12 days of christmas: kostow… (2018)

– All of the guest chefs have left.  On the last night of this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood – the 120th dinner, and my 72nd – the kitchen returned to the hosting chef Christopher Kostow and his team. – – There are few restaurants in the United States that […]


All of the guest chefs have left.  On the last night of this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood – the 120th dinner, and my 72nd – the kitchen returned to the hosting chef Christopher Kostow and his team.

There are few restaurants in the United States that could pull off what Kostow, the restaurant’s director of operations Nathaniel Dorn, and their team have now done for 10 years in a row during the Twelve Days of Christmas.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they are attached to a world-class resort (Meadowood Napa Valley), which helps host the guest chefs in grand style. But even without the luxuries and conveniences afforded by the resort, the logistics of coordinating 11 guest chefs, who fly in from around the globe, and their menus (most of which is done remotely in a variety of languages), and carrying it all out with the highest standards exceed the wherewithal and stamina of even the best restaurants in America.

In five previous posts about the last night of this dinner series, I’ve tried to convey how and why the Twelve Days of Christmas represent, aspirationally, the very best of what the culinary world can achieve.  (You will find those posts hyperlinked at the bottom of this one. If you know little about this event, I encourage to go back a read what I’ve written before.)  But that doesn’t give you a detailed account of the daily demands involved.

Since so many of my readers and followers have asked about my experience as the photographer, this year, I will tell you about a typical day for me at The Twelve Days of Christmas.  To be clear, my work is relatively uninteresting and unimportant compared to the real work at hand.  But, because what I do is so integrally dependent on what the staff at The Restaurant at Meadowood does, I hope that telling you about my day will give you a better idea of just how much work and detail goes into every single dinner.  As you read through, keep in mind that I have, by far, the easiest job in the entire place. I am merely a lucky observer of this spectacular culinary show.


My day starts early.  I’m usually up and ready to go by 0700.  If I haven’t already done so the night before, I will begin my day by transferring all of the photos from the previous day to my external hard-drive.  There are usually anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 photos per day.

Before I leave my room (at Meadowood Napa Valley), I’ll usually call The Grill – the other restaurant on property – with my breakfast order to-go.  Swinging by The Grill first to pick up my order, I’m usually in the kitchen at The Restaurant at Meadowood by 0830. The sous chef appointed to assist that day’s guest chef is already there, along with a handful of cooks who have started prep.

Depending on how much space is needed by the guest chef(s) in the kitchen, I am usually able to carve out a corner (or more) on one of the two kitchen tables (where four guests can usually dine during service) to use as a temporary office.  There, I’ll stand and edit photos, with one eye on the kitchen. My goal is to get as many photos edited – at least 25, but usually closer to 40 – as possible and uploaded to an online album accessible by The Restaurant at Meadowood’s media team by noon.  That sounds easy, but sifting through thousands of photos takes time.  And editing is invariably interrupted by distractions – I’ll see something interesting and go over to a station and photograph what a cook or chef is doing; or I’ll get pulled into a conversation about ingredients or the process (usually because I’m curious); or I’ll field any number of photo requests by someone on staff.

In these relatively quiet morning hours, the florist usually visits to refresh the arrangements in the restaurant, or change out old for new.  Sometimes, as I’m passing by, she’ll ask if the holly has been dropping too many berries.  Since the staff is so diligent about cleaning, it’s hard for her to tell.  So I’ll give her her my highly unskilled opinion, and she seems genuinely thankful for it.

By 1000, all the cooks are in the kitchen, as is the guest chef and his/her assistant(s).  Sometimes there is more than one guest chef in the kitchen. At 1030, the kitchen stops for morning line-up, during which the guest chef and Kostow run through the day’s menu and make sure that all of the cooks are on the same page regarding the day’s prep.

Sometime between morning line-up and 1230, we’ll usually take the guest chef to The Restaurant at Meadowood’s Farm (which is shared with The Charter Oak).  Kostow, the guest chef, the resident sous chef running point for the guest chef, sometimes the guest chef’s assistant, and I will caravan off-site to the Montessori of St. Helena. That’s where the garden is. It’s about five minutes away.  The head farmer Zac Yoder will walk us through the garden and take last-minute orders for greens and herbs for that night’s dinner.  We’re usually in the garden for about 20 minutes.

