Chef Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood On Keeping It Real
When I last caught up with Kostow, he had just returned from a trip with his wife and two young daughters to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and was excited about the final stage of construction on the new restaurant. His partner in this new culinary venture is his front of house collaborator Nathaniel Dorn, while in the kitchen chef Katianna Hong will be translating the forward-thinking chef’s ethos onto plates.
The Daily Meal: Is the construction of your new restaurant in Napa, the Charter Oak, nearing completion?
Christopher Kostow: The construction has been a long process as it’s a very big space. The building is almost done and looking really good, and we are hoping to open the doors in May.
What is your favorite design or structural element in the new space?
I think it’s the overall vastness and scale of the space with 20-foot-high ceilings. It has a beautiful courtyard with mulberry trees and red brick that give it a sense of grandeur in a Californian style. It’s not the European style, which is pretty much impossible to replicate, but the old Californian sensibility. The decor is very minimal as we are trying to showcase the building with exposed red brick, blackened steel, and old wood floors.
What will be different about the food or service as opposed to The Restaurant at Meadowood?
It’s going to be all family-style and hyper-casual, and most things will be served off a large hearth in the middle of the room. The space is very big, so it will lend itself to a self-exploratory experience for guests. It’s also an opportunity for us to support a young chef. Kat has been with me for five years, and she is going to do a really good job there.
Is there something that will surprise guests?
I think the absence of service will surprise guests as it will be a very hands-off approach to dining. There will be no wait staff fawning over tables, and there will be white coats but only running the food. It will all feel very natural.
We spoke once about white tablecloth dining for your next project. Is it not this one?
No [laughing]. Definitely not since it is the opposite.
Are cutlery drawers at tables a part of this hands-off approach?
Yes, there are cutlery drawers at tables.
What kind of guests do you envision at Charter Oak as opposed to Meadowood, which is a resort setting?
The clientele will run the gamut of guests looking for great dining and sophistication. We will probably have people from every walk of life and place. It is what drove this concept of simplicity. I feel that people who know a lot about food will appreciate the beautiful simplicity. People who don’t, on the other hand, can still appreciate it as it will be understandable. It was very important for us that we were able to appeal to a vast majority or a wide swath of people who come to visit Napa Valley. From socioeconomic and food points of view, we will have a little bit of everything.
I am assuming that the price point will be quite different from Meadowood.
Yes, it will be very affordable and approachable even though Napa Valley is a little bit more elevated in price point than other places. Charter Oak will be very comparable and competitive to other casual restaurants in the area.
The Instagram videos you posted last year about placing No. 67 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list were hilarious. What were they about?
We don’t want to come across as bitter or angry but we believe very strongly in the work we do. To be told that we were No. 67 in anything was to us a bit funny and irritating at the same time. Lists like OAD, which I think is ridiculous [and] where we are rated No. 6 for example, the guy doesn’t know my name and has never even been here. As for the voting for lists like San Pellegrino are they saying that so many people went to Lima? No way! Or to Moscow, no way, so you can question many of these rating processes. On OAD, we are very well considered on the list but every year they call me Craig Kostow and talk about dishes we had 10 years ago on the menu. For the 10 years that we have been open he has never visited, so how does he decide this list? The problem is that chefs grant validity to these events by appearing there or by participating.
Is that the reason some chefs don’t even show up at the 50 Best awards?
I don’t think I would show up. It’s all very self-congratulatory, and whether you are No. 3 or No. 103 on the list, it doesn’t matter. The idea that we all get in a room, pat each other on the back! It’s crazy. We are just chefs; we aren’t curing cancer or anything. Chefs who are smarter than me do take advantage of the business these lists bring in, and they make very specific campaigns to be on these lists.
What bothers me is that the rest of the journalistic world is all about the headline that reads World’s Best Chef cooking a dinner. It isn’t just like adopting a phrase that someone verbalized like World’s Best Restaurant chef doing a pop-up for example. So, are they saying it is the World’s Best? Have they even been there? No, it’s just what the list says.
Doesn’t that stem from the fact that most people writing these stories don’t have knowledge or understanding of the chefs or their work?
That is true because they don’t understand the chef or the work they are doing, they haven’t experienced the cuisine, don’t understand the differences between chefs, and simply put, they have no context. It’s like me becoming an opera reviewer. What do I know about opera? Nothing, and I can go to one and say yeah, sure it was great.
How significant is the role of food critics these days since social media has enabled anyone to be a critic? Do they still influence public opinion?
We are in a fortunate position right now, and it may not last forever [but] we don’t really worry when a journalist comes in for dinner. We ourselves have such high expectations, which are way higher than anyone else would have from us. So the idea that we are going to be worried when someone walks in the door doesn’t apply. If we are worried then that means that we are not doing our jobs well. We need to please ourselves and work up to our own standards and expectations first.
Granted that we have a greater degree of knowledge in order to make these experiences vis a vis are we doing a good job or not according to someone else. It is scary to be granting the power to opinionated knuckleheads to judge us. Sure, they have the power to and do change opinions. I feel there is a muddying of waters by Michelin or the Pellegrino-sponsored list and now what seems like a million other lists. The average consumer on Facebook doesn’t know the difference; they don’t know which one was anonymous, which one was paid for. Everyday there is a list that taps the top 10 restaurants of Napa or Tulsa or someplace else and eventually the diners cannot differentiate after being bombarded repeatedly with this information.
Do the chefs help popularize these lists, or is it the other way around?
Some very well-known chefs were around at the inception of this stuff, and chefs give these lists validity. If the chefs didn’t show up for the awards or didn’t put it out on their Twitter feed, then they wouldn’t enable this process. No doubt it benefits us, and having three Michelin stars has provided consistent business to The Restaurant.