And finally, the twelfth night.
The last day of the Twelve Days of Christmas is fraught with mixed emotions. For the staff, there are nerves about the menu, which, year-after-year, seems to spring out of Christopher Kostow’s mind at the last minute. There’s always a marked bump in energy, as the cooks reclaim their kitchen – without a guest chef to host, the workflow seems leaner, more efficient. There’s the anticipation of the holidays, and a much needed break from the exhausting run of the dinner series. And for a few, it’s the bittersweet end of a chapter; a move, a new job, the last shift.
I’m there somewhere right in the middle. Although I’ve spent the last eleven posts talking about the guest chefs, their food, the vintners, and their wine, I’m going to take some time out of this report to tell you a little about my role and my perspective at the Twelve Days of Christmas.
I first came to the Twelve Days of Christmas three years ago as a guest, with a small part to play in collaboration. And I’ve been lucky to have returned twice now as the photographer, an observer, and in my own way, a commentator and chronicler, who has also happened to have actually eaten at most of each year’s guest chefs’ restaurants (not entirely a coincidence, of course). That added context has enriched my experience and perspective tremendously.
Although I’m sometimes so busy during the dinner series that I forget where I am, those moments are rare and short-lived. Twenty days and twenty nights at Meadowood Napa Valley, and twelve dinners at the Restaurant at Meadowood with some of the world’s most celebrated chefs aren’t exactly burdens to bear, and I’m mindful of that nearly every waking hour. It is a magical corner of the world during a magical time of the year, and I am very, very lucky to be able to experience it.
The staff accords me all of the privileges and care of a guest on property. And yet, as I’ve gotten to know many of them over the years, I’ve been made to feel very much like one of the family as well. For a good part of my year, Meadowood, quite literally, becomes my home away from home. I’ve known chef Kostow and his wife Martina before she was pregnant, then very pregnant, and, this year, made sure Elmo sipped from the cup instead of taking a bath in it (their daughter is incredibly cute, and incredibly in love with her red, furry friend). I’ve spent Thanksgiving with them. I’ve been to all of their staff Christmas parties (which are awesome, by the way). And some of us meet up for lunches and dinners on our days off. I’ve even become friends with some of the restaurant’s regulars, who I see every December, and sometimes in between.
All of this is to say that, although I am very much a fly on the wall at The Restaurant at Meadowood – the hired photographer who goes back to his room every night after dinner and edits photos into the early morning hours in order to turn them around for press the next day – I am, admittedly, not an impartial one. At the end of last year, I wrote about the slowly shifting ground beneath this blog. I’d like to think that I’ve been as open as possible about those blurred lines, acknowledging them, while trying to give some shape and order to them.
And so, I feel it’s only fair, at the end of this year’s posts about the Twelve Days of Christmas, for me to say: Yes, they pay me to photograph for them. Yes, they put me up at Meadowood Napa Valley for nearly three weeks, where the thread count on the bedsheets is so high, they’re probably bullet-proof. Yes, we’re friends. And yes, in a lot of ways, I’m on Team Meadowood.
But to be fair, there aren’t any other rules. Christopher Kostow and his team don’t tell me what to do, and they don’t tell me what to write. I move through their space unhindered at all hours. I am free to express my opinion. And I do. And the fact that they ask me for it tells me that they really care. Personal preferences aside (I don’t like everything that comes out of their kitchen, and they know it — they know, for example, that I thought Kostow’s sweetbreads dish from night five was the clunker of this year’s series), there is a mutual respect and trust among us. Underneath the reams of press, the Michelin stars, the James Beard Awards, and the façade of a mighty restaurant that calmly maintains its excellence and relevance in a cutthroat industry, is a chef who just wants to cook good food with nice people. I see that every day that I have spent at the Restaurant at Meadowood. I see it in the cooks he keeps, and the way he works with them. He demands a lot from his kitchen staff, but he also invests an incredible amount in them (if I haven’t said it before, let me say it here: the Twelve Days of Christmas is an incredible opportunity for his cooks to stage in eleven different kitchens around the world in two weeks). As a result, his team is strong. I know some of the challenges that the staff members face (both front and back of the house), and see how they industriously overcome them. I’ve been privy to some of the problems they encounter, and the professionalism with which they respond. I taste the consistency, and experience the technical flawlessness of it all, night after night. And I feel, firsthand, the enthusiasm and talent that they pour into every day and every service. It is admirable.
I’m on Team Meadowood because it’s a great one. They cheer for the nice guys, and so do I. I like their mission, I like their message. It’s one of good cheer and good food, of hospitality and charity. And I have no problem helping them spread it. I wouldn’t return, year-after-year, if I did.
