"There was a point at which I decided, completely decided, that I would stay here in the Napa Valley. Once I committed to living in and cooking from this place it was almost like entering into the service of a bigger ideal. It was at this point that I achieved a new level of directional clarity about our food."
-Christopher Kostow, Chef
Feels like we have all the time in the world, doesn't it?
Like most of my friends, I'm in my early twenties. We love asking ourselves the question: "What do I want to do with my life?" Sometimes the answer is sincere, sometimes it's playful. It changes day to day, month to month, and usually depends on how we're feeling. Most often it's simply "I have no idea," especially when asked by someone with whom we feel comfortable. After all, it is a comforting answer, one which implies an endless world of possibilities. Why close doors when so many are open? Why commit?
We shouldn't have to, or even want to, though others (and society more generally) may expect it of us. I think most of us would be better served drifting until - if ever - something happens to pick us up. Embracing this uncertainty instead of feeling anxious about it might be one of the greatest psychological panaceas millennials like me can possibly decide for ourselves. One cannot go through an existential crisis (read: bout of anxiety) and decide, suddenly, to undertake a new personal or professional pursuit without comprehending at some level the sheer fact of its basis in desperation; these shot-in-the-dark attempts at finding purpose fizzle almost as a rule. Even worse is to invest years of your life to qualify yourself for something you can't possibly know you'll enjoy until you live it out (topic of my short story). That's why Silicon Valley works so well; it abides by an ethos of movement, not one of commitment.
Does something feel off about this? Yes and no are both valid answers. If no - that's awesome, you've found the key to really living.
This piece is for the yeasayers. In which case I need you to forget everything I just said, because I'm going to argue for commitment - specifically, the kind of commitment that produces lasting results, the kind for which you would willingly replace your "I don't know" with a "This is what my life is about." There's a word for it:
Groan. Possibly the single most overused word in the college graduation speeches of our era. But the thing is, it used to mean something, just like the word "awesome" used to describe something awe-inspiring, or how "decimate" used to mean "to reduce by a factor of ten" (okay, maybe not the best example, but you get the point).
Still, I choose to let it have power. I like playing video games. Am I passionate about them? No. You observe that I've taken a fair number of pictures and written a more-than-fair avalanche of words about my gastronomic adventures, and you might think I'm passionate about this, but no. It's true: I really enjoy eating and writing about food, but is it what my life is about? Not quite. Look at Eater's Bill Addison, Vogue's Jeffrey Steingarten, or Jonathan Gold at the L.A. Times; that is passion. Contrast with Pete Wells or Frank Bruni at the New York Times, who are tapped by the newspaper for brief stints as Restaurant Editor before returning to their normal columnist careers. Both are brilliant, but that is profession, not passion. Or even Nathan Myhrvold, who I'm confident knows objectively more about food than the lot of them, yet still seems bemusedly detached instead of ardently passionate; his life is (for better or worse) about patent arbitrage.
How do you find your passion? Good question, but before we get to that, you're probably hungry, and as it happens, Chef Kostow's restaurant is pretty solid, so strap yourself in for the ride and enjoy!
This dish emphasizes presentation; after all, food is exceptionally tempered by expectation. Instead of a small porcelain bowl we have here a hardcover version of the novel Elmer Gantry, a satire of religious hypocrisy in the 1920s. Note how the neatly printed ink on the pages contrasts with the larger, penned letters on the translucent bookmark. Unlike the book, written almost a century ago, these kale leaves were harvested right out of the restaurant's garden the day of the meal. How's that for contrast?
Oh, right, the food... They must have shaved the edge off the kale leaves before frying them into chips, making for a smoother texture. Definitely crunchier than the ones you find in a grocery store, with none of that nasty nutritional yeast flavor. Some chorizo-flavored pesto, perfectly camouflaged in my terrible picture, made this amuse-bouche faintly reminiscent of the traditional Southern collard greens with bacon.
Pickled Root Vegetables
Carrots, turnips, radishes.
Crunchy, bursting with - yes, that's right - that classic one-two punch, salt and
vinegar champagne! Relative to the others, the carrots were sweeter, the turnips earthier, and the radishes more biting.
