Chef Christopher Kostow
The Restaurant at Meadowood | Napa
With a culinary career that stretches back to the age of 14, Christopher Kostow has come a long way from his high school days in the kitchens of the Ravinia Festival, an annual music festival held in the outskirts of Kostow’s native Chicago. As chef at St. Helena, CA, restaurant The Restaurant at Meadowood—a move he made in February of 2008—Kostow just recently implemented a new menu and is working on pushing the envelope with innovative dishes and new flavor interpretations. One example: rabbit with spring vegetables—a three-element dish that calls for the rabbit loin, leg, and rack, and incorporates the flavors of ham hock broth and almond froth.
After graduating with a philosophy degree from Hamilton College, Kostow headed off to France in 2001 to pursue his culinary dreams, later landing a position under Daniel Patterson at San Francisco’s Elisabeth Daniel. But it wasn’t until Kostow worked as sous chef with mentor Daniel Humm at Campton Place Restaurant, also in San Francisco, that he gained a new insight into cooking and a greater respect for pure ingredients. Striking out on his own in 2006, Kostow assumed the role of executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View, CA, where he earned two Michelin stars and gained notoriety for his elaborately thought-out dishes and inventive use of local ingredients.
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Katherine Martinelli: Where are you from originally?
Christopher Kostow: I’m from Highland Park, IL, just north of Chicago. I went to Hamilton College in central New York.
KM: How did you get from being a philosophy major to being a chef? Do you ever apply your philosophy background in the kitchen?
CK: Well, I’d always cooked in the summertime since I was fairly young. I cooked at Ravinia, a music venue in Highland Park, IL. I spent my summers cooking from a very young age and did so through college. After college I decided to see if cooking could be a viable career since philosophy wasn't. I moved to San Diego and was lucky to get hooked up with a good chef there. I don’t really apply my philosophy background to the kitchen..
KM: What was your first restaurant experience in San Diego?
CK: I worked at Georges at the Cove. Tray was a good friend of mine. I started at the very bottom; I started shucking oysters and left as lead cook. I spent three years with Tray. I was with him for a year and then went to Europe and came back. I lived in Europe for about three years. I did a year of stages from 2000 to 2001, came back [to the States] and worked. Then I went back [to Europe] for another two years. As far as the cooking goes, I was entirely in France. Then I moved to San Francisco.
Antoinette Bruno: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
CK: No, and I don’t necessarily look for a degree when hiring.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
CK: Work for the best people you can and keep your head down.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
CK: I have a good relationship with the CIA. I attend seminars, do events and have good relationships with the faculty. I also do a lot of charity events and we take stagiers in our kitchen.
AB: At StarChefs we publish techniques features for chefs to learn new things. Is there a culinary technique that you use in an unusual or different way?
CK: The crust that we do for the fluke—we will blend blanched carrot tops, egg whites, gelatin, and the blanching liquid with the carrot tops. That mixture is then rolled out until thin, chilled, cut and then placed atop the fish and steamed. When the gelatin melts, the egg whites cook and stay in place, keeping their shape.
KM: You use a lot of interesting techniques and flavor/texture combinations. Where did you learn these?
CK: I think we tend to start out with what we want to do and then learn how to do it, not the other way around. Granted, there is a fairly large canon of techniques that are widely available out there, but a lot of the stuff we do we wing and figure out how to accomplish what we’re aiming for.
KM: What did you learn from mentors Daniel Humm and Christian Morrisset?
CK: I guess just diligence and taking things one step further, putting more time into a dish. I think what I share with those guys is the philosophy that a recipe doesn’t go on the menu until it’s ready. We do change our menu with regularity, but there’s a lot of work that goes into it.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CK: We try to distill flavors to the point that we create something inherently interesting and powerful. Every bit is interesting from a textural and flavor point of view. As a young chef, I am still finding my philosophy. We make what we want to make.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
CK: Fifty percent inspiration, 50 percent angst.
AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
CK: Our own limitations. This restaurant will be as good as I am. We are lucky that we don't have too many exterior limitations. The bar is set exceptionally high. If we don’t succeed it is our fault, which creates a lot of pressure.
KM: What are the challenges and benefits of being a hotel chef? Is working at The Restaurant at Meadowood different from working at other hotel restaurants?
CK: Meadowood is different from other hotels in that they don’t interfere. The guest comes into the restaurant fairly educated about what we do. I’m lucky because my charge is simply the restaurant, I don’t have to worry too much about the other stuff. I have a lot of the benefits—a nice office, large staff, plenty of resources—but few of the hindrances. People come to Napa specifically to eat and drink, so it’s an educated clientele.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
CK: Meet expectations (my own). I have fairly high expectations for somebody my age.
AB: If there were one thing you could do over, what would it be?
CK: I'm probably the luckiest chef you’ve ever met. I wouldn’t change anything; I am happy with my decisions.
AB: What trends do you see emerging?
CK: Local, sustainable food trends—why does that have to be boring?
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and developments in the culinary world?
CK: I eat out but am somewhat handicapped by living up here. Sometimes I like to work in a vacuum. Everyone reads the same cookbooks, which leads to homogenous food. We like to pride ourselves on not being “cool.”
AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
CK: My grandmother and Fernand Point.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
CK: Getting a second star for the second time.
AB: What does success mean for you?
CK: Success is the ability to control your own destiny, being able to decide how to spend your own time. It’s shortening the distance between the mind and the plate.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
CK: I don't know. I'd like to be in a kitchen. I want to be creatively and financially successful.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
CK: I would be a vagabond.
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