When the French company that publishes the Michelin Guide began reviewing restaurants in the United States, Europeans arched eyebrows skeptically. Well, at least Parisians did.
After all, once upon a time, only restaurants in France were deemed worthy of visits by Michelin judges. But today, Michelin publishes restaurant guides in several other countries. In the United States, Michelin rates restaurants in New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas and San Francisco its and adjacent wine country.
So what do those little stars mean to a restaurant and a chef?
I visited Napa Valley several days ago to attend—and broadcast a radio show from—an annual event called the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” orchestrated by Meadowood resort, nestled in a sylvan valley just outside the charming town of St. Helena.
Twelve evenings in December, Meadowood invites well-known chefs from around the country to present a different menu paired with outstanding Napa wines at its restaurant, known simply as “The Restaurant.” The evenings partly benefit Share Our Strength, the non-profit that’s working to eradicate child hunger by 2015.
Overseeing the kitchen at The Restaurant is Christopher Kostow, who only weeks before answered his cell phone to learn from the director of the Michelin Guide that he and The Restaurant had been awarded a third star in the 2011 edition.
“It’s a very emotional experience,” said Kostow, who began cooking at age 14 and also trained in France. “It’s sort of a finite recognition of a lot of years of work, a lot of sacrifice.”
He was walking with his puppy and girlfriend to a coffee shop when he got the call. It wasn’t his first—he’s collected a star or two in the five previous years. But three stars, well, that’s a whole other game: Only nine restaurants in the country can make that boast.
At 34, Kostow is only the second American-born chef to achieve Michelin three-star status. And worldwide, he’s the third-youngest chef to win three stars.
When Kostow began at Meadowood, The Restaurant had two stars. I asked him if when he was hired, management mentioned anything about capturing a third.
“We certainly didn’t say explicitly we’d get three stars,” said Kostow. “That would be a foolhardy goal ... you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.”
But now he’s part of an exclusive club, and only one other wine country chef is in it with him, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in nearby Yountville. To get a table at The French Laundry, you must call exactly two months ahead of time and hope you don’t get a busy signal. The response was immediate when the world heard of Meadowood’s third star—more than 300 reservations came in for the restaurant, which seats 50.
My advice: Book early before the rest of the world finds its way to The Restaurant.
Footnote: You may hear a podcast of my radio interviews with chefs and winemakers at Meadowood last weekend here.
Photos courtesy of Meadowood Napa Valley.