It's a shrub meant to taste like an oyster. The "shell" is porcelain. You know those packaged imitation meat products that vegans (masochists) consume? Those companies McGyver dozens of ingredients to get it to taste like that - just read the back of the box. I'm always suspicious because they usually contain plenty of chemical additives and never taste like the actual thing.
Yeah, this is kind of like that, except the cooks probably foraged a variety of plants in the Napa backyard and arranged them in such a proportion that their flavor additively became oysterlike. Or maybe it was just one plant... Mertensia maritima. Combined with a sprightly onion chive mignonette, this was mildly synaesthetic: oyster flavored, salad textured.
With buttered peas and black lime.
Looks like a microcosm of a swamp, or maybe that's just me.
Cool, creamy, and sweet, with a kick of light acidity from the lime (darker translucent liquid part at the bottom). Unlike with most soups, you won't get bored of this after a few spoons because the lime and cream have different densities - so you can control what flavors you taste to your taste. Or bite one of the peas for an instant burst of sweetness.
Asparagus is slowly becoming my vegetable of choice. It has yet to knock King Cauliflower off his throne, but it's getting there. In fact I'm becoming more obsessed with vegetables in general. You probably know how good fresh produce tastes, but you might not know that a big trend in contemporary gastronomy has been figuring out how to bring out the maximum character out of that produce. L'Arpège now ties with Massimo Bottura's place as my current dream restaurant.
In this dish, caviar sits under the shade of the lilypad-like miner's lettuce, which seems to have been eaten to prevent scurvy by the California Gold Rushers of old, and above some... oh, I forget, it was all the way back from February of 2014, forgive me! Mellifluous dish all around; smoked butter pesto and caviar accentuate the robust asparagus.
You can imagine how pretty all these would look if I'd used an actual camera instead of my phone, no? Stay tuned, stay tuned...
The cleanest escabeche you'll ever see!
If you can imagine, the fish tasted pleasantly sour - a sourness of the citric variety with light vinegar, as if slightly pickled. Then as you chew it releases quite a depth of umami. Oddly tender for being relatively dry.
Atop sits celery with green apricot, green because that's the color of apricots before they ripen. You can deride modernist paintings in art museums for being solid color, which is tremendous fun, but I've heard they actually become interesting once you understand their historical context. You can deride fancy chefs for using unripe ingredients, but that's what makes them fancy, their ability to defy conventions in a smart way, which you realize as soon as you take a bite; here, for instance, the green apricot is nice, crisp, and tangy; I wouldn't eat a whole fruit of this, but these circular slices melded well with the mackerel's flavor.
If I had decided to get the supplementary abalone course at Benu (a similarly-sized dish), it would've set me back an additional $210, which, err, is kind of the same price as Benu's entire menu. I don't know if Corey Lee's (24-head Kippin abalone from Iwate, dried since 2008) would've been far superior to this one, but I'm goddamn sure that I wouldn't pay that much for it even if it were five times better.
Abalone is a mollusk, specifically a sea snail, which bears virtually no resemblance to the common garden snail and tastes a hell of a lot better. The Chinese regard it is a culinary delicacy; imagine a milder, larger, tougher, significantly chewier oyster that releases more of that familiar oceanic flavor every time you sink your teeth back in. This mildness allows it to complement far more dishes than the intense oyster, and you can see how it becomes especially tasty when immersed in a rich broth (Lee uses chicken feet and pork neck).
This one's not from Iwate but Monterey Bay (go locavores!), and wears a translucent cap of gelatinized... itself. Eep. Wild onions lay underneath, as if fossilized in amber.
With sliced turnips, nettles, and a sauce of oyster and whey.
Aw, screw it, why did I even bother taking a photo of this? Just click here for a much better one I found on Yelp.
Probably my least favorite dish of the meal because it was chaos from a mouthfeel/texture standpoint, and the flavors would've been better off partitioned versus combined (though the sauce worked well with the cod). And if all turnips were cooked like these, I'd eat them every night - makes you feel good and healthy, y'know, like you're doing yourself a favor or something, what with their soft warmth and mild bitterness and such, so on, forth, et al...
What kind of leaves?
