12 days: on the twelfth day of christmas: kostow… (2017)

•January 6, 2018 • Leave a Comment

A Meadowood Miracle

It always seems to end before it begins.

For five years now, I’ve had the pleasure of recording and reporting from one of the most magical corners of the culinary world during one of the most magical seasons of the year.  It is an annual gathering of extraordinary talent and goodwill that has also become one of the most anticipated culinary events among spectators, and one of the most coveted invitations among chefs.

The many personal observations and sentiments about the Twelve Days of Christmas that I’ve shared along the way, especially those that I recorded at the end of 2014, still apply today.  I know they are inadequate, partly because the scope and wonder of it all defy words, but mostly because improving upon them exceeds my talent as a writer. So, dispensing with unnecessary flourishes, I bring forward all past marvel and deep-felt thanks to my colleagues, friends, and family at The Restaurant at Meadowood.  Your goals are admirable, your mission noble, and your standards ever higher.

Today, as we arrive at the Epiphany, the true end to the Twelve Days of Christmas, I draw close another very special set of a dozen days.  This year’s twelfth night marks my 60th and hosting chef Christopher Kostow’s 108th dinner of the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

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12 days: on the eleventh day of christmas: couillon… (2017)

•January 3, 2018 • Leave a Comment

7th Course:

Alexandre Couillon lives on a small island off the west coast of France called Noirmoutier.  For decades, there was only one road on and off the island called the Passage du Gois.  But it’s only passable at low tide, when the seawater recedes enough to expose the two-lane road to traffic.  I know this, because, when I arrived at its shores earlier this year in October, an electronic sign at the entrance to the passage was flashing a warning. Although I could see the road stretching, unobstructed, toward the island in the distance, the tide was coming in.  And according to locals, the water floods the low-lying flats between the island and the mainland so quickly that many have died trying to cheat it.  Depending on who I asked, at high tide, the road is covered by three to four meters of water, which is hard to believe when you see the area at low tide, as I did on my way off the island.  Fully receded, the sea is not visible from the road at all.  Locals and visitors alike park alongside the Passage du Gois, and fan out over the vast expanse to collect cockles, mussels, and clams.

I turned around and took the bridge, which was constructed a few decades ago.

I loved my very short stay in Noirmoutier, where I was welcomed warmly by the Couillons.  Despite my misgivings about Couillon’s cooking based on his plating style and some of the chefs and restaurants that frequently appear in the same paragraphs and lists as he does (yes, how superficial of me), he impressed me.  His food was not only beautiful and meaningful (especially so if you have the time to explore the island before dinner, as I did), owing to excellent produce and technique, it was immensely delicious.  So I was thrilled to find his name on the eleventh night of this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

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12 days: on the tenth day of christmas: zonfrillo… (2017)

•January 2, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Line-up.

 –

“Give back more than you take.”  Those are the words that Jock Zonfrillo inscribed on the dry-erase board in the kitchen, which every guest chef at the Twelve Days of Christmas is invited to sign at the end of their dinner.

Every year, there is usually one chef who pleasantly surprises me.  This year, it was a 41 year-old Scotsman from Australia.  Before this year, I had never heard of Zonfrillo. And needless to say, I have never been to his restaurant Orana in Adelaide, Australia.

But after spending a few days with him in the kitchen at The Restaurant at Meadowood, and hearing about his motivations and goals as a chef, I was moved to learn more about his philosophy of caring for and creating an Australian cuisine.  I’ll skip the details of his life, because I think you should read them for yourself (suffice it to say, he has lived a lot more life in about the same amount of time as I).  I would also encourage you to read about his foundation, which is also named Orana, an aboriginal word for “welcome.”  It is crucial to understanding why he opened his restaurant.

Orana’s mission is to “revolutionise Australian food culture through combining the preservation of indigenous knowledge and practice with contemporary methods and innovation.”  If the foundation is concerned with preservation and knowledge, then his restaurant seems to be where the innovation happens.  An abbreviated version of this message is what he brought to the kitchen at the The Restaurant at Meadowood on the tenth night of this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas.

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12 days: on the ninth day of christmas: werner… (2017)

•January 1, 2018 • Leave a Comment

1st Course: Otono Rock Cod Ceviche

Conveying a sense of place has become a motif among restaurants and chefs.  And what makes so many destination restaurants unique is actually being there. Local ingredients, landscapes, weather, traditions, history, politics, religion, and language all converge to form culture, culinary and otherwise.

