Chef Michael Chiarello has managed to turn a destination into a lifestyle. Creator of NapaStyle – a retail line of home decor, artisanal foods and kitchenware – Chiarello brings the aspirational living of Napa Valley to households around the country. Chiarello consistently pairs his Southern Italian roots with signature attributes of Napa Valley Living, making his cuisine a perfect mix of homeliness and luxury. With a background that includes an extended family of butchers, cheese makers and ranchers, it’s no wonder Chiarello has always succeeded in having his hands in every facet of the industry.
A highly-rated vintner, Emmy award winning television host, restaurateur and author, Chiarello has an eclectic charm that makes him the personality you’d want at your dinner party, as well as the man you’d want running your business. His critically acclaimed restaurant Bottega, remains a Napa Valley mainstay and a symbol of Chiarello’s Southern Italian roots and California sensibility. The New Potato has always had a taste for Napa Valley, and after reading this piece we think you will too – or at least a love for the icon himself…
What would be your ideal food day?
I’m a farm boy. I’m also a Californian chef. I’m Italian and Californian. I would like foraging to be a part of the start of my day. So going mushroom hunting, picking wild greens…I’d like to start in hunter-gatherer mode. There’s nothing better then driving through Napa Valley with that double espresso and fresh bruschetta.
And would the bruschetta be from the ingredients you gathered along the way?
Yes; we have a local bakery with this great wood-burning oven. There’d definitely be bread involved – I don’t even have to consider that one. Then I’d pick up friends or family. Napa Valley is only twenty miles long. There are farmer’s markets three or four days a week and lots of small farms. So a big part of the life there is building a menu while you’re in the fields. I like to really gather my ingredients up and be a part of that process. You know, we were doing farm to table before it had a name. Europe was doing it way before us. It’s building the flavor of the meal by gathering and working your way through the valley.
What was the ‘aha moment’ when you knew you’d become a lifestyle brand, as well as a chef?
At first all I wanted to be was a cook. At my first restaurant though, Tra Vigne, we’d make a lot of sauces and olive oil. Olive oil hasn’t been made in The Napa Valley since the 1800’s. We created flavored oils from spices and dressings we loved. We just kept coming up with stuff, creating a lot of condiments to use in the restaurant, and when we had a lot of them we opened up a shop to sell them. Then we began to sell them wholesale, so it was a natural progression right out of the kitchen. Then it became that same convenience we had (from the products at the restaurant) for people at home. So instead of having to use five ingredients, we had mixed them all and made spice rubs and a variety of condiments. I soon realized I didn’t appreciate the two-tier system like most Americans, with wholesalers, distributors, brokers then retailers. All of the fun was being sucked up in the middle. So after a few years, I thought how great it would be if we had a direct relationship with our consumers. It was about being in control of that relationship.
You’re a lifestyle brand; how would you define the Michael Chiarello lifestyle?
Napa style? That’s a good question. The brand isn’t me; it’s Napa Valley, which is a juxtaposition of cultures and cuisines. There’s a casual elegance and a thoughtful presentation, and a sustainable point of view. My cooking is artisan based. I find an artisan I like, to then carry out something I’m passionate about. It’s an aspirational brand that inspires people to create a style of life unique to them – aspirational wine country living. We cover that aspiration with food, preparation and tabletop. It happened naturally. It wasn’t the plan to design and build tables. But we’d first, for example, create a food product and there would be a need for something to rest that vessel on. I’m a storyteller and we bring these stories to life through our products and our brand.