Erin Kunkel

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Now It's Worth a Detour

Carolyn Jung / May 2012

By hook or by crook, Christopher Kostow earned Napa Valley’s Restaurant at Meadowood three Michelin stars while cooking out of a no-star workspace. What can he possibly do next, now that he’s overhauled it to his liking?

Envision a Michelin three-star restaurant kitchen. Yes, that’s the image—a highly choreographed brigade fluidly composing culinary sonatas on state-of-the-art equipment. No way would you consider instead ancient ovens, horrendous sight lines that make it impossible for the executive chef to see his cooks, staff from a sister restaurant distractingly scurrying through to get to their own establishment next door, and kitchen workers grilling carne asada for staff meals on the same cooking line where that evening’s prix-fixe is also being prepped.

But that rather chaotic environment is where Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Mea­dowood in St. Helena, California, managed to earn three stars—not just once, but twice, to join The French Laundry in Yountville as the only ones in the Bay Area to reach that rarified rung.

Now, though, he at last has a proper kitchen. After two months of construction earlier this year, the restaurant reopened in March with an updated dining room, a new separate banquet kitchen, and a totally reconfigured main kitchen. Kostow couldn’t be more pleased to have a working environment that now fits the reputation of this restaurant housed high on the lush grounds of a 250 acre private country club–turned–luxury resort hotel owned by the founders of Harlan Estate winery, producers of legendary Bordeaux-style blends. “It’s beautiful now,” Kostow says. “The kitchen’s line of sight is so great. That is so important because it allows the cooks to talk to one another and coordinate during service. The fluorescents are gone, and we have all new recessed lighting. It’s like an operating theater in there.”

For Kostow, 35, it’s been a whirlwind to get to this point since he left his first head chef position in 2008 at the quaint Chez TJ in Mountain View, California, a Silicon Valley suburb better known for being the headquarters of Google than a bastion of fine dining. Yet, his refined style managed to attract the attention of Michelin inspectors, who awarded Kostow an unprecedented two stars there. Not long after that, he was lured away by Meadowood, which had already garnered two stars under its previous chef, Joseph Humphrey. Kostow was up to that challenge—and more. He earned his own two stars there a year later in the 2010 guidebook, then three stars in the 2011 guide and again in the 2012 edition. Along the way, he got married, triumphed on national TV in an Iron Chef America battle, conceived of two Meadowood-related cookbooks now in the works, and spent eight months planning his ideal kitchen.

So what has the anointment of three stars brought? Greater confidence in his cooking, more maturity as a manager, and the sheepish acknowledgment that perhaps now he’s a kinder, gentler leader in the kitchen. “It was much more stressful the second time we got the three stars,” Kostow says. “The first time, you don’t know it’s going to happen. The second time? I thought I’d be the guy who lost his third star and went down in the annals of history. There’s also a lot more pressure now. You get people coming in to find fault, to be snarky. But I channel the pressure to try to make things better.”

That task should be far easier in what is now essentially a custom kitchen from floor to ceiling. There are TV monitors so that cooks can view the dining room to better determine when to fire the dishes for a particular table. There’s also a new bar-height chef’s counter, where as many as five patrons can dine in the kitchen at $500 a pop, with the finished dishes served to them personally by Kostow and his cooks.

“A restaurant like this is so set away that I wanted there to be more of a sense of accessibility,” Kostow says about the addition of the chef’s table. “It’s nice for guests to have the contact with the chefs. And for the cooks, it’s great for them to have that contact with the guests. I’m out in the dining room a lot, but they’re not, so this gives them the chance to have that experience.”

With diners walking through the kitchen, Kostow was adamant that the revamped space be pleasing to the eye. White subway tiles give it a clean classic look. Charcoal-colored Eco-Grip flooring, made from recycled PVC material, was sealed together to provide seamless comfort. Every item has a storage place, including wood cutting boards that retract into counters. The new pantry—designed by Howard Backen of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects, which designed Meadowood, Harlan Estate winery, and the Sundance Institute Community of the Arts in Utah—built at one end of the kitchen right next to the chef’s counter, has high backlit shelves stacked with glass apothecary jars filled with beans, dried flowers, and herbs.

