Chef Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood On Keeping It Real
Do you think the days of so-called “molecular cuisine” over?
I understand what people mean by molecular cooking, but all cooking is essentially molecular. If I make gelatin or pasta, it’s all about understanding how chemicals react. The sort of overt presentation such as here’s a sphere of this or that is not seen much anymore. At least in three-star restaurants, no one seems to be doing a lot of that. It should probably disappear as it’s never going to be as good as a perfectly cooked potato for example. I have no desire to eat that food myself.
Are the young culinary school grads well-grounded in the basics of cooking?
I was recently at the culinary school in Hyde Park, New York, and it is a pretty impressive curriculum. I didn’t go to culinary school, and I was really impressed by the depth of the education they provide. However at the end of the day, cooking is about repetition and doing something a million times until you perfect it. So you are not going to come out of there knowing what you are doing, but some of these schools are providing a good training.
You didn’t attend a culinary school, so do you think it is necessary, or are you better off exploring your own creativity?
No matter, what you do need to know is how to do basic cooking. Creativity is not enough and the worst thing is when chefs are creative without knowing the basics of cooking. That results in bad food, and incidentally, a lot of cooks who are self-taught trained themselves how to cook by studying. I spent a lot of time with chefs like Thomas Keller or Charlie Trotter who didn’t go to culinary school, but they really studied on their own.
Do guests’ expectations rise in correlation to your stars and fame? How do you rise up to meet those expectations?
There has to be a relentlessness about the whole thing. The whole team has to always be trying to get better. Just having your eyes open and being in the restaurant is important. For us, we’re redoing our plate program and expanding the garden, adding orchards or animals to raise so we can get better. The menu development, for one, never stops in our kitchen. Even on the day we are closed, I am in here all day working on stuff and we have been doing that for almost 10 years now. That is the reason why I don’t worry about what anyone has to say because we are pushing ourselves incredibly hard.
Chefs’ egos rise in proportion to their celebrity or reknown, and it seems more prevalent in the U.S. Why?
It’s not just more American chefs, but chefs in general are egoistical. By nature, chefs are more insecure and ego-driven people. You are in a business where you work super hard to get noticed and be appreciated. The kind of people who gravitate toward that are those that look for instant gratification and for whom the opinions of others are very important. Top Chef stuff is huge even in France from what I have seen. That is across borders, and in the US, there is lower tolerance for some of the foolery that exists, certainly in the French kitchens.
You have your own gardens and you use what you grow in the restaurant. Why are so many restaurants maintaining their own gardens these days?
At first, it’s about competition between chefs. When you see chefs who are growing beautiful things, others want to do that too. There are some social elements to it but at the end of the day these chefs are spending the money in pursuit of making their restaurant better. It is a monstrous undertaking to grow your own products. If it’s a trend, it’s not going to last long because it requires incredible commitment, financial resources, and professional expertise. We have a team of six people and allocate a large budget to the garden because it is central to everything we do.
Which young chefs in the US are ones to watch?
I don’t want to give names, but I would argue that there are a lot of chefs in small markets, small cities, or out in the country who are doing better food than what you find in big cities. A lot of them don’t get the attention they deserve. There [are] a lot of interesting, dynamic [chefs] in America, more than France or a lot of the other countries. Spain has a long history of cuisine, but a lot of the modern Spanish cooking is predicated around where you are cooking and it’s not my thing.
You have two young children. In this rapidly evolving culture, what would you like to preserve for them?
Open spaces, for one. Napa is very beautiful, but it’s all privately owned now.
What would you like to bring back to the food culture? For the story to go on for the next generation?
Locally I feel, as I said in my book, it’s about a certain mindfulness of what’s happening around you. Whatever results from that mindfulness is up to an individual or chef. As long as you understand the history of a place, support local people, and help them pursue their own agricultural endeavor and bring along local artisans. The result will all be different for each individual. What is happening in Napa is that there is a very homogenous planned vanilla development because people don’t dig deep into what’s happening around them.
Is this a cultural effect?
I think economics plays a very huge role in this. If you are catering to wealthy tourists, that impacts the food and if the cost of doing business is high, then you won’t have young entrepreneurial chefs opening small progressive restaurants. It’s the economics in all the markets that drives the food culture.
What was your experience at Osteria Franscescana during the Gelinaz chef shuffle?
The whole experience was really fun and really enjoyable. The concept of popping up, above all, is all about opening doors to interesting collaborative processes. From an interpersonal relationship point of view, it is really interesting to meet all these people. Restaurants can be very insular places, where we are all are super-focused on work and pursuing our own stories. It is interesting to pop up in someone’s kitchen across the world and meet all the people involved. It was my first visit, and it was great spending time in Modena with Massimo; his wife, Lara; son, Charlie; and the team.
You also participated in the Gelinaz event in San Francisco last year. What is your opinion of such events?
I normally don’t do a lot of these events, but I did enjoy it. As a concept, it very different as there are a lot of events but the one in Modena was especially interesting. You experience your peers’ culinary work and culture in their own environment.
Last year you took a break from your “Twelve Days of Christmas” event. Is it back on for 2017?
Yes, we just took a year off, and we are holding it again this year with a very insane lineup of guest chefs. It’s going to be very interesting is all I can say until we officially announce the event. We enjoy having our friends come and cook with us. It’s great for the team and the community who get exposed to these different chefs. It’s been a great event for us and we are looking forward to the next one.
So, who is on this year?
[laughing] I am not disclosing that right now, but stay tuned for the news!