A Matter of Taste—Musing on Palate Expression with Christopher Kostow
Teasing apart the way we taste.
July 2, 2015 ● 4 min read
It's early enough in the morning that there are no cars rumbling up the olive tree-lined path to Meadowood in St. Helena. The sun has barely begun to penetrate the darkly wooded hills surrounding the resort, and a few ambitious tennis-playing early-bird vacationers stroll along the narrow driveway.
Inside, even the silence is incredible; it’s downy and warm, the overall effect only helped along by the shades of charcoal gray and blues in the entranceway rotunda. Wide-paned windows reveal lush redwoods hugging the building, in the kind of dazzling nature display that makes you think, Fuck! How GREAT are trees?! Not bad, this place.
Kostow arrives like an exclamation point. The guy radiates supersonic levels of energy, eyes bright and laser-focused behind the wood frames of his glasses.
“I actually just wrote this long email to my sous chefs at six this morning about all this,” he says, settling into a deep chair and flipping open a leather binder stuffed with notes. It’s most definitely the binder of someone who is firing off emails while the rest of us are still perfecting the pillow lines on our face. “I’m at the point where I’ve been doing this for a while and I know what’s in my wheelhouse. I know what I like.”
When squash season comes, he knows that somewhere in his brain a neuron fires off a desire for brine—sardines, fresh curds. He knows he likes smoke, and vinegar, and big, in-your-face fermented flavors. He favors bavette over filet mignon, every time.
“I’m finding myself doing menu development, right, and I start coming up with what I think are ideas for the next tomato dish and god damn, it sounds like that tomato dish I did last year,” he says. “So, the question is, now that we know what we know, is it time to jettison everything we’ve done and start over?”
He pauses, and the enormity of the thought rushes into the space. How many permutations of the same impulse are even possible? How do you restart your palate’s clock?
“Something that’s occupying most of my thinking right now is, what is ours? What can we do that no one else can do?” he says. “Not because we’re better, but because this is who we are as people, geographically this is where we find ourselves, and this is the infrastructure we’ve built.”
As if in answer to his own question, he shoots out of his chair and disappears, presto change-o, into the dining room, around a corner, and behind an automatic door that glides open, schhhhlick, to the kitchen. Cooks scattered across the cavernous room all look up from their respective, spotless stations. Good morning, boss-man. We pass Tim, a cook industriously making a “cubic shit-ton” of nochino, a spicy-sweet Italian liqueur, from a mountain of unripe green walnuts. Another cook is sealed in a chilled walk-in, meditatively prepping fine wisps of herbs from the garden.
This, all this, is clearly what is theirs. The collective expression of all of these unique palates is wheedled into existence by the constant, Sisyphean push for their Holy Grail—one part inspired creation, one part seasonal harmony, and one part business savvy. “We’re at the whim of things around us…but we also have to be perfect. Good luck,” he snorts, somehow managing to look both ecstatic and exhausted by the challenge.
But while it might look like a dream laboratory for a mad scientist, Kostow is not, to be sure, spending his days gazing up at the clouds composing his next masterpiece. Rather than allow the day-to-day cogs of running a business muddy the visionary freedom of his cooks, he has stationed himself right on the line of what is and what could be. He reassures one side as he fosters the other.
“You can’t let the operation side of things take away your ability to be inspired, right? That is the hardest fucking thing,” he says. “That’s my mountain: finding the headspace to really think about things and come up with new ideas.”
Typically, Kostow has one cook holding down research and development, tasked with keeping things on track in dreamland. “If I’m out of town or something, they're the one making sure we’re still doing tastings, that everyone’s been assigned to work on certain elements of certain dishes,” he reasons. “That way you’re separating operations from R&D. That’s really the only way I’ve found to not allow creativity to not get burdened by everything else. I don’t know how other chefs do it, to be honest with you. I’d be really curious to know.”
I wonder if there’s a moment on the menu where he sees the stars aligning, where he feels they expressed the true nature of a craving. He rifles through a few worn printouts covered in inky notes, allowing the written word to jolt his memory, and settles on a potato dish. With the clean swiftness of a math genius solving a simple proof, he lays it out: a single small potato, cooked in local beeswax, is peeled, and served on a little bed of a puree of those same potatoes. It’s topped with a crunchy gravel of dried sorrel and potato, and finally, garnished with tiny micro-sorrel. It is the Ultimate Potato, the natural sweetness nudged to the forefront of your flavor centers by the brightly acidic sorrel.
“You see all that stuff going on in that kitchen?” he asks, pointing back over his shoulder as we make our way back through the dining room, “I believe in harnessing all those things to make something that’s fucking delicious. It’s deliciousness that gets me.”
It’s not about what’s the most esoteric, and although certainly some of our shit is esoteric,” he adds, “it’s really about what is incredibly enjoyable to eat.”
Enjoyable though it may be, in the intricate and demanding environment of a tremendously busy and groundbreaking joint like this, the food—and the palate— is not everything. Kostow’s taste buds and way with nature don’t exist in a vacuum, and he’ll be the first to admit it.
“The experience is a lot bigger than me. It’s about my relationship with a prep cook, it’s about how I run the garden, it’s about a million things that are not me,” he says, gesturing to the room at large. “The palate has no value if the rest of the stuff is not in place. I’m just a dot in all this."
By Cassandra Landry. Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber. | Originally published by MISE magazine