Chef Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood On Keeping It Real
Are the three Michelin stars more validating than all of these lists?
I feel all of it has value relatively since this business is about attracting guests and talent to your team. It’s nice to get the three stars, but at the end of the day I don’t think much about any of this. It's not what drives the team.
Does that realization come in a later stage of your career?
That is true, because by then you have put more into it, and so then the idea that someone else is going to tell you if it’s worth it or not seems silly after all these years. If your whole career or credibility is based on some guide or list, that seems like an uneven exchange of your energies and emotions.
Is fine dining an elitist concept in the US?
People here in the US don’t think much about paying $1,000 for a television but will not be so willing to pay that for a meal. It’s really a question about our value system. In Europe people don’t readily buy huge expensive cars like they do here. If it is elitist, it’s certainly expensive but that doesn’t make it elitist. It all depends on how you execute your products and how you interface with your guests, with your community, and the media. That can make it elitist because it can be perceived that way. The price is the price as any other chef in the same situation [with three stars] will tell you and regardless we are all busy. So it isn’t that we have to justify what we charge our consumers.
Do you feel media raises people’s expectations inordinately?
If we are going to charge $400 for dinner, we better make it exceptional irrespective of anything. So I think people should come in with incredibly high expectations, but having said that, there also seems to be a meeting halfway between the guest and the restaurant. Some people come in and want the Alinea effect with smoke and mirrors. Others want more French-style, lobster poached in butter, and so some people do come in with all these preconceived ideas instead of going in with an open mind. If people do that and meet the restaurant halfway and we are executing correctly on our end, then the experience is worth every penny for sure.
While preparing the menu for the season or choosing products, what do you want your diners to experience? Is the visual effect or the flavor first?
The possibility of elegance and luxury in otherwise simple things is what we want them to experience. It might be a risotto made with the seeds of a cucumber, for example, or a single potato pulled out of the ground. Things of that sort are most interesting for me to present. It puts the onus on us as you have to make sure that it’s really well done, otherwise you are serving a mediocre potato for $100 per person. That is not honest cooking according to me.
We have a vision of the art of wabi-sabi, or the [Japanese] art of the imperfect, like serving things out of the ground as they are. But we are really cooking and not putting a potato on a plate, but without overmanipulating it. We think we cannot make it better than nature made it, but our job is just to showcase those things that we grow ourselves in the best way possible. To grow these products, we are selective in what we are choosing to plant and how we are growing them and what is the ideal time to harvest. Our goal is to make everything pure.
Sometimes if you travel to a city like San Francisco and dine out every night then very often it seems like you are eating the same food, though it may be plated differently. Why is that?
If you go to Tokyo during Ayu fish season you will find every restaurant serving it. It’s the same when you go to Lyon in France, when a certain product is in season. There is something to be said about regionality in cooking, of course, but on the other hand there are trends encouraged by Instagram or social media in general. It’s very easy for people to appropriate what you are doing. Restaurants like ours are sort of incubators for these ideas that trickle down and eventually become part of the industry. That is true of every creative field like arts, architecture, or fashion where ideas filter down.
Is American gastronomy going to be affected by the win at Bocuse d’Or this year?
It’s great that they won, but Bocuse d’Or is not my cup of tea, and I don’t see the relevance of that to the state of restaurants in the country. Chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boloud are certainly trying to work on that.
Is it because it is adapting the French culture to ours?
It seems like you are playing someone else’s sport, for sure. I don’t care if we are bad at it, like soccer, because we are bad at other sports like cricket too. I don’t think it’s a reflection of where the food movement is going. I go to Paris, and I feel Paris is ripping off Brooklyn. Brooklyn more or less ripped off Portland, and what is happening in Paris did not start in Paris. These are inherently American-style restaurants.
What are the problems in the food industry that are not vocalized by restaurateurs and chefs in public?
Just because of all the attention focused on chefs and restaurants, we cannot forget the economics of this business. That is totally lost on everyone who says, “Oh, cooks should make more money” or “There should be more paid leave in restaurants.” In that case you are trying to normalize an industry that is inherently not normal and has razor-thin margins. Just because it’s popular or glamorized now it doesn’t make it any different from 50 years ago.
With the wage hikes are there eventually going to be fewer employment opportunities in the business?
It’s probably true and it will lead to more automation. Look at the advent of new ovens, where you can push a button and cook a chicken. There is a lot more of that happening, and I feel there will also be less technical cooking since it requires more man-hours. No doubt about it.
Are white tablecloth restaurants disappearing? Even you have bare tables in your restaurant.
A lot of that is a reflection of aesthetics and the other is labor. It costs money to do that. I still like them even though we took ours off a few years ago. It’s also about the guests’ expectations. I don’t think guests these days expect that or equate what they are paying with cloths on the table. I don’t think many three-star restaurants in the Bay Area have them anymore. I would go back to it if I did something high-end but in a different way.