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

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"I can't think of too many people who have done what he's done so early," says San Francisco chef Michael Mina. Keller, Kostow's culinary forefather, takes a longer view: "Chris is someone who exemplifies the progression of American cuisine, who has great skills, a wonderful knowledge of what he's doing and who he is."

The Restaurant does a brisk business, filling its leather-rich, 44-seat dining room every night at $225 per person. In the next room--bracketed by sliding doors like a submarine air lock--is the pristine, tricked-out kitchen where Kostow presides over a two-dozen-member team for roughly 14 hours a day. He stands at the kitchen's center, plating alongside his sous-chefs. "I've never worked at a restaurant where the chef takes everyone aside and asks, 'How are you doing?'" says Kim Floresca, executive sous-chef. Sous-chef Alfonso "Poncho" Vasquez agrees, saying a personal connection with Kostow is "a requirement. I think it's written in the bylaws somewhere."

During service, though, Kostow is nobody's pal. He pop-quizzes the fish cook on a dish's components, and when his answer is incorrect, Kostow's sour expression wilts him where he stands. When a newbie stationed at the wood-burning stove asks Floresca a question she's just answered, Kostow snaps at him. But later he walks both offenders through a few techniques, a task traditionally delegated to the sous. "If you don't have a relationship with that lowest guy, you're f---ed," Kostow says. "That's where these chefs who get big also get lost. That cook only knows of them through their media, the books and the TV. They don't really know the guy." If you don't know the guy, the logic goes, you're not fully invested in executing his vision.

To visit the restaurant, you turn off Napa Valley's central artery, Highway 29, which is home to many of the region's--and the world's--most renowned wineries. Then, after crossing the Napa River via a narrow, century-old stone bridge, you declare your intentions at the gate to Meadowood, a 250-acre resort. Only those dining at the Restaurant or staying at the hotel, where rooms start at $475, may enter.

So it's startling when Kostow speaks of his desire to correct the Napa Valley's reputation as merely "a playground for the rich," in his words. "I mean, it is that," he says, "but that's not the whole story. When you have a concentration of wealth like you do here, historically what arises alongside that wealthy class is the artisan class. You need people to build these wineries, to design things, to make the wine, to make the food."

Kostow has collaborated with olive growers, vinegar makers, woodworkers and the region's artists on everything from custom oils to the coffee table in the Restaurant's lounge. He enlists local ceramists to make the Restaurant's china; with Kostow's input, potter Lynn Mahon has created ovoid platters streaked with ash and flat black plates that resemble slabs of slate. Promoting local artisans will help put St. Helena on the map as a tourist destination in the valley, and so will an expanded menu of Kostow restaurants. He is in talks to open a casual restaurant near Meadowood and has designs on a barbecue spot nearby.

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