At 3,000 square feet, the new kitchen is still roughly the same size as its predecessor. Space was lost when the staircase leading to the more casual Grill at Meadowood was closed off so that those workers no longer have to trundle past The Restaurant at Meadowood’s hot line to get to their own stations. But an equal amount of space was regained when a breezeway at the back was enclosed to enlarge the pastry department, which now boasts new Miwe convection ovens, as well as its own walk-in that it no longer has to share with the savory side. The pastry line also was expanded with the hire of pastry sous chef Daniel Ryan, formerly of The French Laundry.

The kitchen does feel larger now, though, because it’s no longer shared by both Kostow’s 15 member crew and the 15 member banquet team that caters private and off-site events, including weddings, breakfast meetings, and lunches. Instead, the banquet team has a new 814-square-foot kitchen to call its own, a few steps from the main kitchen in what was once a china storage area. Last year, the banquet team alone did 38,000 covers. With the new banquet kitchen, outfitted with its own Montague ranges and a Traulsen roll-in cooler, that number is expected to at least double, says hotel manager Patrick Davila. “The problem was just the sheer volume and traffic in there,” Davila notes, “especially when you consider that in the past six years we’ve quadrupled our volume in everything. With a separate kitchen now, we’ll be able to experiment more, do more menu development, and be more creative.”

Kostow echoes those sentiments when it comes to the main kitchen, which is now self-contained. Because of the lack of space before, not all of the cheeses and whole animals could be stored in the kitchen. Instead, they had to be kept in the receiving department 50 yards away. Now, however, all deliveries go straight to the kitchen. “Everything is stored right in front of us. Now, we have all eyes on it,” he says. “The better we treat our products, the more respect we have for them, and invariably, the end result is better.”

Hoods, which once bisected the main kitchen, were all moved to the sides of the room, allowing for a clear line of vision now. A new Viking line was set up against one wall, with a built-in circulator bath behind it, along with recessed spoon sinks and mise-en-place wells. Additionally, a Josper by Wood Stone charcoal broiler was added to allow Kostow the ability to cook rustically, but with far more precision than an open hearth. “We can add olive pits and last year’s grapevines to the fire,” he says. “It’s a direction we were going in before by doing some grilling. But we can do a lot more now.”

Almost every station was custom-built and tailored to the dishes it turns out. For instance, the pastry area got much more counter space. A “snack” station was also added for creating the amuse bouches that used to be produced by the garde-manger department. A glass-fronted, temperature-controlled butchery room was built, and a new air-conditioning system installed throughout the kitchen, which used to swelter in the sultry Napa Valley summers.

The dining room, too, was warmed up with darker wood trim around the fireplace, credenza, and cabinets. The paisley banquette upholstery was jettisoned for plush charcoal gray cushions, along with new brown leather chairs. The adjacent Vintners Room for private dining was made more soundproof. And a linen room was added so that tablecloths can be freshly ironed, not only for the first service, but the second one as well. Plans call for redoing the restaurant’s driveway, rotunda entry, and terrace in 2013, because three stars mean no resting on laurels, but pushing even further for perfection.

Kostow fully understands that. It’s why he’s worked closely with local artisans to design one-of-a-kind plateware for his singular dishes, made his own vinegar from Meadowood grapes, and intends to press his own olive oil soon. Plans are underway for Meadowood to start leasing land from St. Helena Montessori to raise goats, lambs, and pigs for the restaurant in a U.S. Department of Agriculture–certified program. Although Meadowood has a small vegetable garden and chicken coop on its property, the half-acre school garden, which eventually could expand to three acres, will allow the restaurant to grow crops that require much more space, including grains-to-mill specialized flours. “We’ll be able to do things that are more nuanced now,” Kostow says. “You will know immediately where you are when you eat this food.”

Kostow’s playful, yet supremely refined, style remains, which he describes as “evocative, not provocative.” With the keen sense of the college philosophy major that he was, Kostow has a thoughtful way of taking seemingly disparate ingredients and weaving them together cohesively: grilled octopus with hazelnuts cooked like tender chickpeas; cockscombs with farina, truffle-infused milk, and prunes, of all things; and caraway and hearts of palm incorporated into a clever custard for dessert. And there are many new dishes in the works as well.

Just don’t look for Kostow to leave anytime soon, though. “I get asked a lot, ‘When am I going to open my own restaurant?’ he says. “This is me opening my own restaurant.” Indeed, even before the first sledgehammer struck, Kostow already knew the first thing he would do when the kitchen was finally finished: Step inside, lock the doors, and just sit alone in silence to savor that sweet moment.