Upended by the Pandemic, Haute Cooks Transfer Into Motels

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Yogis and nature lovers have long flocked to Ojai, a leafy mountain enclave 90 minutes north of Los Angeles – restaurateurs, not so much. That all changed during the pandemic when the Ojai Valley Inn remodeled its sprawling farmhouse both indoors and outdoors – formally a wedding venue before the coronavirus turned plans upside down – into a stage for a changing line-up of high-end chefs.

Among the marquee names: Christopher Kostow, the head chef of California’s three Michelin-starred epitome of fine dining, the Restaurant at Meadowood. Located more than 400 miles north in the Napa Valley, it burned down in wildfire in September.

“In addition to Covid, that made us feel that only God knows what will happen next,” said Kostow.

In order to pay his staff, Mr. Kostow would have to settle elsewhere. Before the fire, he had had the foresight to consider a Plan B outside of Napa, knowing that ever-changing restrictions could close shops in wine-growing areas while other parts of the state were open.

It turns out that Howard Backen, the same architect who was responsible for the lush Meadowood surroundings, had also recently built the Ojai Valley Inn’s Farmhouse, which has an open kitchen and state-of-the-art Viking appliances. One phone call led to the next, and Mr Kostow and his team decided to temporarily relocate their operations to Ojai, where they have prepared a tasting menu of delicacies that cannot be cooked at home, such as oysters with champagne and caviar with eucalyptus and broccoli .

“I’ve never been to Ojai,” said Mr. Kostow. “It’s the way I imagine California to be in the 1930s: rolling hills, rustic, really idyllic.”

The partnership between the Restaurant at Meadowood and the Ojai Valley Inn is an example of an accelerating trend: In the wake of the pandemic, hotels have become havens for top chefs. Whether driven out by a catastrophe like Mr. Kostow, to compensate for lost income, to open up new markets or simply to have the opportunity to try new things, renowned chefs flock to hotels that are not necessarily known for their cuisine. Last year the gourmet playbook chewed up and spat out: Now there is the opportunity to reinvent yourself.

“Serving outside on a lawn or in another room isn’t ideal, but it makes you scratch your head and say, ‘Oh, that’s cool. What other cool things could we do? ”Said Mr. Kostow, who also owns a more casual restaurant, The Charter Oak, in Napa Valley. “I think the post-pandemic outcome will be more license and more fluid in terms of fine dining. All old rules are blown at this point. “

The Restaurant at Meadowood Residency began on March 3rd. Over the course of five weeks, it got the culinary equivalent of a standing ovation: all 44 dinners Mr. Kostow led at the Ojai Farmhouse were sold out, including a final weekend with meals in May, wine pairs from the renowned champagne house Krug and Harlan Estate, one famous Napa Valley maker of Bordeaux-style blends. Tickets for this dinner are $ 999 per person.

“They were sold out within the first hour” said Ben Kephart, the operations manager of the Ojai Valley Inn. “It’s crazy. That’s about what you can ask for dinner anywhere. It shows you how big the demand is, and it appeals to people who want to get out and support a company that they think they do.” earned.”

One of Mr. Kostow’s March dinners in Ojai offered 13 courses, several glasses of wine and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to dress up and people watch (from well over two meters away). It felt like the opposite of sitting on the couch and chewing postmates stunned in the glow of Netflix. Apparently that’s what people want.

“We could have spent a month on these dinners,” said Mr. Kephart. “So many people have tried to book them.”

In addition to Mr. Kostow, the farmhouse has hosted chefs like Nancy Silverton, the grande dame of Italian food in Los Angeles. Coming next month is David Castro, the head chef at Fauna in Baja California, recently named World’s 50 Best, one of the hospitality industry’s largest ratings, and Neal Fraser, owner of the prestigious Redbird restaurant in Los Angeles.

Similar guest chef-resort collaborations are in the works this summer and autumn across the country and south of the border:

Dominique Crenn, whose Atelier Crenn restaurant in San Francisco has been awarded three Michelin stars, will be relocating her avant-garde French feast 1,500 miles along the Pacific coast to the Montage Resort in Los Cabos this month. Starting June 15th, Ms. Crenn will serve a menu of typical favorites from her restaurant for six days, reinterpreted with local Baja ingredients and flavors. This is how Ms. Crenn is celebrating the 10th anniversary of her restaurant and as part of the celebrations she is organizing volunteer activities in the Los Cabos community through a local organization and encouraging dinner attendees to join her.

Bronx-born Mashama Bailey, who won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2019, and her culinary partner, Johno Morisano will be traveling to Austin from their home base in Savannah, Georgia this summer and fall to open two restaurants at the soon-to-be-opened Thompson Hotel, which promises “mid-century modern meets late-century luxury”. While The Diner Bar and The Gray Market restaurants will remain permanent, Ms. Bailey will be in charge of the kitchen herself on selected dates to be announced.

Given Los Cabos’ popularity with Americans, who make up the bulk of the area’s international tourists, and its proximity to the United States, it’s no surprise that several top chefs flock there. From June 28th to July 2nd, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has restaurants in Shanghai, Paris, Tokyo and several other cities in addition to his two Michelin-starred brand in New York, will be at the One & Only Palmilla on the Sea of ​​Cortez. In one of the on-site restaurants, Suviche, he’ll try traditional sushi and ceviche, and in another, he’ll fry steaks as the waves break and recede: Surf and Turf à la Jean-Georges.

There will be no shortage of star chefs at the Waldorf Astoria in Los Cabos this year: Chicago-born Stephanie Izard, a multiple winner of the James Beard Award and the first woman to win Bravo’s “Top Chef”, will be arriving in June. In July, James Beard Award semi-finalist Ronnie Killen brings his Texas-style barbecue to the beach. In October there are two more James Beard Award-winning Chicagoers, Sarah Grueneberg and Mindy Segal, and in November Brian Malarkey from “Top Chef’s” in California is coming. The Waldorf calls it its Culinary Weekend Series and plans to continue these stations with well-known chefs through 2022.

At Michelin-starred Breslin and the now-closed Spotted Pig, April Bloomfield presided over some of New York’s best pub fare. When the pandemic broke out, she looked for a way to continue her craft and help her employees. She found one at the Mayflower Inn & Spa, an auberge resort in the idyllic Connecticut countryside. Her residency began in September and will continue for the foreseeable future.

“I look forward to the next few months,” said Ms. Bloomfield, “and look forward to growing the chef’s garden at the Mayflower this year.” It literally takes root. Current menu highlights include cauliflower tikka masala and pan-fried lamb chops with burnt satsuma and pistachios.

“It meant a lot,” said Ms. Bloomfield of her residence. “I was able to hire some of my employees from New York and keep them busy. It was great that they got to know the country and the products it has to offer. We are very grateful for the experience and for the services. “