The Restaurant at Meadowood pushed chefs for brilliance — some say at a human cost – San Francisco Chronicle

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In eulogizing the Restaurant at Meadowood, former employees and local fine dining chefs are exploring a range of emotions regarding its lasting legacy.

The transcendent St. Helena restaurant was destroyed in the Glass Fire last week, pushing into focus the devastating toll this year’s wildfire season is taking on Northern California’s struggling restaurant industry. It earned international acclaim, three Michelin stars and a constant presence on The Chronicle’s Top 100, and its executive chef, Christopher Kostow, has won a James Beard Award.

“It was an incredible place, and in losing it, you lose decades of history,” said San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardins, who came to know the Meadowood Napa Valley property in the early 1990s. “It just rips your heart out.”

Many describe Meadowood as a place that not only pushed the boundaries of fine dining in Napa Valley but also created a tight-knit family, whose members have gone on to open successful restaurants and wineries around the country.

For some former employees, however, the eulogizing reminded them of an intense kitchen environment they said was toxic. Multiple former chefs are alleging that Kostow berated young cooks, threw plates and created a culture of fear; one former pastry chef’s Instagram post about it created a stir online. Others say that kind of behavior is common, and justified, in Michelin-starred kitchens. The allegations come at a time when the restaurant industry is looking inward and grappling with the angry chef trope — revealing the messy mark that modern fine dining kitchens can leave in the pursuit of greatness.

Chef Christopher Kostow turned the Restaurant at Meadowood into an international destination.

Before Kostow took over the Restaurant at Meadowood in 2008, Napa Valley’s food scene was best known for Thomas Keller’s renowned French Laundry, and other restaurants tended to follow with French-inspired cooking. Kostow gave the region new life.

“He helped define Napa cuisine. He created a sense of culture, cultivated around what the bounty of the land provided,” said Kim Floresca, a former Meadowood chef. “He gave it a challenging, beautiful story and created a sense of theory behind the food.”

The restaurant focused on ingredients such as manzanita and madrone leaf grown on the Meadowood property, as well as its nearby farm. Chefs also foraged for ramps and mushrooms in the surrounding woods — something fairly common among fine dining restaurants now but that felt more unusual in the Bay Area when Meadowood started doing it. Everything from the pottery to the art was local.

Kim Alter, the chef of Michelin-starred Nightbird in San Francisco, has vivid memories of her meal at Meadowood in 2013 — the food had a timelessness to it. Chefs in the local industry saw Meadowood’s staff as “true creators,” said Chris Bleidorn of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred restaurant Birdsong.

“It wasn’t a cuisine that was easy to define by appearance,” he said. “It was special because everybody can see everything these days, and sometimes you see people using the same ingredients the same ways when certain seasons come around. Meadowood was not a place that did that.”

The results were hyper-local, seed-to-stalk dishes like a cerebral sunflower seed risotto strewn with slivered sunflower petals and poached sunflower heart. The dish that was most striking to former Meadowood chef Ryan Harris was a lamb loin simply topped with a dried plum.

“It didn’t look difficult or interesting but it had a depth of flavor that I’m still thinking about, and I ate it six years ago,” he said.

The Black Apple Walnutpan Kefirat is served at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena in 2016. The three Michelin starred restaurant’s food was widely seen as brilliant.

The restaurant’s larger imprint on the Bay Area’s dining scene has spread far, and been far more affordable than Meadowood’s $360 per person meals. While plenty of former employees have gone on to open their own businesses, relatively few have opted to open fine dining establishments. Harris, for example, spends his days making biscuits and sandwiches at his casual Napa spot Contimo Provisions. Former bar manager Sam Levy whips up dazzling cocktails at the funky Fern Bar in Sebastopol. Matt Iaconis and Alexis Iaconis — a husband-and-wife team who met while working at the Restaurant at Meadowood — run a a small Napa winery, Brick & Mortar Wines.

“Christopher and Nathaniel (Dorn, the restaurant’s director) taught us all fierce independence and conviction about what we believe in,” Harris said. “They unapologetically execute their vision and, for a young cook, the impact of that confidence is great. I didn’t think I had to be in a certain box to do something fantastic.”

Some former staffers say the restaurant drew people who wanted to be the best of the best while building a workplace culture that Alexis Iaconis, for example, liked so much she worked there twice. Iaconis and other former employees described Kostow as a mentor who often promoted from within his team.

Rather than lay off the staff during months-long renovations in 2012 and 2013, the restaurant built “TRAM university,” using the restaurant’s acronym. Employees took classes on the history of Napa Valley — learning the philosophy driving Kostow’s food in a new way — and stayed on payroll. “It went along with management really going to bat for their staff,” Alexis Iaconis said.

