After eight years working with Michelin three-star chef Christopher Kostow at The Restaurant at Meadowood, chef Katianna Hong has found her footing helming the kitchen at Kostow’s The Charter Oak, one of Napa Valley’s buzziest new restaurants.
“When I was younger, people would say, ‘Oh, are you interested in going to culinary school?’ But I was kind of embarrassed of it, to be honest, because people at my school were planning on going into finance and all these impressive things,” explains Hong, one afternoon in late August. “My parents even took me on a tour of the CIA [The Culinary Institute of America], and I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to get out of the car…” Hong grew up in upstate New York and filled her days with competitive gymnastics until age 14, when she turned to cooking. She approached cooking with the same intensity she had for gymnastics, immersing herself in cookbooks, watching The Food Network obsessively, and testing our recipes on family and friends.
Once Hong realized that her passion for food was much more than a hobby, she fully embraced the culinary world. It wasn’t long before she had vaulted right past the competition.
This year, the chef was named among Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. In addition to that newly-minted honor, Hong also owns another distinction: she was the first female chef de cuisine at a Michelin three-star restaurant in America, an honor earned during her tenure at The Restaurant at Meadowood, where she spent five years working with chef Christopher Kostow.
“When I was in cooking school and coming up in this business, the fine dining scene was dominated by older men, so it was exciting . . . to meet Christopher. He was young and cool, very passionate, and very disciplined. He had a different approach—he plays music in his kitchen. It doesn’t have to be this military type setting where everybody is silent. And his food was obviously amazing.” Hong first met Kostow right after culinary school when the two briefly worked together at two-Michelin-starred Melisse in L.A., where Kostow was completing a guest chef stint.
Not long after that meeting, Hong went on to stage with Kostow at The Restaurant at Meadowood, and the two have been working side-by-side ever since. When Kostow and restaurant director Nathaniel Dorn opened their less formal, family-style restaurant, The Charter Oak, in St. Helena last spring, Hong was asked to helm the kitchen, alongside Chef Kostow.
Located in a historic brick building off Highway 29 that played home to Tra Vigne Italian restaurant for nearly three decades, The Charter Oak had big shoes to fill before it opened its doors. During the height of its run, the historic Tra Vigne had attracted the who’s-who of Napa Valley, from Francis Ford Coppola to Robert Redford to Robert Mondavi. Add to that the great successes of Kostow and his team at The Restaurant at Meadowood, and the expectations for The Charter Oak—and Hong— were quite high.
And neither disappoints. When you walk past the ivy-covered brick exterior into the main dining room (complete with 18-foot ceilings), you’ll be instantly greeted by the inviting smell of the wood-burning hearth. Diners feasting at the long communal table will likely catch a glimpse of the tattooed Hong hard at work tending to the fire or finalizing a dish. It feels like the coolest dinner party in Napa Valley.
Like the food at Meadowood, the seasonal menu at The Charter Oak is driven by the high-quality, local ingredients from the 2.5-acre farm that Chef Kostow started 7 years ago. And the lunch, brunch, and dinner dishes are elemental in design; to highlight these beautiful ingredients, featuring few or no garnishes.
But don’t mistake straightforward for simple. Case in point: the tartine of dried late-summer tomatoes on the menu (one of Hong’s favorites).
“We make our own bread every day,” says Hong. “[The tomato tartine] is just a slice of hearth-grilled Charter Oak bread, spread with local buffalo milk ricotta cheese. . .then topped with preserved tomatoes from our farm, chopped fried almonds from Victor Camuti—who also supplies the almond wood for the hearth—basil, and mint. The tartine is then drizzled with the olive oil that’s used to preserve the tomatoes, as well as fermented honey (read: raw, unfiltered local honey that’s been fermented at room temperature with raw garlic cloves for one month).” Given The Charter Oak’s preference for hyper-local, seasonal ingredients, chasing down a favorite dish can be challenging. However, luckily, you can almost always expect to find menu highlights such as buttermilk-brined chicken from the hearth or any manner of house-made bread.
Hong works closely with Kostow, the team at their garden, local purveyors, and her husband, John Hong (who is now the chef de cuisine at The Restaurant at Meadowood), to collaborate on new dishes and ideas inspired by the region. “We miss working together,” says Hong, who shared that when she’s not on the job at The Charter Oak, she likes to spend her days off in the kitchen with her husband. “When I have a day off—usually Monday—we will cook dinner at home…lots of curry and Korean food. When we are creating a dish, we love to bounce ideas off each other. With the way we work, things I don’t necessarily like doing as much or may be as strong at, he excels at—and vice versa.”