So how do you bring all of that to another place?  Increasingly, that has become a challenge to chefs, who are drilling ever-deeper into their own cultures while traveling abroad more than ever before.  And while this cross-pollination is important, knowing is very different from understanding, or more significantly, experiencing.

Most of the chefs who arrive at The Restaurant at Meadowood for the Twelve Days of Christmas know that what they do at home cannot be adequately transplanted afield. But, for the foreign chefs especially, if replication isn’t possible, approximation is.  In the spirit of collaboration, where indigenous products and context fail, technique prevails.  If flavors, colors, and senses can’t be experienced firsthand, at least methods can be explained and applied to proxy ingredients. And, to varying degrees guest chefs have relied on this alternative avenue for bringing a bit of their homeland to Napa.

As someone who has had the opportunity of traveling to many of the guest chefs’ restaurants over the years, it has been highly educational to witness how they adopt and adapt, how they creatively open a window to their own place from a faraway setting.  Manish Mehrotra presented a compelling example of this on the second night, in part because Indian culture is so foreign to my own.  So too, the last three guest chefs this year represented culinary corners that remain relatively unfamiliar to me (and to the great majority of the guests who attended their dinners), and so were presented these same challenges of cultural and culinary transference.

The first of these was Eric Werner, who cooked on the ninth night of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

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12 days: on the eighth day of christmas: keller… (2017)

•December 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

4th Course: Cod

On the eighth night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the hills above Los Angeles were on fire.

Not two months earlier, it had been the hills of Sonoma and Napa, where fires had spread quickly and destroyed indiscriminately.  Monumental efforts and vast resources were poured into saving lives, property, and priceless vineyards.  Meadowood Napa Valley evacuated.  The French Laundry closed.  The smoke was so thick, and the air quality so bad, that some were even leaving San Francisco.

I monitored the events from afar, as friends left their jobs and homes for safety.  And, I read about the heroic battle to contain and extinguish the fires.

Not only was the devastation still visible when I arrived in Napa Valley in early December for the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it became a renewed topic of conversation as the southern part of California started to burn.  I even met a few people who had fled north to the valley for refuge among family and friends.

And so, when I saw a volunteer fireman one morning at the Model Bakery in St. Helena, where I often began my day with coffee and one of its buttery English muffins, I stopped to thank him for his service.  A few days later, he walked into the kitchen of The Restaurant at Meadowood wearing a blue apron.  It turns out, he’s also the executive sous chef of The French Laundry.  His name is Elliot Bell.

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12 days: on the seventh day: takazawa… (2017)

•December 30, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

Yoshiaki Takazawa and John Hong

Yoshiaki Takazawa is one of the four chefs cooking at this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas whose restaurant I have not visited.  And, admittedly, I still knew very little about this Japanese chef and his cooking when he arrived at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

The anticipation and excitement surrounding Takazawa’s dinner was noticeably high. What little I did manage to gather from personal friends who have been to Takazawa’s restaurant suggested that he has a dynamic approach to flavor, and that he is a phenomenal technician.  Both of these things were true to what I witnessed in the kitchen, and with what Takazawa presented on the seventh night.

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12 days: on the sixth day of christmas: brock… (2017)

•December 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Cross-pollination.

By now, Sean Brock’s great contributions to the current wave of revivalism rippling through our American South is widely known. While organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance have been crucial to the documentation and preservation of that region’s rich, culinary heritage, Brock’s ability to communicate and apply his obsession with Southern history and culture in his restaurants has ignited a pandemic of culinary curiosity in an area of our country long-dismissed and shamed.

If you are unaware, I urge you to explore the Southern Foodways Alliance website to learn more about its important mission and work.  And, of course, I encourage you type Sean Brock’s name into your browser and disappear into his world for a while.  In addition to countless other Southern voices – farmers, distillers, millers, chefs, and academics; many of whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting at S.F.A. events and Music To Your Mouth over the years –  they are spearheading one of the most important culinary movements of our lifetime.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll remind here again: The Twelve Days of Christmas is more than a string of fancy dinners.  It is also more than a celebration of culinary excellence. At its very best, this event is a platform for awareness and cross-pollination. Sean Brock’s deep-dive specialization makes him an exemplary candidate. So it is not surprising – indeed, commendable in my opinion – that he is one of only two chefs whom Christopher Kostow has invited to return to cook at The Restaurant at Meadowood for a second time.*

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