Napkins.  The Twelve Days of Christmas


By the time we get back to the restaurant, close to 1300, the front of the house staff have arrived.  The wine team begins porting the night’s wine pairings from storage and prepares the bottles for service. Jeremy Rupp, the expeditor, walks the guest chef through the inventory of serviceware to make sure the proper plates and bowls are pulled. A team of servers are in the front of the house rolling hundreds of napkins.  Tables and chairs are rearranged according to the day’s reservations. Beau du Bois, the Bar and Spirits Manager starts preparing the bar.  There’s vacuuming and general tidying happening everywhere.

The kitchen is full-tilt by 1400.  Somewhere around this time, the kitchen tables are prepared for service, and I am displaced.  If I haven’t packed my things up entirely, I usually decamp to the bar area, where the fireplace has now been lit for the night. But usually, there’s too much activity at this time of the day for me to concentrate on editing.  And, besides, I feel like an asshole for being the only one sitting in a house full of activity. So I prefer to float about the restaurant with my camera. There’s something interesting happening in every part of the restaurant, especially in the kitchen, when, after a day of prepping, dishes finally start to take form.  But no matter how busy things are, I usually find a minute to run over to the resort’s reception area to grab a few cookies (they change daily) and some coffee; a much-needed afternoon jolt.

In past years, I had a longer buffer period in the afternoons.  That’s because there used to be one seating.  All of the guests would arrive at 1800 and be seated closer to 1900.  So, from the noon photo deadline, I had a generous stretch of time before afternoon line-up at 1630, during which I would continue editing, or work ahead on blog posts, or even download some of the morning’s photos and prepare them for quick turnaround.   But this year, in an effort to increase the quality of the overall experience and product (and accommodate more guests), The Restaurant at Meadowood reconfigured the dinner with staggered seating, like a normal restaurant service.  As a result, the first seating was moved up to 1730, with doors opening at 1700.  This shortened the day considerably for everyone, especially the kitchen.

While the cooks forge ahead with prep in the kitchen, at 1530 sharp, the front of the house and key kitchen staff are lined up in the restaurant’s lounge (rotunda) to welcome the guest chef at the afternoon staff meeting.  Kostow and the guest chef will run through the night’s finalized menu with the service staff, describing each course in detail, after which the floor is opened to questions (including notes for dietary restrictions). This is the front of the house’s only chance to learn the menu for service.

After the menu is thoroughly reviewed, Micah Clark, the restaurant’s head sommelier, runs through the night’s wine pairings.  After that, Dorn usually has some housekeeping reminders for the staff.  By the time the meeting is dismissed around 1600, the cooks in the kitchen will have stopped prep, cleaned the entire kitchen (including washing the floors and wiping down all of the counters), and put out staff meal.  Everyone eats quickly, usually standing, and then resumes final preparations for service.  The counters are taped down, the finalized tickets are affixed to the pass, and the guest chef will usually plate the entire menu so that the staff can familiarize themselves with each course, the appropriate markings (utensils), and any service steps required (like table-side pouring, carving, etc.).

Between 1630 and 1700, I’m on my way back to my room to suit-up for dinner.  While there, I’ll also change out my camera batteries, clean my camera lenses, and make sure that I have plenty of space on my memory cards.  If I have extra time, I’ll transfer as many photos as I can from my camera to my external storage unit.

Back at the restaurant, Dorn meets with the front of the house to run through the night’s guest list, noting special requests and double-checking dietary restrictions.  The final menus are printed and packaged with the guest amenities – this year, each party or couple received a bottle of the restaurant’s apple brandy, some house-made caramels, and a copy of the menu.

At 1700, the front door is open to guests.

Cozy.  The Bar at The Restaurant at Meadowood


I am usually back in the kitchen by 1730, by which time the first guests have begun trickling in. As in the past, guests are first welcomed to the kitchen for Champagne and canapés before being taken to their tables.  I’ll spend the first hour in the kitchen photographing service.

For about half of the dinners, I’m seated for dinner around 1830 – usually at the bar, but sometimes in the dining room.  This enables me to shoot some of the courses at the table, in the restaurant.  During these dinners, I shuttle between seat and kitchen, shooting service when I’m not eating.

