Upended by the Pandemic, Haute Chefs Move Into Hotels

Yogis and nature enthusiasts have long flocked to Ojai, a verdant mountain enclave 90 minutes north of Los Angeles — gastronomes, not so much. That changed during the pandemic, when the Ojai Valley Inn turned its sprawling, indoor-outdoor farmhouse — formally a wedding venue before the coronavirus upended plans — into a stage for a revolving cast of high-end chefs.

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

“That, on top of Covid, gave us this feeling like, ‘God only knows what’s going to happen next,’” Mr. Kostow said.

To pay his staff, Mr. Kostow would have to set up shop elsewhere. Before the fire, he’d had the foresight to look into a Plan B outside Napa, aware that constantly shifting restrictions could keep businesses in wine country shuttered while other parts of the state were open.

It turned out that Howard Backen, the same architect responsible for the plush environs of Meadowood, had also recently built the Ojai Valley Inn’s Farmhouse, equipped with an open kitchen and state-of-the-art Viking appliances. One call led to another, and Mr. Kostow and his team decided to temporarily shift their operations to Ojai, where they engineered a tasting menu of can’t-cook-this-at-home delights like “champagne-bubbled” oysters and caviar dressed with eucalyptus and broccoli.

“I hadn’t been to Ojai before,” said Mr. Kostow. “It’s like what I imagine California might have been like in the 1930s: rolling hills, rustic, really bucolic.”

The partnership between the Restaurant at Meadowood and the Ojai Valley Inn exemplifies an accelerating trend: in the wake of the pandemic, hotels have become havens for high-end chefs. Whether displaced by disaster, like Mr. Kostow, seeking to make up for lost revenue, wanting to explore new markets or simply craving an opportunity to try out new things, well-regarded chefs are flocking to hotels not necessarily known for their cuisine. Last year chewed up and spit out the fine-dining playbook: now, there’s an opportunity for reinvention.

“Serving outside on a lawn or in a space that’s not your own is not ideal, but it does make you scratch your head, like, ‘Oh, this is cool. What other cool things could we be doing?’” said Mr. Kostow, who also owns a more casual eatery, The Charter Oak, in Napa Valley. “I think the result, post-pandemic, regarding fine dining, will be more license, more fluidity. All the old rules are blown up, at this point.”

“The Restaurant at Meadowood Residency” began on March 3. Over the course of five weeks, it got the culinary equivalent of a standing ovation: all 44 dinners Mr. Kostow presided over at the Ojai Farmhouse sold out, including a finale weekend of meals in May that featured wine pairings from the renowned Krug Champagne house and Harlan Estate, a famed Napa Valley producer of Bordeaux-style blends. Tickets for that dinner cost $999 per person.

“They sold out within the first hour,” said Ben Kephart, the Ojai Valley Inn’s director of operations. “It’s crazy. That’s about as much as you can charge for a dinner anywhere. It shows you how much of a demand there is, and it speaks to people wanting to get out and support a venture that they feel is deserving.”

One of Mr. Kostow’s March dinners in Ojai offered 13 courses, several pours of wine, and, maybe most importantly, the opportunity to dress up and people watch (from well over six feet away). It felt like the opposite of sitting on the couch, numbly chewing Postmates by the glow of Netflix. Apparently, people want that.

“We could have had a month of these dinners, straight,” said Mr. Kephart. “That’s how many people tried to book them.”

Besides Mr. Kostow, the Farmhouse has played host to chefs such as Nancy Silverton, the grande dame of Italian food in Los Angeles. Next month brings David Castro, the chef of Fauna in Baja California, which was recently honored by World’s 50 Best, one of the hospitality industry’s major ratings organizations, as well as Neal Fraser, the owner of the revered eatery Redbird in Los Angeles.

Across the country and south of the border this summer and fall, similar guest chef-resort collaborations are in the works:

“It’s meant a lot,” Ms. Bloomfield said of her residency. “I’ve been able to hire some of my staff from New York and therefore keep them employed. It’s been great to have them experience the country and the produce it has to offer. We feel very grateful for the experience and to be of service.”

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