None. A tea of flowers, then? Nope: duck bones. What, you mean a broth? A stock? Well, I say, the fall of man began not with Adam and his pomegranate seeds but with the deification of classification in which I hypocritically, inevitably, complicitly play part.
You know how musicians, in creating albums, used to put great pains in ordering their songs for the optimum listening experience? Well, great chefs still try to do the same thing with their set menus. If you've been following along, you can probably deduce what this course is all about, and what's coming next. It's clever to me on three levels, but this time I'll leave the pleasure of figuring out why to you.
And those flowers? The waiter took a miniature pair of clippers and stylishly snipped some dill and chrysanthemum leaves into the tea from what I'd thought was just a table decoration. Speaking of table decorations, I highly recommend My Dinner With Andre, there's one scene near the start that had me in stitches.
Coal-seared foie gras to be precise, my dear Watson. Ha. Haha. Hahaha.
Biting in, the rind reminded me of cheese rinds in terms of texture - probably achieved through the coal-searing - and relative intensity of flavor. The interior was rich and creamy, and, to cook up a fresh new descriptor, pleasantly lipidinous. Although this one was better (upon revisiting, EMP's and Meadowood's were seared inversely).
Three sleek slices of rhubarb and a few chrysanthemum leaves act as palate cleansers. A palate cleanser has two functions: contrast and refreshment. To the rich foie, the clean sour/mint flavors were good foils and not so overpowering as to diminish successive cuts of foie.
The key to eating bread, of course, is to get in a good whiff.
You don't need to sink your nose in with this buttermilk brioche because the sweet and toasty aromas are obvious. The key to eating buttermilk bread is to stab it with your fork so your hands don't get oily.
Unless it comes with the foie gras. In which case you will need to hold it to spread some of that delicious liver on top. Well, you could have your friend hold it for you, but now his fingers have touched it and you probably don't want to eat it. Or do you? What, you thought your fingers were cleaner than his? That's gotta be irrational.
Grilled duck. (Bond. James Bond.)
Okay, but the real curiosities are those dark brown squares, which I swear tasted something like a magical burdock root. In fact, they were a fudge made using what I was told to also be duck, presumably a concentrated duck stock. Their flavor developed as they slowly melted in my mouth: surprisingly yummy. Though the sorrel and yam were a bit random. On their own they were fresh and tasty, but I couldn't come up with any good reasons for their inclusion.
The duck itself? A tad oversalted but still quite succulent. The light cream sauce helped mitigate its salinity.
This is the best bread I have ever eaten. Bar none. I didn't have to eat the whole thing, remember all the other breads I've eaten, and carefully deliberate between those memories to make this judgment call. I just knew within a couple bites; skepticism is unnecessary when the truth is so clear.
Not so much baked as forged, these loaves of koji rice porridge evoke the feeling you get after sitting down to a hearty stew after a long day out in the cold. Soul warming. You worry that by appearances it's a little thick, the crust perhaps a little hard, but both are perfect. A thoroughly satisfying crunch, breaking off into crispy little pieces as you chew, melding into a crumb that is at once airy, soft, and dense.
Something ancient, as if born from the earth. Nutty, earthy, sour, toasty, complex, vital. Ambrosia - food of the gods.
Mixed greens and droplets of clear apple sauce came with the bread:
But only the goat cheese was notable. It had remarkable heft, just thick enough to still be called creamy (one or two degrees thicker than a good peanut butter) - and tasted of milk and butter with a slight gaminess and a lingering note of acidity. Would recommend!
Meadowood really has its transitions down pat; instead of sorbet or ice cream, yogurt is chosen for its thermal properties, which is to say it has a higher melting point than the other two, which is to say that, while still being cool, it will freeze neither your teeth nor your brain. Going from a warm bread to a flat out cold dessert would not be as pleasant.
A sweet reduction of hibiscus and rose pools under wild plum preserves. Fruit and yogurt is a classic combo - you've probably had it for breakfast a bunch. What makes it work as a dessert is deconstruction - clear separation of dairy from fruit - and an emphasis on the sweet flavors (you won't find this ratio of fruit to dairy in any grocery store yogurt) (the bright orange hibiscus petal helps too by making it look prettier).