For the other half of the dinners, I’m in the kitchen the entire night.  One corner of the kitchen, which isn’t used during service, is reserved for a small team of staff to stand and eat during the Twelve Days of Christmas. This usually includes the restaurant’s media team (including me), and a rotation of staff who work at the farm. We’ve affectionally dubbed this corner the “Snack Shack.” Here, we get the full menu and wine and a front row seat to the action.

Dinner service is when I take the most photos.  Being in the kitchen for most of the day gives me an incredible amount of backstory and context for what happens in the kitchen at night. During service, all of the moving parts that I saw earlier in the day finally come together.  Documenting this process is what I love doing most.

This year, with staggered seating, dinner service ran from 1730 to roughly midnight, and often later, depending on the length of the menu.  I stay as long as I need in order to get the shots I want, which includes a group shot of the guest chef with the kitchen team. That usually happens at the end of the night.

When I do finally leave the restaurant – usually between 2300 and midnight – I am immensely thankful for and painfully aware of just how short my commute is.  Someone in the front of the house calls a car for me, and within minutes, I’m whisked back to a plush room, with treats on my pillow and a glowing fireplace.  After a long day, it’s heaven.  I put my feet up and edit photos until I can’t keep my eyes open.

At the restaurant, however, service continues until the last guest leaves.  In the meantime, cooks start stripping the kitchen, scrubbing and cleaning and resetting for the next day.  The washers continue their thankless job in the dish pit, painstakingly cleaning thousands of plates, utensils and glasses. And as the restaurant empties, the servers migrate from the front of the house to the back to join the herculean effort of polishing and drying all of the stemware.  You have no idea.  I have no idea.

As hard as I try to notice and acknowledge all of the work that goes on around me, every day, just beyond my periphery, a thousand things are happening. The restaurant’s elves are visiting every guest chef’s and every guest chef’s assistant’s room before they arrive to drop off welcome gifts. Richard Wang is monitoring flights and organizing airport transfers.  In the communications office, Martina Kostow and Marie Masyczek field media inquiries and messages.  There are last-minute menu changes, with magnified ripple effects, sending sous chefs scrambling.  And I can only imagine the kind of requests, demands, and changes that Chitra Samanta has to deal with every day in the reservations department.  And amidst all of this busyness, I waltz through, blissfully unaware like a charmed Mr. Magoo.

No matter how long the day, how hard the service, every morning, when I walk into the kitchen, everything sparkles anew as if it were the first day.

These people make it look effortless.

I don’t know how they do it.  I really don’t.

I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity of working alongside such motivated, professional, and genuinely humble people.

Christopher Kostow  Herb Babka

Have you ever wanted to eat an entire Perigord truffle?

On the twelfth night, guests got to do just that.

Quarter-sized Perigord truffles were trimmed into perfect balls, pressure cooked, and then embedded into gougères.  These were finished with grated Gruyère cheese and served as canapés.  They were fantastic.

This last menu was a parade of such luxuries.

There was caviar served with tendons and sabayon. That was decadent.  So was coal-seared foie gras, served with fluffy pain au lait.

And then there was the sprawling buffet of fish and shellfish, all from northern Californian waters: spot prawns, geoducks, oysters, and mackerel.  This was served with garlicky babka (my favorite) and copious amounts of butter.

One of my favorite courses was Kostow’s sweetbreads.  These creamy nuggets were skewered on branches of California bay and grilled.  The entire, fragrant bunch was presented and the sweetbreads unthreaded at the table.  They were finished with Kostow’s version of sauce Périgueux.

I also loved the salt-baked prime rib, which was served naked on a plate, accompanied by a carousel of sides for the table: fermented potato purée, chanterelles, and a spicy salad.  That sort of simplicity in a shared format, is exactly the way I like to eat.  Every part was perfect.

2nd Course: Coal-Seared Foie Gras  NorCal Fish and Shellfish

There were white truffles of course.  They were infused into butter, which veined wheels of Cashal blue cheese.  The cheese was sliced at the table and portioned out along with poached pears and buttery slices of The Charter Oak bread.

To end the night, a sundae of pine ice cream with candied baby pine cones, a very Napa Christmas ending.

