aspects of the community that come together here. It’s our foragers, our growers, our farmers, our winemakers, our hunters. It’s taking the Valley as a whole to do this dinner.” This year’s Auction Napa Valley is particularly important for Kostow, as in his nearly six years on property, he has had minimal involvement in the Valley’s largest fundraising event. “It’s a big thing for us,” he admits. “I’m the chef of the Restaurant, but I’ve had little or no involvement with the wine auction for the last five years. My first year here I was asked to do something, but [the auction] is a big disconnect from the operations of the restaurant; we’re in our own little world.”

That said, Auction-goers shouldn’t expect to see Kostow’s traditional small plates on the menu; he’ll be tweaking to accommodate the approximately 1000 guests expected at this year’s event. “We’re doing family-style dishes, very casual,” he reveals. “There are quite a few vegetables, grains, dumplings made with grains, dry and wild berries, house-made yogurts, potatoes cooked in local  beeswax, and a carrot dish in clay from Calistoga. The final course is a hog smoked over used Cabernet barrels. Every ingredient is from the Valley, which is crazy.”

The Restaurant at Meadowood

“Crazy” is also a word that can be used to describe Kostow’s storied career in the culinary industry. It wasn’t until he graduated from New York’s Hamilton College with a degree in philosophy that this master chef knew his true calling was in the realm of gourmet food. He was given the opportunity to create his own dishes at the age of 22 by acclaimed San Diego chef, Trey Foshee, but then decided to push his personal envelope even further by embarking on a countrywide tour of France. He worked at the Michelin-starred Le Jardin de Sens in Montpellier and manned the stove at a former monk’s abbey in Salon-de-Provence before heading back to the States to work as a sous chef under Daniel Humm at Campton Place. Kostow then landed at Chez TJ in Mountain View, garnering two Michelin stars and a James Beard nomination before landing at The Restaurant at Meadowood in 2008. In 2011 he earned three Michelin stars, becoming the third youngest chef and second American-born chef to ever receive the honor. Along with Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, he has made The Restaurant at Meadowood the only other three Michelin-starred eatery in the San Francisco Bay Area and Wine Country.

In addition to being one of the best chefs in the country, Kostow is also one of the most charitable. He thinks nothing of volunteering his time, and when he’s not in the Restaurant’s kitchen, he’s gallivanting off to cook at a series of  fundraising events around the globe, including benefits such as Relais & Chateaux’s Gourmetfest, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, and Gourmet Abu Dhabi.

Private dinning room

“My time is a lot less valuable than the millions of dollars that people spend,” he says humbly, though notes that it isn’t always the easiest route to give up his already limited amount of free time, especially with a 15-month old newborn daughter at home. “It’s challenging, but it’s a lot more challenging to be in the situations that these auctions are meant to remedy.” Kostow might have even less time in the near future, given that he may soon be appearing on a television screen near you. “I would only do TV if I could control the content. We turn down a lot of TV stuff. There are exceptions, but it’s hard to find something really quality. TV, as a medium, is really challenging,” he says, before admitting, “There’s something we’re [currently] in talks about.”

The show he has his eye on is an insider’s look at the world of fine dining. He describes his dream show as something “that’s not seen very often, only at its price point. In terms of philosophy and culture and ethos, these things only exist in restaurants at a really high level. An exploration of these kinds of restaurants would be really interesting to watch. It won’t be dumbed down. I thnk an exploration of these restaurants and the teams behind them and what drives them would be super interesting.”

If the show does come to fruition, don’t expect Kostow to start appearing on episodes of Top Chef or The Taste any time soon: he has no desire to become a celebrity.  “I tell my guys that that most famous chef is still a lot less famous than the least famous person on Dancing With the Stars,” he says with a laugh. “Most Americans would recognize that person over, say, Thomas Keller. If you want to be famous, go do something else. If you want to be famous for the sake of your restaurant and filling seats, I totally respect that. If you have a message that you really want to convey, with television, you’re certainly putting it in front of a lot of people. But I just think that being a chef for the sake of being famous is ridiculous, especially when you consider that you’re really not going to be that famous.”

The Restaurant at Meadowood exterior

For now, and always, Kostow’s focus is on the restaurant he helped to become one of the most feted culinary establishments in the country, and he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. “I’d very much like to continue the work that we started here, and in addition, do other things,” he says of his future plans. “This restaurant has become very personal to myself and [director Nathaniel Dorn], and I’m very happy with what we’ve turned it into. I want to do this and things that complement this.” Kostow wants what is best for his business, and also wants to push the envelope, to make Napa a globally renowned destination for fine dining on par with San Francisco and New York City. He also knows exactly how he’ll accomplish this feat, and he’s ready to make it happen.

“I think a lot about the new luxury, and it’s time to change the concept,” he says. “Food is always associated with value, especially in America. No one looks at a Carolina Herrera dress and says, ‘I wore the dress, but I was still cold.’ Price is often associated with the idea of satisfaction. No one ever says, ‘A Maserati is too expensive; let me decide how much those bolts in the car cost.’ People do that with food, but we’re not all about caviar and truffles. We still serve those things, because we are in the grand tradition of a fine dining restaurant, but luxury is in everything that we do.”