3-Star Philosopher: Chef Christopher Kostow Profile

“My goal is to be evocative, not provocative,” Chef Christopher Kostow explains, describing his culinary philosophy. So while the 34-year-old chef has gained renown for some unusual-sounding dishes at The Restaurant at Meadowood – goat poached in whey, for example – he’s quick to counter any notion that his food is edgy.

“We’re not here to shock anybody,” he says. “It just tastes really good. There’s a lot of finesse, a lot of technique and it’s very delicate. We’re not hitting you over the head with anything. I would say my food is thoughtful.”

Kostow is more qualified than most to turn out thoughtful food: he actually holds a degree in philosophy. But after college, Kostow gravitated to his other passion—cooking—and moved to San Diego to work with Trey Foshee, one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs 1998. By the age of 22, Kostow was creating his own dishes.

Seeking to hone his technique, the chef next ventured to France, where he worked in a variety of kitchens, from a Paris bistro to the Michelin-starred Le Jardin des Sens in Provence. Back in the States, he was sous chef to Daniel Humm at San Francisco’s Campton Place Restaurant and went on to become top toque at Chez TJ in Mountain View, earning two Michelin stars of his own.

At Meadowood, Kostow continues to collect accolades, including three Michelin stars; a rare four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle; and a spot in the ranks of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs 2009.

As the chef looks back on the mentors who taught him along the way, he also looks forward. “I was able to come here because I worked for other people who were successful,” he says. “Hopefully, now I’m creating opportunities for other people; hopefully I’m teaching them the right way to do things.”

The right way, according to Kostow is to employ flawless, innovative technique that never steals focus from the food. “Some chefs use technique to make things look unbelievably unique,” he explains. “We put that on its head and say, ‘We have all this ability and know-how and tools. Why don’t we use technique to make food taste unbelievably good?‘” One example the chef cites is an unassuming amuse-bouche, the baked potato parfait. “It looks pretty basic, just a white cup with a white espuma [foam] on top and a little caviar and oyster,” Kostow relates. “But it actually has six layers of potato goodness in each bite. People taste it and they love it!”

How does Kostow conceive his nuanced dishes? “Some start with flavor memories I want to evoke in the guests,” Kostow says. “I think there’s a degree of shared food memory. That’s when you really speak to your guests—but it’s not about being derivative or making something taste like something else. This is a starting point.”

One dish began with the idea of roasted chicken, “the interplay of meat and skin, how that tastes and feels in your mouth,” Kostow explains. That flavor memory is reborn (with considerable culinary alchemy) as crispy poussin, turnips, tofu and white soy—a breast roulade accompanied by a perfect mosaic of leg meat and braised greens—not exactly what Grandma used to make.

“As dishes evolve, we develop certain techniques to achieve the desired results,” he adds. “I think that’s the mark of a good restaurant. You’re leading and developing the techniques that other people eventually use.”

In addition to his passion for technique, Kostow is focused on ingredients. One luxury Meadowood affords him is having a garden, as well as greenhouses and chickens. “I sit down every season with our gardener and we discuss what we’re going to plant and how much we need. That way,” he says, “I can look forward to my menus for the season.”

When Kostow describes the blue barrow borage, finishing herbs, arugula and strawberries he’ll soon be weaving into dishes, he leans forward with excitement, then adds, “In the spring, we do an additional tasting menu of just vegetables, based on produce from the garden,” clearly relishing the possibilities. “We’ll do a shelling bean course, an artichoke course, turnips baked in the dirt from
the garden…”

That ability to eagerly seek out the next challenge keeps him on top of his game, the young chef says. “We’re very, very forward-thinking. We’re constantly evolving. There’s elegance at Meadowood, but there’s also a dynamism that comes from youth. And that’s why we’re successful within the context of Meadowood. It just works.”