Chef on A Mission

Meet Christopher Kostow, Meadowood's rising star

Christopher Kostow doesn’t fit the stereotype of the hot, young chef. The 35-year-old at St. Helena’s Restaurant at Meadowood speaks quickly but thoughtfully. He was a philosophy major at Hamilton University in upstate New York, and still retains an intellectual air. With his square, black-framed Polo glasses and short-cropped beard, he looks the part of a smart, indie rocker. He favors a short-sleeved chef’s coat, and unlike many of his new-school colleagues, his arms are free of tattoos.

Behind the line, chefs are often merciless in the heat and pressure of dinner service. But in Meadowood’s utilitarian kitchen, Kostow commands a staff of more than a dozen cooks with an easy calm. He orders an AWOL pantry chef back to her station in a simple, matter-of-fact way. He calls out an order (“Two times two canap–s,” “Two cockscombs”), and a chorus of cooks repeat the order back, a kitchen procedure ensuring everyone’s heard what he said. Between the steady call and response of one dish after another, he’s chatty, affable and happy, as if he still can’t quite believe his good fortune.

And he has been fortunate. This past summer, Kostow bought a house in St. Helena and got married. He broke ground on a nearly three-acre kitchen garden, and just got word that plans are in the works to add livestock nearby as part of an education program for at-risk youth that will provide him with a source of premium-quality meat. (“I’m an at-risk youth,” he joked with the project planners.)

Oh, and then there was the news last month that he retained his three Michelin stars.

“I genuinely doubted,” he says of the annual award announcement. “I don’t think I slept a wink the night before.”There are only two chefs in California with three Michelin stars. One is the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. You may have heard of him. The other is Kostow. Yet in spite of the acclaim, Kostow still isn’t a household name outside of foodie circles. But with Kostow’s poise, smarts and talent, that’s likely to change. This is a man with a vision.

Kostow was elevated from up-and-coming chef to culinary elite last year—Oct. 26, 2010, to be exact. That was the day when former Michelin guide director Jean-Luc Naret called to inform Kostow that he had been awarded a third Michelin star, making him the second American-born chef and third youngest chef ever to receive three Michelin stars.

At the time, he had spent three years at Meadowood, an elegant 50-seat restaurant tucked into an exclusive 250-acre resort in St. Helena. Kostow had retained the restaurant’s two-star status, and was expecting a call from the prestigious restaurant guide to learn if he kept his stars. He was walking through a vineyard with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Martina, and got the call. Naret had made it a practice of calling each chef who received Michelin stars; his call to Kostow was his last of the day.

“We weren’t anticipating three stars by any means,” he remembers, quickly adding that he felt his cooking was up to three-star status. So Naret’s message was a surprise and a thrill.

“Then all hell broke lose,” he says.

Suddenly, the lanky chef was thrust into chef superstardom. With three stars and a growing list of accolades, he says diners no longer wondered if his food would be great—they expected it, and looked for flaws in the jewels he set before them. He says the pressure to maintain his status now is far greater than the effort it took to get there.

“The reality is I can no longer surprise people with how good it is,” he says. “The margin for error is zero. I have to work twice as hard.”

When the Michelin awards debuted in America six years ago, the restaurant industry was ambivalent. The French-based guide is revered in Europe—one French chef went so far as to kill himself when the tire company stripped him of one his stars. But would the awards carry the same weight in America?

Apparently, yes. Restaurants have gained acclaim without the Michelin awards, of course, but the internationally recognized imprimatur filled a void that American chefs perhaps didn’t know they had. Now the awards, imperfect as they may be, are met with anticipation and dread each October. It’s the restaurant industry’s Oscar night, and winning three stars is like claiming a trophy for best screenplay, best director and best picture all in one.

After Kostow learned he’d retained his stars this year, he stayed up too late celebrating, but then it was back to work. With his food’s reputation well established, Kostow set about to implement his vision. He’s built the foundation with his cooking. Now he wants to build the house.

“If you think you’ve arrived in this business,” he says, “you’re dead in the water.” So he continues to swim. Sharklike.

His vision is simple. “I want to be a guiding light,” he says. “The tip of the spear.”

That means overseeing an extensive remodel of the kitchen. He’s also expanding the restaurant’s garden program, deepening his connections with the Napa Valley community, spending more time engaging the media, and he’s at work on a cookbook. In short, he’s creating a legacy. “It’s all about putting down roots, personally and literally,” he says.

Kostow grew up in Hyde Park, Ill. After majoring in philosophy at Hamilton, displaying an intellectual streak that still runs through his cooking, he applied his love of knowledge to food. He worked in several Chicago restaurants before moving to San Diego for work at George’s At the Cove in La Jolla. It was there he met his first mentor, executive chef Trey Foshee.

Foshee says that while Kostow was green, he distinguished himself with his focus and dedication.

“He started with me at the bottom, but he was super-motivated,” Foshee recalls today. “He was always that guy who wanted to do the extra work. Motivation is what drives this industry. Not everyone has that in him, and he definitely showed it.”

