Regional Champion

Christopher Kostow wants to change how we see--and taste--the Napa Valley

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Dwight Eschliman for TIME

Christopher Kostow

Though the sleepy town of St. Helena, Calif., is in the heart of wine country, its chief role in Northern California's booming tourism industry is that of a drive-through. It is among several towns that one can unwittingly pass while driving around the region--unlike such destinations as Sonoma, 24 miles southwest, or Napa, 9 miles south. Which makes it all the more remarkable that an establishment in St. Helena--the Restaurant at Meadowood, helmed by chef Christopher Kostow--is one of just two restaurants in the western U.S. to hold three Michelin stars. (The other is the French Laundry, Thomas Keller's nearby bastion of haute cuisine.) Even more remarkable: the Restaurant is quite possibly the only restaurant on the planet to have earned such an accolade without a menu.

Instead, Kostow crafts bespoke prix-fixe meals for each guest. If you make a reservation at the Restaurant, you'll be asked what you eat, where else you're dining nearby and why you're visiting. Your answers determine your courses. (Though the Restaurant doesn't advertise the practice, staff members Google each guest for clues to their culinary bent.) "If they ate at the Laundry for lunch, I'll lighten it up," says Kostow, 36. "And I'll serve them different stuff than what's going out to tables nearby, to create a sense of"--he makes popping motions with his hands--"lively excitement."

Kostow speaks at a rapid clip, digressing (and cursing) freely on topics from Socrates (he was a philosophy major at Hamilton College) to In-N-Out Burger (he prefers Shake Shack). But when he is frowning over a dish, plating his food with tweezers, his focus is razor sharp. His subtle, region-specific style is evinced by, for example, a pair of canaps--an orb of savory carrot cake and a disc of dehydrated tomato--served atop leaf pressings from Meadowood's on-site garden, followed by whipped yogurt with pickled plum. The final course: an array of mignardises representing stages in the life of a grape.

"The first part of a chef's career is supernomadic," says Kostow, who has cooked in kitchens across Europe and up and down the California coast. "From a creative point of view, once you say, 'I'm going to cook from this place, I'm going to be as Napa-y as I can possibly be,' only then do we really become good."

Putting down roots is also good local business. Kostow intends to build a food destination around himself in St. Helena--just as Keller did down the road in Yountville 20 years ago, going from one three-star restaurant to an upscale empire of eateries, cookbooks and community engagement. However localized and personalized Kostow's food may be, his ambitions are anything but small.

Kostow, the second of three boys born to an attorney and an elementary-school teacher, grew up in Highland Park, Ill., one of the suburban backdrops of John Hughes' 1980s teen movies. After college he took a job shucking oysters at George's at the Cove in San Diego, where he quickly rose to lead chef. In 2006, at age 30, after stints in Paris, Antibes and San Francisco, he became executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View, Calif., where he earned two Michelin stars. He jumped to the Restaurant in early 2008; two years later, he'd scored his Michelin hat trick.

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