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Indagare Global Conversations: Christopher Kostow and Howie Kahn on Napa Valley, China and the Future of Restaurants

At a time when most of us are cooking more than ever—as a way to entertain ourselves while staying at home, or simply out of necessity—you might want to know what’s on the menu in the household of the chef whose restaurant has been awarded three stars by Michelin not one, not two, but nine times—Chef Christopher Kostow of the spectacular Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley. (The answer? He’s making his way through Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbooks). As part of our ongoing Indagare Global Conversations series, Indagare Founder Melissa Biggs Bradley Zoomed with Kostow—who also runs the Charter Oak restaurant in Napa Valley and Ensue, which opened last year in Shenzhen, China—to discuss quarantine cooking inspiration, the future of the travel and restaurant industries and what makes the Napa Valley culinary scene so exceptional—all in the company of her Insider Journey co-host Howie Kahn, a WSJ. Magazine contributing editor and acclaimed podcast host (his latest project is Take Away Only). This October, Melissa and Howie will be returning to Napa Valley to lead another unforgettable Insider Journey experience, which will feature immersive, special-access tastings and tours of the storied vineyards of the Harlans and the Mondavis—as well as a special tasting meal prepared by Chef Kostow himself. There is hardly a better party to eat and drink with than this trio. Read on below for highlights from their conversation—and click here to find out how you can join them for their adventure in Napa Valley.

For more on upcoming Global Conversations, click here. Stream past episodes from the series through our new podcast, on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

To learn more about our upcoming Insider Journey to Napa Valley with Melissa, Howie and Chef Kostow—in partnership with WSJ. Magazine—click here.

A Conversation with Christopher Kostow and Howie Kahn

Melissa Biggs Bradley: I had one of the most memorable meals of my life last fall in Napa Valley [at the Restaurant at Meadowood], thanks to Chris, which was part of the special food-and-wine-trip that I co-hosted with Howie Kahn, who is also joining us today, in partnership with the Wall Street Journal magazine WSJ. I’m thrilled to reconnect with both of you today. To start—Chris, can you tell us a little bit about how you found your way to the kitchen?

Christopher Kostow: I’m a child of the Midwestern suburbs—Highland Park, Illinois, outside of Chicago. I started cooking in the summertimes at a music festival there called Ravinia; I was 14, working a cash register, and the guys in the kitchen were drinking the leftover box wine and having a really good time. And I said, That’s where I want to be. And that began my cooking career—frying chicken and making flat-top cheeseburgers. I continued to cook through high school and college, moved to San Diego with some friends and got a place on the beach. I started cooking for a chef named Trey Foshee in La Jolla, and he sort of gave me my start. After working with him for some time, I went to Europe, and I was back and forth for over five years between France and Southern California, and eventually Northern California. I got my first chef position as a sous chef for Daniel Humm, when he was at Campton Place in San Francisco. And when he moved East to take over Eleven Madison Park, I chose to set out on my own and took a job as a chef at this little restaurant south of San Francisco in Mountain View, which is the home of Google. [And around 2008] I was looking for what I believed to be a bigger stage and some more visibility, and I heard about this place Meadowood—which I frankly hadn’t heard of prior—and they were looking for a chef.

Howie Kahn: You have partners at the restaurant, The Harlans, who make some of the most amazing wines in the world and have built incredible vineyards and wineries; they’re true visionaries. I think Bill Harlan actually has a 200-year plan for his family or something like that. What would you say you’ve learned the most from Bill?

Christopher: I have certainly been the beneficiary of Bill’s insight and wisdom for a long time. That pursuit of perfection, and certainly an eye for physical beauty—I’ve learned that from him. The desire to not look at what is transient, but to look with a wider lens at what you’re doing and the impact that it has; not to worry about being trendy. The idea of putting roots down somewhere and being a good steward of one’s community and being an articulate voice for the people that you’re working for.

Howie: With the outbreak of COVID-19, do you think that people are going to follow the lead that you have set at Meadowood and start growing their own produce?

Christopher: I have no great insight into the changes that are going to take place in the food space any more than anybody else. But I do think that the idea of health and wellness—and of safety—will become paramount. And I think the starting point of that is being able to know exactly where your food comes from.

Melissa: You studied in France and brought that knowledge back to California—but then, last August, you chose to open a new restaurant, Ensue, in Shenzhen, China. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind that and what you’ve learned in opening a business there?

Christopher: I was approached by a young man named Ricky Li—who is from Shenzhen and is very much a world traveler, very much a gastronome—and he really wanted to make Shenzhen a culinary destination within mainland China. Shenzhen is a rapidly growing city with a lot of youth and tech and wealth, and there’s really been no great western dining represented there. China as a market is endlessly interesting to me and so is Chinese cuisine—and it dovetails so much more with California cooking than I would have ever fathomed (specifically, Cantonese traditional cooking, from the Bay Area of southern China). Since we opened in August, we’ve dealt with massive civil unrest in Hong Kong (which is just over the border), and then a pandemic, which hit in January. So it’s been an interesting ride, but I’ve learned a lot. And now we’re on the other side of all this—Ensue is—and it’s really starting to to do well.

Melissa: When you reopened Ensue, how did you manage your team?

Christopher: Getting everyone safe before we could reopen was important. We reopened [in April], and it was absolutely a ghost town for the first couple of weeks, and all of the rules and regulations that we’re talking about now in the U.S.—the separation, the masks, the gloves, the temperature checks—were very much enforced and still are, there. But what we’ve seen since is that business levels have really begun to rise. [At the beginning of May], which has a big holiday, it was busier than we’ve ever been. I’ve been telling my chef peers here in the U.S. that there is light at the other end of the tunnel. We’ve just got to jump through quite a few hoops to get there.

