Christopher Kostow Embraces Hearth Cooking at The Charter Oak
Christopher Kostow isn’t subtle about his fascination with fire: The chef/owner of The Charter Oak in Napa Valley has a 20-foot hearth in the dining room.
“Fire doesn’t need translation,” says Kostow, who’s also executive chef at the nearby three Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood. “This restaurant is intended for everybody, and it seemed like a really good place to start.”
Custom made from fire brick and blackened steel, the hearth’s cavity is eight feet tall, and the structure goes from the floor to ceiling, (or as tall as California fire laws will allow). What makes it special is its built-in rack on the back wall, with shelves that move up and down, in and out. It can hold as many as 15 shelves, though Kostow and chef Katianna Hong don’t use them all at once.
“It’s actually very simple. It doesn’t look like much, absent the fire, but it’s highly functional,” says Kostow, whose shelf design was informed by his time with Francis Mallmann at Restaurante Garzon in Uruguay. “The shelves give us a lot of flexibility to move things where we want them, depending on what we’re cooking.”
In addition to shelves, the hearth also has bars that run outward from the back of the wall. They allow Kostow to hang larger pieces of meat, like beef shanks.
“Imagine doing sous vide over a fire,” Kostow says of the technique. “It’s not really the flame that’s cooking the food; it’s just there to create the heat and embers.”
According to Kostow, 80 percent of The Charter Oak’s menu passes in and out of the hearth, including a chilled cabbage dish that starts with heads of cabbage roasted over the coals. He peels off the outer leaves and dresses the hearts in a vinaigrette of sauerkraut, clams and celery. Other dishes include trout, pork shoulder, duck leg and charred avocado with rhubarb, mayo and oil made from embers.
“We’re doing beef ribs over the fire that will smoke for eight hours. We’re doing tomatoes that stay up there for days to compote and get smoky. We’re putting a cucumber dish on the menu that’s cooked over the coals,” he says. “Depending on the dish, food cooks over in the hearth anywhere from 12 hours at the longest to 30 seconds at the shortest.”
The majority of the fire is created by oak and almond wood, though Kostow will add charcoal if he needs to up the temperature. As a nod to Napa Valley, he’ll throw in wood from cabernet barrels or the pressings from grape seeds to impart a wine flavor to the food.
But when it comes to cooking over fire, Kostow finds instinct to be the most essential ingredient. “There’s no dial,” he says. “It’s highly intuitive. It’s so intuitive, I can’t even tell you. I think there’s something in our caveman DNA. I think we all know how to do it.”
Danny Bonvissuto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.