You can’t blame Christopher Kostow, 31, for feeling giddy like a kid in a candy store. In his two years as head chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View, he steered the small, venerable restaurant from zero to one to two Michelin stars.
Now, having left that establishment in February, he’s landed on a much showier stage – head of the already two-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, the bucolic and breathtaking 250-acre resort in St. Helena.
Every morning, spring onions, baby carrots, fuschia-hued radishes, and other fresh-as-can-be veggies are plucked from the resort’s 50-yard by 30-yard garden for that evening’s elegant dishes. You’ll spot them in such creative fare as lobster with sweetbread ravioli garnished with hedgehog mushrooms, turnips, and slivers of black truffle.
Assisted by a polished waitstaff and a resident Master Sommelier, Kostow’s cooking is more refined than at Chez TJ, with flavors that really pop and linger. Some of his loyal customers from Chez TJ have driven up and back in one day just to get their fix. And so have big-name celebrities from the music and sports worlds.
I sat down with Kostow to find out how life has changed for the former philosophy major, who grew up outside of Chicago, and went on to work with Michelin-starred chefs in France and to be sous chef at Campton Place in San Francisco.
Q: How is it different cooking here?
A: The kitchen here is four times the size of the one at Chez TJ. It’s twice as many cooks (eight) doing the same amount of covers — about 50 a night. I brought with me five staff members from Chez TJ, which made things monumentally easier.
There are a lot more inherent challenges, too. The diners here are more sophisticated, and not necessarily going to order the chef’s tasting menu. But that has a lot to do with the economy now, too.
Q: Do you feel a lot of pressure coming in as a two-star Michelin chef to take over a restaurant that already had two stars under its previous chef?
A: I am looking at it aggressively. I keep telling myself, “Get two stars! Get two stars!’’
We have great service here, and a great wine guy. All the pieces are in place. It’s just up to me to make it happen.
Q: After you received two stars at Chez TJ, did the offers pour in?
A: There were other offers, including some big ones in the City (San Francisco). But it needed to be a step up, with more exposure. When I looked at the management team here, it was a no-brainer to accept this one.
Q: Do you think you’ve become a better chef here?
A: I think my cooking has gotten more refined, more focused. Chez TJ was my first head chef job. I have a repertoire now. It’s not like when you’re still a young chef and every new dish is a mountain to climb.
Q: Is there a dish on the current menu that you’re particularly proud of?
A: The toro with Osetra caviar, crème fraiche, and spring onions. It’s a complicated dish that looks simple. It’s a luxurious dish that doesn’t beat you over the head with technique. We cold-smoke the toro, freeze it, then cut it very thinly with a slicer. It thaws the moment it hits the plate.
Q: The crispy confit of suckling pig is just astounding with its melt-in-your-mouth flesh and cracklingly crisp skin. I could have easily eaten five orders of it, and never been happier.
A: Everyone loves that dish. We get whole pigs in. We cure the legs and shoulders — confit-style. We take the meat off, we take the skin off and clean it. We press it so the natural gelatin holds it together. It’s a Campton Place dish.
Q: So life is treating you well here?
A: I’ve cooked for more chefs, vintners, and celebrities in two months here than in two years at my other restaurant.
Q: So at Chez TJ, you had the world’s best commute. You lived behind the restaurant. How about here?
A: I live around the corner. I can ride my bike here.
Q: Has it been a big adjustment moving to such a quieter area with a slower pace?
A: I go to the grocery store and run into five people I work with. There’s only one bar, and you run into everyone there. It’s a very small area. It’s no place for a single man. You can get into too much trouble.
Q: But you’re a single man!
A: (laughs) Exactly.
Q: What’s your favorite junk food?
A: Mmm, does vodka count? (laughs)
Q: What would you be if you couldn’t be a chef?
A: A writer. But I don’t think I have the attention span. Maybe I’d be a vagabound traveler.
Q: Will we ever see you compete on “Top Chef’’?
A: Nooooo. I don’t even watch it. I’d have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.
Q: What do you cook when you’re at home?
A: I don’t. I’m at the restaurant 24-7. I didn’t even bring pots and pans when I moved. The only thing I have in my kitchen at home is a bowl and cereal.
Q: What ingredient or food is most like your personality?
A: That’s a hard one. I don’t know. Maybe my staff should answer that one. Hey (he yells to his sous chef), what ingredient is like my personality?
(The sous chef replies: “Crab apple!”)
Q: Uh, what’s the sous chef’s name again?
A: That’s Chris Dettmer. He’s now my former sous chef. From now on, he’s making canapés. Crab apple??? (laughs)