And now the ice cream. See? Told you the yogurt made sense.
Reindeer antlers look like tree branches. The waiter quizzed us about what they were and I was happy when I got it right: a clever double chocolate, where a Tootsie Roll-esque nougat lay inside a dark chocolate shell. The cold milk enhances the flavor of the branches (ensconcing them like a liquid frame) while the mint leaves refresh your taste buds. Some aged walnuts added a very welcome nutty note.
Infused with cacao.
This is probably the best petit four I've had, albeit not nearly to the same degree as the koji bread (note the word probably).
Water chestnuts taste something of a cross between a sweet plum and hazelnut, and their consistency matches that of a perfectly mashed potato. Putting chocolate in there (instead of on the side, or drizzled on top like a syrup) was a fantastic decision, elevating the harmony of the flavors into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Now that our stomachs are full, let's return to our discussion about...
You don't find it.
One of the most significant wells of unhappiness is the belief that it can be found - and, being unable to find it - through high school, college, early twentyship through god knows - you feel like a failure. Relinquish this idea.
Passion finds you. It hits you, in the most literal sense a metaphor can get. Maybe it hits you. The few who find it are - lucky. Unlucky (but not necessarily unhappy) are those it never finds. Sad end up those whom it finds who do not chase it. Many are those who mistake commitment for it. And as great as (I believe) it is to have, don't beat yourself up over not having it; passionate people are not per se better than drifters, they merely have the answer to one more question. It's an important question, perhaps, but only because you make it so. Ask yourself: is it for you?
Depends on whom you want to be: someone who braves the depths of lows for a chance at the highest h(e)igh(t)s, or someone who lives more moderately but virtually assuredly more happily. The former? Warning: it's precarious. Just because you're given the chance to try doesn't mean you'll succeed. Ever. Can you hear the siren's song? Great, beautiful, isn't it? Don't forget that it lures sailors to their deaths. Solution: be okay with dying. Or plug your ears - but you'll end up sad.
Can't hear it, but want to? The more you live, the more you do, the greater the chance it finds you; unlike the myth, epiphanies don't happen meditating under trees. But just because you bought tickets doesn't mean you'll win the lottery.
I want to be great one day. We all did at some point, many of us still do. Greatness necessitates commitment - but you already knew this. Passion is simply effortless commitment. You can commit to something you don't love, but sticking to that requires exceptional strength of will, significant external pressure, or both. I don't really think it's feasible:
On the other hand, if you're passionate about something, the commitment graph looks more like:
Much easier to stick to, but much harder - virtually impossible, I argue - to attain; deciding to want to commit is infinitely easier. The hard part, recognizing that passion is something that happens to you and not something you find, is hard because it involves significant revision of beliefs: contrary to the recent zeitgeist of rational self-determination, you are not responsible for everything that happens in your life. In kind, the world also cannot be blamed for everything that happens to you.
I fell into the former camp. For the longest time, I felt like a failure because I viewed finding passion as my personal responsibility. Specifically, these feelings of failure stemmed from a disconnect between my beliefs and reality; what I thought I could attain through concerted effort was really a result of random chance. So if you're like I was, I recommend, firstly, changing this belief, and secondly, forgiving yourself.
Treating greatness as non-virtuous is another solution. If you don't want to be great, then you don't have a problem - see the third paragraph in this post. Lots of people laud the greatness of greatness, but how can you know until you get there? That is a mystery. Observing those older and more experienced, I note that the majority learn to be comfortable with their lives at some point and do not display the symptoms of being infected by passion. There is no reason to believe this will not also happen to us millennials, and there is every reason to believe we'll turn out just fine if we never find that elusive passion we're so inculcated to idolize.
Some of us, whether by complex or conviction, found by fate, are simply compelled to. To personally fight the wars we think are worth fighting, to protect the things, individuals, and ideas worth protecting.
And we're all running out of time. So, if you're given the chance - and it is chance - dare to be passionate, chase your dreams.
You see, Chef Kostow might create brilliant dishes, but his most important creation is this:
And he was only able to create this by acknowledging, in a deep and final sense, that the Napa Valley - that cooking - would be what his life is about, would be his resting place.