Homegrown

Six questions for Christopher Kostow—forager, master chef, and “different human being.”

10/31/2013—If you’ve owned a Lexus vehicle long enough, chances are you’ve picked up on Lexus’s special relationship with Chef Christopher Kostow, who’s graced the Lexus Culinary Master team for some time now.

A couple of years ago, the culinary world was still calling him a “rising star,” but the fact is, Kostow is now—unequivocally—a major culinary force, and not just because of his early Michelin-star credentials. He’s essentially become the celebrity-chef embodiment of innovative, locally sourced high cuisine.

These days, you’ll still find him at the acclaimed Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, the perfect atmosphere for his garden-to-table approach. In addition to the expansive gardens, Kostow now draws from the restaurant’ beehives, “snailery,” and team of wild-food foragers.

But, like most creative dynamos, Kostow is evolving: last year he toured Mexico looking for ancient paleo ingredients that might find a place at Meadowood, and he’s got a new book expected out this fall. We decided that it was the perfect time to check in with him again—in the Meadowood kitchen, of course.

Lexus: Okay, say I’ve just ordered dinner at Meadowood. What percentage of my meal is sourced within 1,000 feet of my plate?

Kostow: In the summertime, if you came here for dinner, you’d eat tomatoes that come out of the garden—that’s the first dish. Cucumbers come out of the garden—that’s the second dish. Potatoes come out of the garden—that’s the third dish. Lily comes out of the garden—that’s the fourth dish. About 80 percent probably.

You don’t provide menus for Meadowood guests—how’s that working out?

We’ve been playing around with our menu format forever and trying to reconcile our desire to streamline things with our desire to listen to our guests. Now we’re actually able to do more for the guests by talking to them about the food, tableside. It’s a different experience when a guest orders the beets, the chicken, and the chocolate and knows what’s coming.

But obviously, you still need to create a menu to talk about. What’s your process for designing Meadowood’s?

There are certain operating principles because, in the end, when chefs are good, they create something that’s specific. For us, that “something” is very specific to Napa Valley, but in a way that’s not cheesy or forced. We want to use the restaurant as a place where other people’s talents are shown: the artisans we work with and the foragers that we work with.

Is foraging for wild foods the new farm-to-table?

I had always looked at foraging as a really silly thing, as guys in white coats running around saying, “Oh look, I found some wood sorrel!” But for us in the valley, the stuff is everywhere. There’s even wild fennel growing on the side of the highway! We’ve embraced it and allowed it to drive some menu thoughts. We’ve also pushed past the valley and gone to the coast for some coastal grasses and wild clams. At this level, it’s not, “What can you do that’s different?” It’s, “What can you do that no one else can do?”

How has being based in Napa Valley shaped the way you cook?

I was a different human being when I moved here six years ago. I’m not sure the two people could even have a conversation. I associate this place with a lot of joy, and that shows itself in the food. It’s a lot looser, a lot more poetic, and a lot less forced. Even the plating is less strict. When you wake up every day and walk through here to go to work, it bleeds into what you do. My staff, too: they find real happiness here, and we breed it as best we can. It’s a very happy kitchen, which at this level is not the most common of things.

Do you think you’ll stay at Meadowood for the foreseeable future?

For me, I find a real joy in the discovery here and the creation. I’d like this to be my base for a long period of time. This is where home is. I live just around the corner—it’s a great place to live and a great place to raise a family. You have the benefit, as a chef, of living in the country, and all the products, aesthetic, and inspiration that gives you.