Among all of the former Meadowood chefs, Katianna Hong, who worked both there and at Kostow’s nearby Charter Oak, has spoken the most publicly about the support Kostow provided his staff. Kostow promoted Hong in 2015 to chef de cuisine at Meadowood, which at the time made her the country’s first and only woman to hold that role at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant.

Hong decided to leave the restaurant world roughly four years later so she could focus on starting a family, a journey and a decision she wrote about in an essay for Bon Appetit that year. In it, she said Kostow was supportive of her working shorter days and finding ways to make the position less physically taxing on her body, throughout her pregnancy.

Hong emailed The Chronicle after learning of the fire at Meadowood and said she remembered the restaurant as a “magical” place; its destruction spurred her to reach out to former colleagues.

“It’s unfortunate that such a devastating tragedy like this has brought us together again but it has been very healing to reminisce and update each other to our current lives,” she said. “The conversations have been kept as positive as possible by remembering the times when we all lived and breathed this valley, cooked together, created together, and were each other’s family.”

A view of the smoldering grounds at Meadowood Napa Valley, after the Glass Fire burned parts of the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant restaurant on Sept. 28.

But not all former employees had glowing reviews of their time at Meadowood, saying that the brilliant food came at a human cost. After an Instagram post describing a negative work environment was widely shared, The Chronicle interviewed seven people who worked at Meadwood between 2008 and 2015 and who described a high-pressure environment where Kostow frequently yelled at young employees and threw dishes across the room, although three of them said that was standard behavior for a Michelin-starred kitchen and it didn’t bother them.

“It’s kind of like having an abusive boyfriend,” said former chef Sherman Chan, who didn’t think Kostow’s behavior was appropriate. “Deep down, you know it’s not right, but you let it happen anyway.”

Chan said that overall she had a positive experience at Meadowood because of everything she learned there. But she also said Kostow had a temper that resulted in far more demeaning and traumatizing behavior than she’s experienced at other Michelin-starred restaurants.

She recalled one day when Kostow asked her to meet him in the walk-in — she assumed it was to talk about vegetables. Instead, he reprimanded her for getting drunk at a dive bar outside of work, she alleges. Other former employees also said Kostow expected Meadowood staff to represent the restaurant at all hours, making their lives not feel like their own.

“I’m not a crier. But he screamed in my face and after he walked out, I just stood in the middle of the walk-in crying for I don’t remember how long,” Chan said. “It makes my skin tingle to this day thinking about it.”

Ricky Odbert quit after eight weeks as a fish cook at Meadowood. He recounted one day the kitchen staff was plating a dish for a party of 10, but one of the diners got up to use the bathroom and no one warned him until he’d finished cooking the fish. Kostow took the filets, smashed them into a ball and threw it at Odbert’s face, calling him a “fucking loser,” Odbert alleges.

“I’ve worked in places where you got yelled at, but I’ve never worked at a place where you were afraid to go into work every single day,” he said.

The first to speak out publicly was former pastry chef Boris Portnoy, whose Instagram post alleges Kostow created a culture of fear at Meadowood.

“I was complicit,” Portnoy said. “I think if fine dining can’t not be cruel, it doesn’t deserve a place at the table.”

Kostow declined to respond to specific allegations.

“My focus right now is taking care, as best I can, of the TRAM team during this time of unprecedented devastation,” he said in a statement. “We have been heartened by the outpouring of support from past team members, our local community, past guests and the food world writ large. This affirmation of the work we have done over these many years has provided some needed solace. When the smoke clears, we will move forward together.”

The dining room at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, seen years before the building burned down in the Glass Fire.

Other former employees acknowledged Kostow’s behavior but said it was fairly standard for ultra fine dining restaurants — and it was always to make the restaurant better.

“When you think about how important every dish that goes into the dining room is, you have to understand in the end it’s about keeping the standard and keeping the three stars,” said Mark Lieuw, a former Meadowood chef.

For Lieuw, the positives easily outweighed any tough days. He remembered Kostow noticing Lieuw’s knives weren’t sharp enough and setting up a knife sharpening class for just the two of them. “That’s something no one has ever done for me in my career — no one has taken one-on-one time to help me truly become better,” he said.

While Kostow could be intense, he could also be unusually caring, said Josh Gaulin, a former pastry chef. When Gaulin’s uncle died unexpectedly in 2012, Kostow bought him a round-trip plane ticket to Virginia so he could spend time with family.

The owners of the Meadowood resort have vowed to rebuild, so it’s possible the restaurant will return one day in a new form. Kostow, however, hasn’t publicly said whether he’d be part of it.

Gaulin didn’t think the culture at Meadowood was toxic or problematic, but he also acknowledged that what seems normal in such kitchens would not seem OK in other professional circumstances.

“In the current state of restaurants, we’re taking a valid inventory of what matters and how people are treated,” he said. “I think it is long overdue.”

Janelle Bitker and Justin Phillips are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: [email protected] and [email protected]

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