The first of this season’s 12 Days of Christmas celebration at Meadowood was held on Friday, Dec. 8, when guests enjoyed a dinner prepared in collaboration between Meadowood Chef Christopher Kostow’s team and Chef Mark Lundgaard from Kong Hans Kaelder restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark.

“This is the first night of our ninth year of our 12 Days of Christmas celebration,” said Meadowood’s front-of-the-house director, Nathaniel Dorn. “It is fun, exciting and even a little scary at times because you never know what’s going to happen when a new chef comes into the kitchen.”

The annual event has become a treasured area tradition in that it brings some of the renowned chefs from around the globe to St. Helena’s Meadowood during what is typically the quiet season. Every year the lineup of visiting chefs changes, but the list always seems to include a collection of both the most-well-known names and also up-and-coming culinary stars, showcasing a diverse range of expressions. This year is no different, bringing in such icons as Thomas Keller from The French Laundry and perhaps new names to the locals such as Manish Mehrotra from the Indian Accent restaurant in New Delhi, India, and Lundgaard, among nine other visiting chefs.

Beyond the culinary experience, the annual event also provides support to charities in the area.

“We are doing this for the joy of the season, food and wine but also as a way to give back to the community,” Dorn said. “This year we are helping to send children in need to school throughout the Napa Valley. Our goal is to help support and pay for about 40 kids to attend preschool.

According to Dorn, the Meadowood and Charter Oak teams have collaborated with local fire departments and St. Helena Preschool for All, a local nonprofit organization, to provide gifts and scholarships to children throughout the region, including American Canyon, Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. The Restaurant at Meadowood will donate $2,000 in honor of each participating chef, plus 10 percent of every dinner ticket sold.

“We believe that no child should go without during the holidays,” Dorn said. “Through these celebrations we’ll provide help for kids to go to school but also thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts for families in need. We have also encouraged that everyone who comes to these celebrations brings unwrapped toys that we’ll donate, too.”

Guests at the first celebration were greeted warmly at the festively decorated restaurant’s foyer and provided champagne and appetizers. The next stop was the bright and bustling Meadowood kitchen, where they mingled with other guests and watched the night’s preparations unfold. There the two kitchen teams busily crafted additional appetizers as well as the dinner items for later that evening.

“This is pretty exciting to witness,” said Kenneth Olsen, who had flown over from his home in Copenhagen, in part to experience the evening’s dinner. “I am a big fan of both of these chefs, and to see them working together is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“It’s an honor to be included in this year’s celebration,” said Lundgaard. “To work with another team is challenging but valuable for everyone. My food is focused on classical French technique and not so much on presentation — I want my food to come out hot and well prepared to the table.”

Lundgaard explained that he is interested in preparing food that highlights fresh and “honest” ingredients.

“There’s a Nordic food movement in Denmark and Scandinavia right now,” he said. “When I took over Kong Hans Kaelder’s kitchen I told them I was going to go in another direction — I only worry about the ingredients, techniques and taking Nordic cuisine as far as possible.”

As a part of Lundgaard’s vision he is looking to bring native foods to his patrons, often as unprocessed as possible.

“As soon as I arrived in California, I went out hunting for wild boar — it’s not served tonight, but the venison here is fresh and represents my idea on how I think about the importance of nature and food,” he said, as he pointed to a nearby skinned deer’s carcass that lay stretched out on a bed of herbs.

In the center of the kitchen were chefs from the Meadowood team: Chef de Partie Ali Matteis cut long slabs of meat from the deer, and then Chef de Cuisine John Hong used a meat-grinder to mince the flesh into venison tartar that the guests enjoyed with crispy Belgian waffles and caviar.

It was interesting to observe as the guests watched the preparations of the deer, their expressions ranging from sheer awe to what appeared to be a heartfelt appreciation for the honesty of the display.

“I have never seen anything like it,” said one guest who asked that her name not be used. “To be honest I am a little conflicted — I love to eat meat but I don’t hunt, so this is like, whoa. It is making me think. But tasting the unaltered flavors of venison is also like, wow.”

And that’s part of what the annual event has become: a way in which to experience different culinary cultures and ideas.

“The guests get to enjoy food concepts from around the world and celebrate the season while helping a worthy cause,” Kostow said. “For the team these are busy, long days but also a real opportunity to experience new approaches.”

“It’s a special experience,” Hong said. “To see what’s going on out there in the world beyond these four walls is something unique for the cooks and the guests — to witness different approaches, philosophies, concepts. It’s priceless.”

After the kitchen experience guests were seated in the elegant dining room, where they enjoyed multiple courses of expertly prepared food and wine that was included in the $275 to $350 per-person experience (price depended on the wine-pairing option).

As a guest at the event I was enamored mostly by the goodwill of all those in attendance — from the guest chef, to the highly skilled teams of chefs and waitstaff that had worked for days to prepare, to the patrons who paid hundreds of dollars to experience the holidays together in a spirit of camaraderie and breaking bread around the table.

The menu that night, titled “Wild,” included offerings such as a beautifully puff-pastry-encircled scallop shell “en croûte,” opened tableside to reveal delicate sliced scallop dressed with subtlety smoked caviar butter, followed later in the meal with a minimally cooked medallion of lamb and creamy polenta, pickled vegetables and a French-curry “vadouvan” demi-glace.

The night seemed not about what the world has come to expect from Michelin-three-star level culinary performances; instead, it was letting go, sitting back and enjoying a satisfying evening with good food and wine, surrounded by the sheer joy of being with friends and new acquaintances, all of whom seemed to find some level of commonality and the holiday spirit through the act of eating, drinking and laughing together.

“When I see people sitting around the table and they are happily eating and talking, and maybe even raising a glass with one another, I am reminded of why this all matters,” Dorn said. “That is what this is all about — that’s what the holidays are about.”

“As soon as I arrived in California, I went out hunting for wild boar.” Chef Mark Lundgaard, Kong Hans Kaelder restaurant, Copenhagen
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