But working with The Restaurant at Meadowood and writing about the Twelve Days of Christmas is merely representative of the bigger picture I’ve been painting in my little corner of the internet. This blog is, and has always been, about recording and sharing this magical and blessed life I lead, filled with adventure in extraordinary places with amazing food and passionate people. Christopher Kostow and his staff at The Restaurant at Meadowood play a part in that picture, one that I hope inspires others. Aspiration makes tomorrow an exciting time. As Kostow and I have reminded each other often: the day that we lose our sense of wonder about it all is the day we’re done.
When Christopher Kostow walked into the kitchen the morning of the twelfth day, he gave me a nervous look. “I don’t know if this is going to work.”
Many of the dishes he and his team presented at this last dinner were untested. They were ideas and flavors that had been bounced around the kitchen in various forms. But, they were relying on their collective talent and experience to bring it all together quickly.
Katianna Weiner and outgoing line cook Coleman Griffin* were in one corner, glazing squab with elderberry sauce. They had fans trained on the birds to dry the glaze and the skin, important in getting a crispy, burnished crust later.
Line cook Miles Pundsack-Poe was in another corner, trimming a mound of romanesco that gardner Christine Kim had hauled in from the restaurant’s garden at Kostow’s request. Kostow had this crazy idea of roasting them whole, torching them slightly to get a little color on the prehistoric-looking exterior, and carving them, like trimming Christmas trees, in the dining room. He was really nervous about this one.
In the pastry department, Jenna Hodges and Alyssa Tokumura were venturing into uncharted territory. They were packing pearl sugar and comice pears into molds shaped like pears. The idea was to bake the molds, causing the sugar to melt and form a pear-shaped crust around the pears within. Kostow wanted to crack the molds, table side, and spoon the warm, cooked pears over acorn bread perfumed with rosemary. He was really nervous about this one too.
And morning sous chef Oliver Antunes, who had spent some time cooking in France, including under Yannick Alleno at Le Meurice in Paris, was trying his hand at making marrons glacés. His wife Sandra, who is a server in the front of the house, explained at line-up, in her adorable French accent, that the chestnuts had to be poached gently in simple syrup every day for a week (or more), until they were candied. A proper marron glacé should have an opaque look to it, taking on a waxy coat. Oliver was setting his chestnuts on the stove for one last simmer, hoping they’d finally achieve the look and texture he wanted.
But, in a very Shakespearean way, all was well that ended well on the twelfth night.
Those birds were beautifully bronzed. The skin was crisp, and the meat was rosy and tender. The slices of breast meat nested with tournés of pumpkin under sheets of plum gelée and a shiso leaves.
There was a bit of drama getting the “Christmas trees” to stand up straight. But they went out, looking beautiful and perky. Cooks paraded them around the dining room before landing at carving stations to debranch the romanesco. The florets were set on creamy romanesco purée, and drizzled with a spoonful of sauce musky with hawayej – a spice with a curry-like flavor.
Those pears turned out beautifully too. The “white coats” (as the cooks are called) accompanied the servers to the tables to help them crack open the sugary shells, purple with pomace (grape must), and scoop out the steaming pears within. This was a particularly fragrant dessert, with the grape must infused into the sugar, and the woodsy scent of rosemary throughout.
And Oliver’s chestnuts couldn’t have been better. Just as his wife had described, they were translucent and tender, just like the fabled ones I’ve had Bernarchon in Lyon, France.
Even Kostow’s rye crumpets, which he griddled for the first time earlier that day with success, came out better than expected. Sturdy and spongey, with that springiness that’s peculiar to crumpets, they made the perfect, buttery mattress for a thick schmear of minced raw aji and caviar; fancy Jewish appetizing for a Christmastime feast.
The house was packed. With Christopher Kostow cooking, and wines provided by one of three cult wineries associated with Meadowood Napa Valley – Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, and BOND Estate – seats for the twelfth night are always the first to sell out (this year was BOND Estate’s turn).
Most who attend the twelfth dinner are friends of Meadowood. And so, there is a particularly familial atmosphere on the last night. This year, the guests seemed especially boisterous, with diners hopping from table to table, catching up with one another between courses, and lingering well past the last course over coffee and cocktails.
In the kitchen, the staff celebrated the end to the Twelve Days of Christmas with a round of Champagne, taking a moment to enjoy a last toast before they stripped all the counters and soaped everything down in preparation for the week-long holiday closure.
