Meadowood’s Christopher Kostow On Eating His Way Across Morocco and Egypt

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Chef Christopher Kostow Photo: Creel Films

As we reported last fall, the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood is taking an extra-long winter break this year in order to renovate the kitchen and totally retool the menu. That work is well underway, with the grand reopening scheduled for March 23*, but for a couple weeks in January, executive chef Christopher Kostow took a much needed vacation with his wife, traveling to Morocco and Egypt and spending some time not thinking about his new menu. "Time away, where I'm not a chef and no one has any idea what I do — I love that. I like to not be defined by the profession sometimes," says Kostow. "In some ways it makes me a better chef. It keeps me grounded and gives my mind the rest it needs. Most good chefs need to step out of the coat sometimes."

Below, much like the French Laundry's Tim Hollingsworth did a few weeks ago, Kostow gives us a truncated Grub Street Diet covering his winter travels. Take it away, Chris.

So, we just got back from Morocco and Egypt — we like to go to the most dangerous places in the world I guess. It's just amazing over there. Morocco especially is genuinely fascinating. There's such a degree of foreignness [as an American]. And you're always to some degree on the periphery — you're not being invited into people's homes, you can't go into the mosques. So what you get in restaurants is food — it's awesome, it's delicious, don't get me wrong — but it's usually what they believe you want. You see the same six dishes everywhere. I found myself always believing that behind the curtain the staff was eating something better.

It's still a very distinct way of cooking, with very distinct flavor profiles, and it's delicious. Mourad [Lahlou, of Aziza fame] kind of helped us out. He turned us on to a place called Al Fassia in Marrakech. It's staffed by all women, the front of house and the kitchen. They had some really well done tagines, Moroccan salads, the ladies were beautiful... When you're traveling in that part of the world you want some sense of welcome, and some calm. A city like Marrakech is a super intense place, and you want some kind of comfort, and we really found it there.

Also, in Marrakech there's a big night market called Djemaa-el-Fnaa. You approach it and it looks like hundreds of thousands of people — you venture in and you emerge in the middle and there are snake shows and storytellers and monkeys running around, and under these lights are all these food stalls. And that's probably where we ate the best in Morocco. Traditional snail soup; mutton; these pita sandwiches with soft cheese, hard boiled eggs, and olive oil that were just stupid delicious.

I ran into someone I went to high school with there, oddly enough, and he pointed us to another restaurant called Le Tobsil. That was the most out-there cooking I saw. There was a great dish with chicken and black sesame; everything had one more step, things a little more developed.

There was a place in Fez that was just awesome — Dar Hatim, run by a husband and wife, and he was born in the house where the restaurant is. He picked us up where we were staying and drove us to the restaurant in his little car. It's in one of the old Jewish quarters of Fez. It's a super cool city, really great. And he told the story of the restaurant, and talked about looking for some degree of honesty in the food. His wife and mother are in the kitchen, and he ran the dining room. There was a fantastic steamed lamb shank, as odd as that sounds, which was super good, with prunes and almonds. And some kind of apple dessert I can barely remember the details of (we were drinking a little). That was definitely the closest we got to peeking behind the curtain, that restaurant.

Then, in Cairo, we had this great dish that's served basically everywhere called koshari - two kinds of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and fried onions on top. Then we went to a place called Kabibgi, which was just all simple grilled meats, and this baladi bread — the best bread — it's like pita but they drop a wet dough into wheat bran and it goes into the oven. They also had a sandwich-like dish where minced lamb was stuffed into the baladi bread and then grilled. That was the best all around meal in Egypt.

The best thing I ate, hands down: tomaio, which was part of a mezze platter - it was a purée of egg white, potato, and garlic, and it was a texture that was just stupid good. I'm even playing around with it here at Meadowood.

From a food point of view, I was pretty happy to get out of Egypt. Friends we were staying with took us for Thai food in Cairo, because, you know, it's a pretty European city. And it's genuinely hard to find authentic, good Egyptian food in the city. But we're pretty fearless, and we would just eat anything from some stall on the sidewalk. Some of the best things to eat are just these little mezze and sandwiches you get on the street.

Anyhow, we got on a boat in Luxor and went to all these old temples. It was all amazing. During that part of the trip we ate a lot of kofte and shawarma, just grilled skewers. A lot of rice and baladi bread. There are hardly any tourists right now… the country's a shitshow. So you find yourself just looking at these things in silence. It's comforting to know that 4,000 years ago they could build a pyramid, you know? Now they can't even build a road, but you know, here was humankind 4,000 years ago, without the aid of a computer, constructing these incredible things.

* This post has been corrected to show that the Restaurant at Meadowood is reopening March 23, not March 12 as previously reported.

Earlier: French Laundry Chef Timothy Hollingsworth Spent His Break Gorging on Japanese in Waikiki
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