Executive chef Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood hasn't cooked for the Auction Napa Valley since 2008, the year he was hired.
Since then, however, the chef has raised the bar by snagging three Michelin stars for the St. Helena resort, which traditionally hosts Saturday's live auction on its fairway. As head chef for this Saturday dinner, Kostow will land in the heart of the batting order.
"Traditionally, the restaurant lends some support," he said of the community fundraiser put on by the Napa Valley Vintners Association. "But what's really attractive for me this year is that it's all about the valley."
Rather than bring in talent from around the country, this year's auction will feature an all-star line-up of local chefs, ranging from pioneers like Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello to up-and-comers like Kostow and Brandon Sharp of Solbar at Solage Calistoga resort.
For Kostow, who won a 2013 James Beard award for "Best Chef: West," the past year has been full of new challenges. He not only teamed up with a ceramacist to launch a line of artisanal plates, but he also completed his first cookbook, "A New Napa Cuisine," due out this fall.
"The book really dovetails with the theme of the auction," Kostow said. "It details the transformative process of moving to the valley, and our relationships with our growers, our gardens, our artisans and our foragers."
Rather than look toward Europe, Kostow said the new generation of local chefs is trying to forge "a nascent style of cooking in the Napa Valley."
"We need to scratch the veneer of what we see, and to embrace the grape-growing but also the agricultural heritage of the place and even the Indian practices," he said. "It's really digging in deep."
During the family-style dinner on Saturday night, Kostow and his team will show off a wide range of Napa products, from Rancho Gordo Beans and Bale Grist Mill grains to pork raised in the Carneros and produce grown by Meadowood and Long Meadow Ranch gardeners.
"We really challenged ourselves to use products that are produced and purveyed in the valley," Kostow said. "That is the whole of the menu."
Vegetable dishes include potatoes cooked in Napa beeswax with sorrel, carrots baked in Calistoga clay, and beets roasted in coals and served with dried elderberries.
"We bury things in those warm coals from the oven," Kostow said of the beet dish. "We call it paleo style."
For the main course, the team will smoke local pork over cabernet barrels, then serve it with local prunes.
"It's family-style and super rustic," Kostow said. "But I think the point will be well communicated."
Sharp, who has earned a Michelin Star for Solbar several times during his seven-year tenure, will be part of an impressive team serving the Saturday luncheon.
A native of North Carolina who has cooked in Spain, New Orleans and at Keller's French Laundry in Yountville, Sharp has earned a reputation for his "California soul food."
The "soul" part comes from the fact that cooking has rural roots and started out in home kitchens before making its way into cities and restaurants.
"There's a lot of Americana that goes into it, and a lot of eclectic things from around the globe," he said. "We think globally and cook locally."
For Sharp, the challenge of Napa Valley cooking is listening to the ingredients and finding the best way to express them.
"Cooking up here, as opposed to New York or San Francisco, requires more restraint," he said. "There's less manipulation needed when the ingredients are this good."
As an example, Sharp pointed to a dish currently on the Solbar menu: Yukon Gold Potato Gnocchi with Black Truffles, Brentwood Corn and Salt Point Chanterelles.
"You can find that dish in Italy, but not done this way," he said. "The corn and chanterelles, you can really only get those out here."
For the auction luncheon, Sharp will be showcasing a dish from the "spa cuisine" side of the Solbar menu.
"My background is in Cajun and French food, which is the other end of the spectrum," he said. "But I saw that locals would come back for the healthy things that didn't leave them completely stuffed."
At the luncheon, Sharp will serve a Chilled Corn Soup made with sweet corn, corn juice, and sauteed onions, lightly cooked, blended and strained. It has a velvety texture but no butter or dairy.
"It tastes more like corn than corn itself," he said. "It's going to be the perfect dish for a hot June day."
Other chefs cooking lunch on Saturday include Napa Valley stalwarts Keller, Chiarello and Hiro Sone — pioneers that Sharp looks up to for inspiration.
"It's still a very young dining mecca ... so the people who are the old guard created it from scratch," Sharp said. "It's up to the next generation of chefs and cooks to try and stand on their shoulders ... and figure out new ways to tell their story."
"We take pride in not repeating seasonal dishes year in and year out," Sharp said. "This corn soup is the rare exception to the rule. Our diners don't believe me when I tell them it's vegan, because the velvety richness seems to imply the use of cream and cheese, when it's fact just a little bit of kitchen science. In the simmering process, the natural starches in the corn seize, and when we puree the soup, those starches give it a luscious texture that is normally associated with high-fat preparations and ingredients."
<strong>Chilled Corn Soup</strong>
Makes 8 servings
<em>1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil</em>
<em> 16 ears ripe yellow corn, shucked</em>
<em> 1 large Spanish onion, small dice</em>
<em> 2 cloves garlic, microplaned</em>
<em> 1 bunch fresh thyme, tied in a bundle</em>
<em> 1 quart water</em>
<em> — Kosher salt, to taste</em>
<strong><em> For garnish:</em></strong>
<em> 2 ripe avocados</em>
<em> 24 leaves fresh cilantro</em>
<em> 2 limes, cut into sixths</em>
Using a sharp knife, carefully cut the kernels off the cobs of corn. Collect the kernels in one bowl, and before discarding the cobs, scrape them with the back of your knife and reserve the resulting juice. Set aside 4 cups of the kernels. Place the remaining kernels in a blender and pulse until pureed and liquefied. Combine this liquid with the juice you scraped from the cobs (you should have 3-4 cups).
In a heavy-gauge saucepot, sweat the onion in the oil over medium heat, stirring often, until very soft. Season with a pinch of salt, and add the 4 cups of corn kernels with another pinch of salt. Saute the corn over medium-low heat until tender, and try not to brown the bottom of the pot. Once the corn is tender and sweet, stir in the thyme and garlic, then immediately add the water and corn juice. Over a low flame, bring the soup to a simmer and let it cook very gently for 10 minutes. The natural starches will begin to curdle.
Remove the thyme and discard. Working in batches, stir the soup and ladle it into your blender - it's dangerous to fill the blender more than two-thirds full - and puree till the kernels are broken down and the soup is silky. Using a small ladle, press it through a chinois or fine mesh strainer.
Chill, reseason as needed, and serve very cold, garnished with diced avocado, cilantro leaves, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.
<em> You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.</em>