When other guests find out what I’m doing at the Twelve Days of Christmas, they always ask: don’t you get tired of doing this? Three years, thirty-six dinners later, it still feels like magic to me. Maybe it’s the Christmastime spirit. Maybe it’s the smell of fresh pine as I reflect on the day during my quiet walk home every night after service. Maybe it’s the ever-changing palette of colors and flavors in the kitchen each day. Or maybe, it’s the cheery smiles and fist bumps I get every morning from the cooks as they trickle into the kitchen. No matter what happened the day before, every day is a new day, a better day. Who could get tired of that? I’ve still got that sense of wonder.
To all of Meadowood Napa Valley, The Restaurant at Meadowood (Chef Kostow, Nathaniel Dorn, the cooks, the wine team, and the front of the house staff), and this year’s guest chefs, I extend a heartfelt thanks for making December the highlight of my year.
Below, you’ll find the menu from the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas with the Restaurant at Meadowood’s very own Christopher Kostow cooking, and wines by BOND. Following the menu, you’ll find a slideshow of all of the photos that I took. (If you’re viewing this on a mobile device, click here to see the photos.)
Smoked Haddock Wrapped in Nasturtium
Potato and Matsutake
Aged Beef with Juniper
Caviar, beet, rye crumpet.
Sea urchin, coastal grasses.
Eldberry glaze, pumpkin, plum “skin,” shiso.
Wrapped in wakame, cabbage, black truffle.
Cow’s milk cheese cured in spruce, last year’s persimmons.
Rancho Chimiles walnut oil.
Pears in Pomace
“Les Chevalières” Meursault, 2010
“Le Tesson” Meursault, 2010
Bond, “Vecina,” 2004
Bond, “Melbury,” 2005
Bond, “Pluribus,” 2005
Bond, “Quella,” 2009
Bond, “St. Eden,” 2010
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Below are links to my posts and photos from all of the Twelve Days of Christmas dinners I have attended over the past three years at the Restaurant at Meadowood. Each chef is listed with the restaurant with which they were cooking at the time they participated in the event (some have moved on to other projects and restaurants).
Scott Anderson (Elements; Princeton, New Jersey)
John & Karen Shields (Formerly of Townhouse; Chilhowie, Virginia)
Phillip Foss (EL Ideas; Chicago, Illinois)
Stuart Brioza & Nicole Krasinski (State Bird Provisions; San Francisco, California)
Jason Franey (Canlis Restaurant; Seattle, Washinton)
Matthias Merges (Yusho; Chicago, Illinois)
Mori Onodera (Formerly of Mori Sushi; Los Angeles, California)
James Syhabout (Commis; Oakland, California)
Nick Anderer (Maialino; New York, New York)
David Toutain (Agapé Substance; Paris, France)
Josh Habiger & Erik Anderson (The Catbird Seat; Nashville Tennessee)
Christopher Kostow (The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)
Andy Ricker (Pok Pok, Portland, Oregon & New York, New York)
Rodolfo Guzman (Boragó; Santiago, Chile)
Carlo Mirarchi (Blanca and Roberta’s; Brooklyn, New York)
Tim Cushman (O Ya; Boston, Massachusetts)
Ashley Christensen (Poole’s Diner; Raleigh, North Carolina)
David Chang (Momofuku; New York, New York)
Matthew Accarrino (SPQR; San Francisco, California)
Mark Ladner & Brooks Headley (Del Posto; New York, New York)
Rasmus Kofoed (Geranium; Copenhagen, Denmark)
Nicolaus Balla & Cortney Burns (Bar Tartine; San Francisco, California)
David Kinch (Manresa; Los Gatos, California)
Christopher Kostow (The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)
Matthew Orlando (Amass; Copenhagen, Denmark)
Frank Castranovo & Frank Falcinelli (Frankies 457, Prime Meats; New York, New York)
Kobe Desramaults (In de Wulf; Dranouter, Belgium)
Alexandre Gauthier (La Grenouillère; La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil, France)
Blaine Wetzel (Willows Inn; Lummi Island, Washington)
Joshua McFadden (Ava Gene’s; Portland, Oregon)
Virgilio Martinez (Central; Lima, Peru)
Grant Achatz (Alinea; Chicago, Illinois)
Corey Lee (Benu; San Francisco, California)
Esben Holmboe Bang (Maaemo; Oslo, Norway)
Ignacio Mattos (Estela; New York, New York)
Christopher Kostow (The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)
* Coleman has been in the kitchen for all three years that I have photographed the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood. In that time, he has become known for his shameless attempts to get in front of my camera in a sorely misguided attempt at fame (despite my repeated assurances that neither I, nor my blog can offer him any significant noteriety, even if he were to appear in every photo). On his last night with the restaurant, Christopher Kostow and Nathaniel Dorn, the restaurant’s director, decided to ambush him with a pasta party. The ingredients were pretty simple: flour, water, and eggs. Coleman: this won’t make you famous, but here’s your long awaited debut on this blog: