12 days: on the twelfth day of christmas: kostow… (2015)

~ What can I say this year that I didn’t say last year? Before you read the rest of this post, I urge you to read what I wrote on the twelfth night of last year’s Twelve Days of Christmas.  Even if you’ve read it before, please read it again. Every word and every sentiment in that […]



What can I say this year that I didn’t say last year?

Before you read the rest of this post, I urge you to read what I wrote on the twelfth night of last year’s Twelve Days of Christmas.  Even if you’ve read it before, please read it again. Every word and every sentiment in that post I apply to this one.  So there’s no need to repeat or reword it here.

Instead, I will simply say that returning to the Twelve Days of Christmas for a fourth year has been an immense pleasure and privilege.  For four years now, I’ve rushed through the first eleven months with an eye towards the twelfth, when I get whisked away to a magical place called Meadowood Napa Valley to take part in an event that is truly without equal.

For twelve nights in December, the world’s culinary spotlight moves to sleepy St. Helena, California, as a parade of chefs streams in from faraway destinations to cook at The Restaurant at Meadowood. Over the past four years of photographing this dinner series, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to pull back the curtain a little, in hopes of sharing the magic of it all with those who can’t be there.  In my travels, I’m constantly surprised by the number of people, from all corners of the world, who join in the excitement and anticipation of this annual event, which, for so many of us, has become a highlight, an escape, an inspiration and aspiration, and, perhaps, most meaningfully, tradition.


The Restaurant at Meadowood


There came a moment during this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas when Christopher Kostow turned to me, gave me that look, and said that this year will be the last year.  I knew it was coming, because he gave me that same look and said the same thing to me last year, and the year before that too. And the year before that.

That’s because, behind all of the glitter and glamor of it, the Twelve Days of Christmas is a lot of work.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my front row seat at The Restaurant at Meadowood it’s that the men and women who work there are among the hardest working people in their industry, and especially so during these two weeks in December.  But they don’t shy away from a good challenge.  In fact, they run towards it.

Planning for the Twelve Days of Christmas starts as soon as the prior one ends.  It’s not only a logistical nightmare – scheduling eleven guest chefs (plus their assistants), their flights, transfers, accommodations, interviews, getting their prep lists, ordering their ingredients, choosing their flatware, coordinating menus and wine pairings (which the servers have to memorize daily), managing the reservations, seating assignments, flower arrangements (which included this year, an enormous bough of mistletoe that the resident forager, Cameron Cole-Rahtz, hauled in from the woods), dietary restrictions, charitable donations, etc. – but during its run, the event is physically demanding as well.  Everyone is up way too early, and no one ever gets home early enough.  Hospitality is not simply a day-job at Meadowood.  It’s a mindset.


Pre-dinner stuff.


But, this year, on the last night, as I walked into my forty-eighth Twelve Days of Christmas dinner, Christopher Kostow was walking into his ninety-sixth.  That’s because, despite his annual, momentary meeting with reality during the dinner series, when I’m convinced this is his last run, reality isn’t what motivates Kostow or his staff at The Restaurant at Meadowood.  They’re interested in inspiration, aspiration, and tradition.  They’re interested in preserving a sense of wonder.

I know this not only because of the way they treat me (again, if you haven’t read last year’s post yet, you really should read it), but I see it in their excitement and enthusiasm for what they do.  Every day of the Twelve Days of Christmas is like Christmas morning to them, full of prospect and hope for the diners who walk through their door every night. For first-time guests and veterans alike, there’s magic to be made.




I hear Nathaniel Dorn, the restaurant’s general manager, giggling sometimes, when he’s got some surprise brewing – like this year, when he overheard a couple of regulars, who have a newborn at home, lament that they hadn’t had time to put up a Christmas tree yet. So, Dorn and three of his servers snuck one of the Christmas trees out of the private dining room during dinner and somehow managed to fit it in the couple’s car.  Sure, the top of the tree was sticking out of the sunroof, but it fit, and it was lit. Dorn had rigged the lights to a battery.  The look on the couple’s faces when Dorn drove their car up to the front door is, I suspect, at the heart of what makes eight demanding years of putting on the Twelve Days of Christmas worthwhile.

Yes, there’s a lot of work involved.  And yes, standing just a few steps away from it all, I probably romanticize it a touch.  But The Restaurant at Meadowood makes it look effortless.  Even for this insider, who has spent four years backstage at the Twelve Days of Christmas (and the rest of his time traveling to other amazing places attending other amazing culinary events), they’ve managed to keep that sense of wonder alive in me.



There’s kind of an unspoken house rule during the Twelve Days of Christmas that Christmas music isn’t allowed in the kitchen until the last day.  It makes a lot of sense.  Imagine where we’d be by the end if we started playing it from the beginning.  So when I walked in to Nat King Cole crooning about chestnuts and mistletoe against the whir of a Robotcoup, I knew that we had finally arrived at day twelve.

Despite the fact that it means that my time at Meadowood is coming to an end, the last day is, perennially, my favorite day of the dinner series.  With no more guest chefs in the kitchen, and no more dinners, except the one at hand, for which to prepare, all of the cooks are back at their stations, quietly working through their lists.

This year, Christopher Kostow was in one corner sheeting pasta, while two cooks were piping the dough with a sweetbread filling.

John Hong, one of the sous chefs, was in another corner working on one of the more curious projects I’ve seen in this kitchen.  He was filling what appeared to be hollowed-out candles with gooey, melty cheese, into which he had mixed an obscene amount of diced black truffles.

Katianna Hong, the executive sous chef, was at another station helping cook David Guilloty bury guinea hens in mounds of salt.

And Carl Shelton and Ignacio Colmenares were in the pastry corner pouring roasted white chocolate into into silicon molds of walnuts.



In the front of the house, there were napkins to roll, glasses to polish, and rugs to vacuum.  Sommeliers Victoria Kulinich and Martin Winters were at the wine station decanting the night’s bottles, which included Harlan Estate 2006 and Promontory 2010, while a case of Krug champagne was being iced down.  We always drink well during the Twelve Days of Christmas, and especially so on the twelfth night.

Dorn had decided to put out walnuts and nutcrackers in the restaurant’s gorgeous rotunda lounge this year.  And boy did guests take to them.  So, as one of the servers was lighting the fireplace, another was refilling those giant, ceramic bowls of nuts.

And in the bar, the hostess Heaven-Leigh Carey was sifting through the night’s reservations, making last-minute notes, while Tyler McGinnis, one of the servers, was sorting through place settings.




I love line-up on the twelfth night.  It’s the only time during the entire event when all of the “white coats” come out of the kitchen to join the front of the house staff in the pre-service meeting (their entrance this year was particularly spirited). Normally, only the managing sous chef assigned to the guest chef, and maybe their assistant cook for the day, attend line-up to help review and explain the Restaurant at Meadowood’s side of the menu for the night.

But on this last day, there’s usually a lot of pre-holiday housekeeping, an unusually high number of guest notes, and a few staff good-byes to get through.  So, all hands are called to deck for one, last pow-wow before the final show.



This year’s twelfth night menu seemed much less improvised than in years past.

The romanesco “Christmas tree,” which made its nerve-wracking debut last year, returned this year at a canapé station, this time, securely screwed into a custom-made stand.  Sous chef Miles Pundsack-Poe carved florets off the charred head, which were served with an emulsion of ham fat and a grating of dried ham.  As delicious as it was, I spent more time hanging around the sweet potato latkes, which were topped with salmon roe and crème fraîche.  Those were awesome.

Kostow’s salt-baked birds are always great.  This year, his guinea hen were excavated from the baked crust and carved.  Both the white and dark meat were served together with pickled marigolds.  That was a pretty plate of food.

And that sweetbread-filled pasta that I saw Kostow sheeting earlier in the day was served with lobster, grilled in its shell, and garnished with shaved matsutake mushrooms.  That was a crowd favorite.



My favorite course was the first course.  Kostow roasted whole cabbage heads over hot coals in the Josper.  These were spliced in half and presented table side, where the soft, fleshy layers inside were scooped out and plated.  Over the steaming-hot wedges of cabbage, the servers spooned a warm, creamy sauce of whey that had been fortified with finely minced oysters and tins of caviar.  On paper, it sounded like a bad idea to me.  But in practice, it was incredibly delicious – the cabbage, whey, and oysters all gave off a mellow sweetness that was punctuated by the saltiness of the caviar that had been mixed throughout.