Melissa: Travel and food have such a strong symbiotic relationship, and you both have talked about the pantry representing culture, and that sort of Proustian thing about food that brings us to places. In your experience, what draws people to traveling for food?

Howie: I miss the foods that I travel for so much, and there’s two common things for me that all those experiences have: one is something unmistakeably delicious, and often new, but the other part of it is what you’re doing when you’re eating. When you’re eating and traveling, the eating part is usually when you stop—you’re not on a tour, you’re not in the museum, you’re not walking down the street. You’re stopped. You’ve joined with people. You’re having a discussion; you’re enjoying each other. You’re letting things in. I have been thinking about the moment of eating a lot—and it’s weird to think that I want to go somewhere far, just so I can stop. But that feels like an earned luxury. You don’t get to stop like that at home, so the best pauses in all of life, for me, are the ones where you sit down and you have a meal.

Christopher: I think modernity is homogeneity, in a lot of ways, and to go to different places and eat the food of different cultures is to witness the distillation of something so wholly different from our own lives. I can’t tell you how much I want to get back to China and eat. It’s delicious in just a shocking way, but it’s also a window into thousands and thousands of years of cumulative culture, different from any of my own personal experience. So there’s a connectivity of humankind that comes from that, but also the awareness, which is even maybe more powerful, of the differences. That runs counter to what the modern world is becoming, unfortunately, and maybe that’s why restaurants, be them here or abroad, are so damn important: they are the combination and the accumulation of all these different things that are inherently unique, and that’s beautiful.

Christopher: I’ve always said that people try to do too much. If you have a sharp knife and a good pan and a nice piece of whatever, just focus on the building blocks: sourcing and simple cooking techniques. Build upon that, until you have some degree of mastery. My perception of food is that a really good product, simply done, is probably as good as it can be.

Howie: What’s been interesting for me is I’m not at my own house right now. So I’m not in my own kitchen. I’ve been getting used to different pans and a different stove with different heat distribution—and it’s been a fun challenge. When I have time, I just play with eggs. So I think: find something you enjoy, and then just alter the techniques slightly, and have fun with it. I mean, when else are you going to have time to try eggs over all different temperatures?

Melissa: Howie, since lockdown, you’ve launched a new podcast, Take Away Only. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Howie: We started this podcast as an emergency response to tell an important story from the food world, where restaurants were closing and people were losing their jobs. I’ve been reporting on the food world for about 20 years, and throughout my entire career, it’s just been nothing but ascension. There’s been more interest, more growth, more creativity in that span than probably any other time in the history of food. I’ve been really lucky. So I felt like I’ve rode this incredible wave, and I was damn sure that I was going to stick with everybody while the wave was crashing and tell a different kind of story, until things stabilize and we can start talking about the fun again. I’ve been talking to people all over the country and the world, and I think the similarity between all the guests is how hard-working everybody is—how much of a fighter everybody is. A lot of restaurants may not reopen, and the ones that do will look different, but they’ll be there for us with delicious food. It might not be the kind of thing that we’re used to; it might not be a sit-down dinner. It might be a dinner in a box that you take home. It might be a kind of delivery service. Getting into a restaurant for a meal may feel like a heightened luxury, because it’s going to be a little bit rarer; it could even become a kind of travel. But, man, the people in the restaurant industry are so scrappy and so creative. No one’s going to give up. 

Kostow and Kahn In Brief

Is there a charitable organization that you are connected to where people can make a donation if they want to make a positive impact?

Howie: World Central Kitchen, which is José Andrés’ organization. They’re doing amazing work getting food to people who need it, all over the country.

Christopher: Most of our dollars go to something called St. Helena Preschool For All, which pays for preschool education [for] the children of undocumented workers out here in the valley. As this arose, we’ve been working with a local organization to serve food to those same families. 

What are you reading?

Christopher: In addition to Fuchsia Dunlop’s Chinese cookbooks, a lot of poetry—Billy Collins, specifically—and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

Howie: I just finished a terrific memoir by my friend Phyllis Grant—who has a great food blog, dash and bella—called Everything is Under Control. And it was this beautifully poetic life story that’s told in a way that suits the times we’re living in really nicely. I’m also reading This Is Chance by Jon Mooallem, who is a reporter for The New York Times. It’s about an earthquake that devastated Anchorage, Alaska, in the mid-20th century, and life was never the same. So it kind of runs parallel to what we’re experiencing right now.

What are you watching?

Christopher: We just finished Ozark. And nothing has ever brought me as much joy in TV as The Last Dance, as a Chicagoan who grew up in the era of the Bulls. 

Do you have a favorite place for relaxing?

Christopher: Mexico.

Howie: The Restaurant at Meadowood.

Do you have a favorite place for exploring?

Christopher: Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Asia.

Howie: I love Singapore. I can eat myself silly for days there. I’ll never get tired of going.

Is there something you always have in your carry-on?

Christopher: Probably the bag of trail mix that I bought last time.

Howie: Sunscreen. A lot of sunscreen.

For more on upcoming Global Conversations, click here. Stream past episodes from the series through our new podcast, on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

To learn more about our upcoming Insider Journey to Napa Valley with Melissa, Howie and Chef Kostow—in partnership with WSJ. Magazine—click here.

– Elizabeth Harvey on June 10, 2020

Quotable

A lot of restaurants may not reopen, and the ones that do will look different, but they'll be there for us with delicious food. It might not be the kind of thing that we're used to; it might not be a sit-down dinner. It might be a dinner in a box that you take home. It might be a kind of delivery service. Getting into a restaurant for a meal may feel like a heightened luxury, because it's going to be a little bit rarer; it could even become a kind of travel. But, man, the people in the restaurant industry are so scrappy and so creative. No one's going to give up. 
~ Award-winning journalist Howie Kahn

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