As The Charter Oak in Napa Valley turns two, AFAR talks to executive chef Katianna Hong about her culinary beginnings and how the restaurant is connecting to its community.
Katianna Hong didn’t always want to be a chef. “When I was really little, I thought I might be a marine biologist,” she recalls; later, her childhood dreams turned toward becoming a gymnastics coach or a lawyer. But Hong’s parents saw their daughter’s culinary talents before she did. When she began looking at colleges, they took her on a campus tour of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
“I thought it was so embarrassing—I didn’t want to wear the checkered pants and toque,” says Hong. “I went to a private girls school and everyone else was going on to Ivy League schools; I felt embarrassed by the fact that I’d be going to the culinary school.” Anyone who has had the pleasure of dining at The Charter Oak in St. Helena, California, where Hong is the executive chef, is probably glad that she got over her embarrassment.
In retrospect, she realizes that becoming a chef was a natural path. As a child, she was particular about what she ate, so she began experimenting in the kitchen early. “Looking back, I didn’t think the dishes I made were that intricate, but my parents tell me they were shocked,” Hong says. “I remember one time I was little and I woke up early and my parents weren’t up. I wanted Reese’s peanut butter cups—so I made my own.”
Her journey took her to California, where she eventually landed at the lauded Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, helmed by chef Christopher Kostow. There, Hong honed her skills for nearly six years, working the kitchen’s many stations and eventually rising to chef de cuisine; she was the first female to work in the role at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the United States.
The Restaurant at Meadowood was formative for Hong in other ways, too. There, she met and fell in love with fellow chef John Hong, who would become her husband. Her experience also led to her current job: as executive chef at Kostow’s latest venture, The Charter Oak. (Fun fact: When Hong departed Meadowood to start the opening team at The Charter Oak in 2017, John took over as chef de cuisine.)
The Charter Oak celebrates its second year in business this June and earned itself a 2018 nomination from the James Beard Foundation for “Best New Restaurant.” Compared to Meadowood, which Hong described as “a fairy-tale setting to work in” where “the goal is really to make everything as perfect and consistent as you can,” the family-style Charter Oak has a “more organic and fun” vibe. Although both restaurants serve New American cuisine, Charter Oak’s menu is designed for sharing and devotes itself to simple (yet absurdly flavorful) ingredients, many of which are pulled fresh from its 2.5-acre culinary garden, also used by Meadowood. And much of the restaurant’s focus revolves around the hearth placed prominently in the dining room. An entire section of the seasonally-changing menu is dedicated to hearth-cooked goodies like coal-roasted sweet potato and grilled, buttermilk-brined chicken.
As The Charter Oak continues to establish itself as a Napa Valley mainstay, Hong says that she and her team hope to do more community-oriented events. If you’re into wine (it is Napa Valley, after all), be sure to check out its ongoing Vintner Series, which includes a reception and intimate family-style dinner with local vintners and wine pairings from their vineyards. Hudson Ranch wines headline the May 22, 2019, event.
Last year, Bay Area chefs joined The Charter Oak team for special fund-raising dinners in response to the 2017 wine country wildfires, a series that became known as Guest Chef Potlucks. This year, the events will continue thanks to a collaboration with Le Creuset, and award-winning chefs from across the United States will come to St. Helena to cook at The Charter Oak. Proceeds for the dinners go to St. Helena Preschool For All. You can still book a seat for the next one, scheduled for May 19, 2019, and featuring four chefs from Los Angeles. Check back on The Charter Oak’s website for all future events.
Now that she’s worked in one of the best restaurants in the nation and heads up one of the buzziest in California, what could be left on Hong’s to-do list? “At some point in my career, [John and I] would like to do Korean food together,” she says. Beyond that, Hong suspects she’ll stick around in California. “I’ve been here over 10 years now, so it really feels like home. And I don’t know how you get used to cooking somewhere else after you’ve had California produce year-round.”
Some of chef Hong’s favorite spots in Northern California wine country
Running the kitchen keeps Hong busy, but when she’s not working, here are a few Napa Valley go-tos that she recommends.
EAT: Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen in St. Helena
“They do Himalayan. There isn’t a ton of ethnic food in this area, but it’s family-owned and it’s awesome. You can get samosas and tikka masala right in town.”
DRINK: Scribe Winery in Sonoma
“Private tours are by appointment only, but it’s an amazing property. They’re composting and recycling and everything is beautiful. Sometimes they do lunches over there, too—it’s just a crazy magical feeling when you’re there.”
DO: Hiking in Napa County
“When you’re working in the kitchen, when we’re off it’s great to go to Bothe–Napa Valley State Park. Also, Table Rock is an easy enough hike to carry a backpack of wine and a lunch with you. It’s really pretty when you get to the top.”