Following, you’ll find the entire menu from the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas with host chef Christopher Kostow and his team at The Restaurant at Meadowood cooking.  Here is a link to all of the photos from this dinner.


Whole Perigord black truffle, Gruyère.

1st Course
NorCal Fish and Shellfish
Oysters, mackerel, spot prawn, geoduck.

2nd Course
Smoked tendon, cultured butter, sabayon.

3rd Course
Coal-Seared Foie Gras
Crab apple, chrysanthemum, pain au lait.

4th Course 
Black Cod in Olio
Punterelle, green almonds treated like olives.

5th Course
Grilled California bay, black truffle, celery.

6th Course
Salt-Baked Prime Rib
Fermented potato, grilled chanterelles, spicy salad.

7th Course
White Truffle-Veined Blue Cheese
Beeswax, poached pear, The Charter Oak bread.

8th Course
Pine Sundae

Warm Chestnuts

Wine pairings.

Wine Pairing

Failla Chardonnay, Platt Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, 2016

Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Kabinett, 2011

Qupé Roussanne, Santa Maria Valley, 2007

Fleuril 2015

Beaulieu Vineyard, Georges de Latour, Private Reserve, 1982

My 72nd Twelve Days of Christmas

Below are links to my posts and photos from all Twelve Days of Christmas dinners I have attended. 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)


Mark Lundgaard Nielsen (Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)
Manish Mehrotra (Indian Accents; New Dehli, India; New York, New York; London, U.K.)
Jeremiah Stone & Fabián von Hauske Valtierra (Contra & Wildair; New York, New York)
Jeremy Fox (Rustic Canyon & Tallula’s; Santa Monica, California)
Ben Sukle (birch & Oberlin; Providence, Rhode Island)
Sean Brock (McCrady’s, McCrady’s Tavern, Husk, & Minero; Charleston, South Carolina)
Yoshiaki Takazawa (Takazawa; Tokyo, Japan)
Thomas Keller (The French Laundry; Yountville, California)
Eric Werner (Hartwood; Tulum, Mexico)
Jock Zonfrillo (Orana; Adelaide, Australia)
Alexandre Couillon (La Marine; Noirmoutier, France)
Christopher Kostow (The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)


Jose Enrique (Jose Enrique; San Juan, Puerto Rico)
David Pynt (Burnt Ends; Singapore)
Jessica Largey (Simone; Los Angeles, California)
James Lowe (Lyle’s; London, The United Kingdom)
Kamilla Seidler (formerly of Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia; Copenhagen, Denmark)
Byung-jin Kim (Gaon; Seoul, South Korea)
Wojciech Modest Amaro (Atelier Amaro; Warsaw, Poland)
Justin Cogley (Auberine; Carmel, California) & Trevor Moran (Nashville, Tennessee)
Michael Tusk (Cotogna and Quince; San Francisco, California)
Ana Ros (Hiša Franko; Kobarid, Slovenia)
Sota Atsumi (Maison, opening in 2019; Paris, France)
Christopher Kostow (The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Approximately 2,000 toys and $60k+ raised.

This year, The Restaurant at Meadowood asked guests to bring one unwrapped toy to dinner to be donated to families in need.  By the end of the series, nearly 2,000 toys spilled out from underneath the Christmas trees throughout the restaurant.  All of these had to be transported to the various donation centers in the region – one was as far as three hours away.  Also, this year, through the Twelve Days of Christmas, The Restaurant at Meadowood raised over $60,000 for the event’s beneficiary, the St. Helena Preschool for All.

Photos: Salt-baked prime rib on the pass; The Restaurant at Meadowood dining room; a wreath in the lounge on a sunny day; packaging nightly amenities; Beau du Bois preparing the cocktail cart; folding napkins; Christmas trees in the bar; the fireplace has been lit in the bar; the bar at night; Christopher Kostow during service; Kostow saucing sweetbreads; black cod in olio; plates of coal-seared foie gras; the sprawling buffet of NorCal fish and shellfish; David Guilloty slicing white truffle-veined blue cheese; Jacqueline Dasha plating pine sundaes; wine pairings; The Restaurant at Meadowood team after the last service; some of The Restaurant at Meadowood staff with a load of toys to deliver; the restaurant’s apple brandy bottles for each of the 12 days.


Categories 12 days 2018 michelin

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