Soufflés for seventy also sounded like a bad idea to me.  They had to be baked off in batches and plated with furious speed to get them out to diners before they deflated.  Kostow and his cooks stood by with bowls of ice water, plunging their hands into the icy baths between moving ramekins, hot out of the oven, to plates.  It was a tense moment in the kitchen, but they turned out alright.



I had been served a prototype of the candle before.  But this was my first time having the final product. To those of you who might hope for a surprise yourself, I apologize.  I’ve probably ruined it already.

The candles that I saw John Hong filling earlier in the day were welded back together with a blowtorch.  Halfway through dinner, the candles were lit and taken out and placed on each table.  After the last meat course (veal in a vegetable-based “blanquette” with freshly shaved white truffles), servers unhinged the candles to reveal their creamy core of Cremeaux des Cîteaux cheese generously mottled with black truffles.  This was served with honey and bread.  I scraped that candle clean.

There was one last dessert – pumpkin, topped with those roasted white chocolate walnuts I saw them making earlier in the day – before a house full of applause and lots of drinks.  The twelfth night always ends in a prolonged celebration that lingers long past the last cook in the kitchen.


Grilling lobster.


I never leave The Restaurant at Meadowood on the last night presuming that there will be another Twelve Days of Christmas, for me or for anyone else.  For this sentimental reason alone, the twelfth day is always particularly special to me.  With no promise of another chef, another menu, another dinner waiting on the other side, I am, for one day out of the twelve, finally able to focus on the today instead of the tomorrows.

Looking back over the past four years, I’ve had forty-eight wonderful todays and tomorrows at The Restaurant at Meadowood.  And I have Christopher Kostow, Nathaniel Dorn, and the rest of my Meadowood family to thank for them, and for a sense of wonder that lasts me the rest of the year.  Thank you.




Below, you’ll find the menu from the twelfth and last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas with Christopher Kostow and his staff at The Restaurant at Meadowood.   To see all of the photos from this dinner, CLICK HERE.


Sweet Potato Latkes
Salmon roe, crème fraîche.


Prawn and Its Shell

First Course 
Coal-Roasted Cabbage
Whey, oysters, caviar.

Second Course
Lobster, matsutake.

Third Course 
Smoked Trout
Potato, pickled okra seeds, à la meunière.

Fourth Course 
Salt-Baked Guinea Hen
Pickled marigolds, celery.

Fifth Course 
Veal Rib
White truffle, “blanquette” of root vegetable juice,
winter rye.

Sixth Course 
“The Candle”

Seventh Course 
Warm Citrus Soufflé

Eighth Course 
White chocolate, yogurt, “walnut.”


The Napa Valley Reserve

Albert Grivault
“Clos des Perrieres”

Harlan Estate



Night #96.


Below are links to my posts and photos from all of the Twelve Days of Christmas dinners I have attended over the past four 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)


Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park, NoMad; New York, New York)
Nenad Mlinarevic (Focus; Vitznau, Switzerland)
Christian Puglisi (relæ; Copenhagen, Denmark)
Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil; Mexico City, Mexico)
Joshua Skenes (Saison; San Francisco, California)
Matthew Wilkinson (Pope Joan; Melbourne, Australia)
Kim Floresca and Daniel Ryan ([One]; Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
Isaac McHale (The Clove Club; London, The United Kingdom)
Kyle Connaughton (Single Thread; Healdsburg, California)
Atsushi Tanaka (A.T. Restaurant; Paris, France)
Justin Yu (Oxheart; Houston, Texas)
Christopher Kostow (The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)


Photos: The staff of The Restaurant at Meadowood; The Restaurant at Meadowood; Tyle McGinnis and Heaven-Leigh Carey making last-minute reservations notes; rolling napkins in the dining room; Christopher Kostow sheeting pasta dough; John Hong filling candles with Cremeaux des Cîteaux cheese; walnuts in the rotunda; a Christmas wreath in the rotunda; white coats join the front of the house at line-up; Miles Pundsack-Poe carving a romanesco; salt-baked guinea hen in a pot for table-side presentation; caviar being scooped into pots to be warmed with whey and oysters; Miles Pundsack-Poe and Katianna Hong scooping warm cabbage for the first course; lighting The Candle; Nathaniel Dorn presenting The Candle, and its surprise inside; John Hong grilling lobsters on the bone; the wine pairings; a final round of applause in the kitchen.

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