Since Kostow was a rookie in the kitchen, the rowdy crew took to calling him “Chico Che,” after an oversized, spectacle-wearing musical prodigy from Mexico. Kostow was skinny but wore glasses, so the name stuck. Foshee says Kostow took the heckling in stride, kept his head down and just kept on working.

“He absorbed everything,” he says. “He didn’t just do it; he made it part of him. I think that’s what sets him apart. I still catch myself calling him Chico, but he definitely deserves to be called chef.”

Kostow passed on culinary school, an experience he thought would be “superfluous,” and instead headed to Europe to cook. He landed back in San Diego briefly before heading up to San Francisco, where he worked for rising-star chefs Daniel Humm at Campton Place and Daniel Patterson at Elisabeth Daniel. In between, he spent more time cooking in Europe.

When Humm, who now holds three Michelin stars at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, was ready to decamp to Manhattan, he invited Kostow to come with him. But Kostow declined and instead took a job as chef at Chez T.J. in Mountain View.

“I wanted to do my own thing, and Chez T.J. was a tremendous opportunity,” he recalls. “It’s a perfect first chef job.”

Humm remembers Kostow as being driven and creative. “He was a great part of helping Campton Place get four stars [from the San Francisco Chronicle],” Humm says.

Humm had the chance to eat Kostow’s food twice at Chez T.J., and remembers the young Kostow having the maturity not to let creativity or fancy technique get in the way of what’s most important: making delicious food.

“It was clear he was going to be successful,” Humm says now.

Chez T.J. is a small restaurant, but Kostow wanted to be far enough from San Francisco that he wouldn’t be outshined by more established chefs, and close enough that if he did something extraordinary it wouldn’t go unnoticed. His cooking did not go unnoticed.

Out on his own for the first time, he was awarded two Michelin stars in 2007. I reviewed Kostow at Chez T.J. in 2006, and his talent was already evident. His cooking was technically precise, provocative, creative and consistently delicious. In spite of his brash inventiveness, there was an elegance to his cooking that always left me wanting just one more bite. His food was seductive.

But with two Michelin stars and a $40,000 salary, Kostow predictably outgrew Chez T.J. He began looking for a new job when he heard his friend and chef Joseph Humphrey was leaving Meadowood. He called and within days he had a deal.

At Meadowood, Kostow’s cooking has evolved but still displays the same elegance and finesse I first tasted at Chez T.J. His food is now more elemental, more fundamental. There’s a lightness and delicacy to his cooking that’s woven around precisely calibrated flavors and textures. His tasting menu is a procession of nine dishes that rise and fall like a piece of music, building, hitting high notes and then backing off before another crescendo of flavor bursts across the palate.

Meadowood is the kind of place you’re only likely to eat at once or twice in your life. The tasting menu with wine pairings runs $850 for two, plus tax and tip. Kostow knows this, and aims to deliver the kind of once in-a-lifetime meal people have come to expect.

It’s hard to pigeonhole Kostow’s style. He describes his cooking as progressive but not precious. He likes to surprise.

“I’m always looking for every dish to have some angle and some pop,” he says. “There has to be something a little quixotic about it.”

His cooking is modern, for sure. It’s rooted in French technique but draws liberally from Japan. With ingredients from Kostow’s own gardens, wild food foraged in nearby forests and the bounty that Napa Valley and Northern California offers, his menus are firmly rooted in season and geography.

“This is the best place to cook,” he says. “I can’t imagine another place on earth like this. It’s Eden.”

Rather than plates of food, Kostow creates edible landscapes in miniature, tiny worlds of flavor and visual delight that are as much about texture as flavor. He takes the term “landscape” literally, often using mats of moss, stone or tree bark to showcase his food. He’s also fond of riffing off one ingredient—a persimmon, say, or a radish—and rendering it into several different forms, flavors and textures, as if he’s demonstrating the potential of each ingredient.

On a recent night, Kostow served an oyster dish, three little orbs of shellfish, paired with emerald-dark mounds of intense vegetable and savory braised borage with a pool of warm baked potato cream, dense and supremely rich. Quivering, translucent forms of gelatinized oyster liquor and ossetra caviar added a singing, briny note that answered back to the silky potato cream. In three or four spoonfuls, it was gone, disappearing too fast like a sweet dream. That was only the opening course. Eight more, each exquisitely imagined and beautifully executed, followed.

Given that he and Thomas Keller each have three stars and their restaurants are 20 minutes apart, it’s easy to compare the two. But generationally and stylistically, they are very different. Keller’s got the name recognition, but he’s been at it longer.

In the end, Kostow says he likes having the French Laundry down the road. The pressure of working near what many regard as the one of the world’s greatest restaurants makes him better.

“I’m very ambitious,” he says. “We want to be seen as the best at what we do. But you can’t be great in two years or four years. It takes time. But now I really feel I know what my vision is.”

So far so good. In addition to a skilled crew and a larder of premium ingredients, he’s got two other valuable commodities: youth and talent. No matter how you slice it, that’s a pretty delicious combination.

Sonoma County Library