In a week crammed with events promoting the region as the nation’s “Farm-To-Fork Capital,” only one dinner held the distinction of featuring a Michelin three-star chef, the highest rating offered by the vaunted food guide.
That would be Saturday’s meal at Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse, prepared by chef Christopher Kostow of Napa’s Restaurant at Meadowood.
The 12 guests at the intimate and exclusive dinner encountered plenty of great food and technique – with Kostow cooking and interacting with diners in an open kitchen – but they also got to witness the precise planning and execution that have made Meadowood one of the nation’s greatest restaurants.
The dinner cost $400 per person, with proceeds benefiting the local chapter of Future Farmers of America.
Among the guests was Randall Selland, who attended with wife Nancy Zimmer. Also in attendance was rising culinary star Kevin O’Connor, who recently left (the now closed) Blackbird Kitchen & Bar to host private dinners, work in Michelin-rated kitchens in the Bay Area and chart his next course as a chef.
O’Connor, 24, volunteered as a dishwasher – and to get there, he drove 16 hours straight from Montana. He wanted to be able to witness Kostow in action, maybe get a chance to pick his brain and gather plenty of inspiration.
“The dinner was just phenomenal,” O’Connor said. “Being there and meeting him was great. I didn’t do much to help since he was so prepped out and he has such a great crew. He manages his kitchen with such grace.”
“It was fabulous. It was really cool to go out there,” said Selland, whose restaurant group owns Ella Dining Room & Bar, The Kitchen, and Selland’s Market-Cafe. “Chris was an extremely nice, nice man. I told him, ‘You’re doing stuff I can’t even imagine doing. I’m so old school.’ He’s a humble guy who just happens to have three Michelin stars.”
Hours before dinner, Kostow’s advance team arrived to set up and start prepping the ingredients, according to ranch owner Michael Passmore.
Passmore Ranch, which sustainably farms freshwater fish such as sturgeon, is a supplier to Meadowood, and over the past couple of years, Passmore has developed a friendship with Kostow.
“I admire his management,” Passmore said. “It’s something I try and learn from. He’s acutely aware that he cannot do everything.”
While guests at Saturday’s dinner noted how humble and approachable Kostow was, they didn’t mention his humorous side. During a brief interview after the dinner, Kostow mentioned that one of his closest assistants was unable to help with the dinner because he was attending a wedding.
“What that really showed was that I don’t really need him,” the chef quipped.
More seriously, Kostow said he was happy to be part of an event that showcased the area’s farm-to-fork prowess.
“I like Michael’s product,” Kostow said. “I like his energy. I like people who are very into advocating for their place, for their community, and he is very much into that. When he asked, I didn’t hesitate.”
The chef said he didn’t skimp on the six-course menu, even though he was operating with less than a fully equipped kitchen.
“We figure out what the setting is, what makes sense for the group, what is feasible outside the four walls of the kitchen, and then we write the menu,” he said.
Both Selland and O’Connor said they were awed by how Kostow handled the sturgeon course for dinner. On the menu, it simply stated it was served with fermented pear, bone marrow (from the spine of the fish) and cabbage. But there was plenty of drama in the cooking, according to onlookers.
Kostow took the individual pieces of sturgeon, which had been brined in a salt solution, and wrapped them in napa cabbage before burying them in a pan full of hot ashes. Afterward, the fish was unwrapped, seared in a hot pan to create a crust and then topped with a terrine of the pureed bone marrow.
“The technique he used for the sturgeon I had never seen that before,” O’Connor said.
The sturgeon, of course, was raised at Passmore Ranch. Kostow is very specific about his needs. He wants the sturgeon to be aged precisely 12 days before cooking. That allows the flesh to relax when it is cooked.
“It was one of the more unique preparations I have experienced,” Passmore said. “The texture they elicit from that fish is amazing. They get a beautiful crust on the outside, but the inside is firm and so smooth.
Asked about his technique for the sturgeon dish, Kostow said burying the fish in the hot ashes “imparts a little smokiness and is just a really nice cooking medium” to achieve a texture that is “dense and succulent.”
The evening began with guests gathering on the back patio, where they enjoyed canapes while taking in a view of one of the large sturgeon pools. Those sturgeon, many of them over 100 pounds and 8-plus years old, will be harvested for caviar. Passmore recently did a small test batch of caviar and Kostow liked it so much, he included it on one of the canapes. Throughout the night, they drank wines from Skinner Vineyards in El Dorado County.
Dinner began around 7:45 p.m. Among the other highlights was the steak course – two small medallions of skirt steak, of all things. Passmore said Kostow likes to use cuts of beef diners might not expect to see at a world-class restaurant.
“The steak was spectacular – the texture, the flavor,” Passmore said. “It was outstanding.”
After the meal in Sloughhouse, which wound down with a cheese course and a chocolate dessert with shaved chestnuts, Kostow and his staff drove to midtown for a private after-hours dinner at Kru, Billy Ngo’s highly regarded restaurant featuring modern Japanese cuisine.
“It was cool. I was a little nervous. But he’s just a really chill guy, a nice guy,” Ngo said of hosting Kostow. Among the highlights was Ngo’s bluefin tuna done four ways.
O’Connor also joined in at Kru, hitting it off with a couple of Meadowood’s cooks and eventually arranging a three-day stint, or stage, working in the acclaimed kitchen in St. Helena.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.