Chef Christopher Kostow is best known for his Michelin three-star-rated The Restaurant at Meadowood. But soon he’ll be opening a new restaurant, The Charter Oak, a less formal dining establishment in what was the old Tra Vigne in St. Helena. But he’s not doing this new venture alone. He’s joined by his family and friends.
“We want to create a casual place where locals, visitors and even our own families can come and enjoy any occasion,” said Kostow. “And although The Charter Oak is a completely separate entity from Meadowood, both restaurants will remain tethered culturally, with a deep commitment to this valley and the people who have helped shape our world.”
Part of that tethering includes his partner in the project, Meadowood’s front-of-the-house director, Nathaniel Dorn, and they are also bringing with them Meadowood’s chef de cuisine, Katianna Hong, along with a host of artisans with whom they’ve worked over the years.
“Nathaniel is both my friend and a true visionary when it comes to design and service,” said Kostow. “And Kat will be the chef at The Charter Oak, while her husband, John, will take her place as chef de cuisine at Meadowood. We’re a tight group.”
Hong has been with Kostow for more than five years at Meadowood and has worked her way up through the kitchen, last year earning the coveted title of chef de cuisine, making her the only female to hold such a title at the time at any of the 12 Michelin three-star restaurants in America.
“It’s been a real experience working with Christopher,” said Hong. “He is intense and fast. And the new restaurant is exciting because it is totally different and we’re starting from the ground up.”
Beyond Dorn and Hong, Kostow’s wife, Martina, serves as director of communications for both restaurants.
“I’m extremely proud to be associated with this exceptional group of people,” she said. “They impress me every day with their dedication and passion. Most people get up and go to work for a job. This isn’t a job for any of us. It’s our life. There is a mutual respect, intensity and trust that far surpasses a traditional collegial capacity — we’re family in every sense of the word — the good and the bad. With this comes a heightened sense of responsibility — these people drive me to be better in everything I do. I’m grateful to be a part of it all.”
“Napa Valley is full of exceptional artisans who are passionate about what they do, from growing vegetables to making furniture,” said Christopher Kostow. “We are using Richard Carter and Kelly Farley to make all the tableware. They are friends of ours and The Restaurant. They are going to do very simple, functional, utilitarian pieces featuring a lot of raw clay. Really elemental in its form. Nothing ornamental, nothing that shows any sort of ego of the ceramicist.”
“Christopher and Nathaniel are big supporters of local artists, and by doing so they support the community,” said Carter during a phone conversation. “For their newest effort we are focusing on making cozy and honest dinnerware that provides a real sense of place through color and feel, all of which is inspired by the nature of this valley.”
Even the tables for the restaurant will be made by local woodworker Jeff Menchaca.
“Jeff is working on a very unique, new approach to tables — tables that are made of a true, reclaimed oak wood,” said Dorn. “Sizable, dense tables that have unique characteristics that will support the overall approach to service and our new thinking of what service is.”
The food will have local ties, too.
“The bone-in local-beef short ribs are smoked over cabernet barrels, glazed in Saba and served with beets that have been roasted and dried over the fire,” Kostow said. “All dressed in rendered beef fat from the cooking of the short ribs. There will also be platters of toasts and conserva of summer squash. We also will be including a bunch of other vegetable-centric dishes, many that will be sourced from our large garden that we will continue to operate for both restaurants.”
The garden is extensive and full of freshly grown vegetables, but it also is a farm with goats, chickens and a resident llama that helps keep the coyotes away. The entire 2-acre garden and farm are located directly behind the St. Helena Montessori school.
“One of our school’s missions is to engage our students within the broader community, and working with Kostow and his staff helps us achieve that goal,” said Alexander Heil, director of adolescent programs at the school. “Both our missions sail side by side: organic, sustainable practices and taking a community approach to food production. And for his new restaurant, Kostow will use our student-grown produce for use on their menu. Students absolutely love the opportunity to work in this adult environment with accomplished practitioners who are passionate about their craft.”
The wine program will focus on wines of the Napa Valley.
“The foundation of the wine program will comprise both up-and-coming and established vintners in the valley,” explained Dorn. “Our goal is to highlight the true DNA of what the Napa Valley is — those key vineyards you drive past every day, the workers in those vineyards, the people that we’ve garnered relationships with over the years and the talented young winemakers who are paving the way for the next generation. There will be no corkage fee for bottles from the Napa Valley.”
“This will not be just a diluted Meadowood experience, but, instead we wanted to do something different,” said Kostow. “We want to respect the space, understand what it means to the community. Building trust and celebrating with our friends and neighbors what this place has to offer. This restaurant will be for everybody. I don’t mean I want it to be everything to everybody, but instead something that is universally attractive. And there is a difference. We’re not lowering the bar. We are setting out to do this as well as we can.”
“Service will be attentive but certainly not overly intrusive with a lot of interruptions,” said Dorn. “For example, in the tables that are being built, the silverware will actually be in the drawers that the guests can access as they need to. It will be a natural, not forced, service. We want to reinvent what casual dining means, and we want to do it right.”
In terms of what a new restaurant might mean to the broader valley, Kostow paused for a long while before answering.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said finally. “Every time someone builds a new winery, opens a restaurant or shop, that person is helping define the future of the valley. For us, we want to fight the good fight. I hope we are representing the best things of this place. Through our partnerships and through our efforts to really tell the story of this valley on an international stage. We want to represent our neighbors and our community well. We want to empower people — from the people who cook the food, grow the vegetables or even make the dinnerware. That’s what we’re doing. And we’re doing it together.”
The Charter Oak is currently being remodeled and is scheduled to open later this year.
Originally appeared in the Napa Register, April 2016