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.
How does this translate to the TV you do?
If you look at my last series, Easy Entertaining, it’s the same thing. It inspires people to cook at home. What was important, is that you were cooking – and we wanted to solve problems for people in the kitchen. Food TV is more about solving problems in preparation. Letting viewers see [for instance] when they have a dinner party, what you would have done to make it easier or possible.
What do you think of competitive food TV?
I’ve done it a few times. Top Chef Masters, The Next Iron Chef…Every chef is highly competitive. As a chef, you’re usually competing anyway with someone who is across the street or in the neighborhood, but that’s more indirect. So, if you naturally cook like it’s a sport, competitive food TV is a lot of fun. I think it’s interesting to watching professionals cook in full tilt without their brigade. I wish they wouldn’t play so much with ingredients though; it’s not Survivor. I’ve had to cook with gummy bears, convenience store crackers… that is not telling to me of who’s a good chef. I like the regular cooking competitions. That’s when it’s great. Just balls to the wall, go.
Is there anyone you’d want to compete with, that you haven’t yet gone up against?
I’ve competed with Geoffrey Zakarian who won. Now that he’s an Iron Chef, (he won my season) I’d like me and my boys to go up against him and his boys.
What ingredient would you want to be assigned, and which would you dread?
For me, I’d love one of my core ingredients – tomato, olive oil, salt (big fan of salt and the different things you can do with different salts). Rabbit; I cook that a lot. My family on my Mother’s side were butchers, so I’d love to do something with brain, toes or ear lobe; that would be fun.
I saw Chopped All Stars the other night (which I passed on) and they had to use one of those fermented old eggs; those things are nasty. I’d probably dread any Asian ingredients because I’m the worst Asian cook on the planet, I’d say.
Are you a big supporter of using as many parts of the animal as you can?
Yes; I mean, at home is it realistic to buy lamb and keep it for the month? Not always. It can be at a restaurant. We’ll do that at Bottega. It’s realistic and unrealistic. You have one brain and two feet. What do you do with that when you have a restaurant of 150 diners? But we do find ways.
When cooking at home what are your go-tos?
I love to do one or two dish meals. If I have a party, it could be a polenta party. We put out butcher paper, the polenta on the paper, and put sauces – bolognese, pesto – cheeses, and grilled meats on it. Then everyone can adorn their own section the way they want. Maybe a crab boil – put some butcher paper then newspaper and throw the crab down onto it with artichokes, some light white wine and different condiments. I like the food to be an experience. I really love communal eating when cooking at home.
What do you always put out at a dinner party?
I’m Calabrese, so I like spicy. There’s a Calabrian chili paste that’s always out at my table – like ketchup is in Wisconsin. We’ll even call it my Calabrian ketchup.
What makes Napa Valley and Italian cuisine go so well together?
Well, we’re around 42 degrees in latitude, which is on the line of where the Mediterranean is. So all the ingredients from South of France, Italy and spots in Spain work in California. California is America’s Mediterranean. San Francisco is to Napa Valley what Florence is to the Chianti region.
Do you have favorite restaurants when traveling? New York? San Francisco?
In New York, Mario [Batali] is an old friend and I love what he does, I like to eat Italian. I like the high-end places like Del Posto and Marea, but at the same time I love Lupa. Tertulia is tasty. We’re going to Hearth when I’m there this week; I haven’t been for a couple years looking forward to that.
Is there a certain chef whose career you’ve always followed?
There are chefs and restaurateurs I admire. [I admire] what Mario [Batali] and Joseph [Bastianich] have done with their groups. As a restaurateur, I have a great admiration for Danny Meyer. There are also chefs I find quietly extraordinary, like David Kinch at Manresa. I love seeing friends that really carry out their dreams, and what he’s done in a decade is incredible. Chris Kostow; I love to see younger chefs and he’s an extraordinary talent and very humble. Joachim Splichal [of Patina] is probably known by very few young chefs. I just dream of the day he has a sixty seat restaurant. I like the people like that are doing lots of things but are a hidden quiet talent, staying out of the limelight.
Do you have any advice to young chefs starting out?
Decide who you’re cooking for and don’t waiver. If you’re cooking for yourself or if you’re cooking for others; I enjoy both. With my career, my taste is cooking for others in my own style and way. And as a young chef, for every hour you get paid, you need to be spending forty minutes on personal work, whether that’s an independent study or going to farms. Chefs I admire were true students of the business, not just of the plate. In my opinion, if you have an idea of a romantic quality of life at the age of twenty eight, you won’t have one at forty eight. Saying ‘I am working past 6pm, I’m worried about my quality of life’ – you’re twenty eight, knock it off! I don’t know successful chefs that built a career on five-day, eight-hour weeks. Even with my younger cooks, I’ll barge into their apartment, say ‘Hey what’s going on guys, just stopped by to say hi.’ I’ll use the bathroom and see what they’re reading in there. A successful chef is reading food magazines in the middle of the night, not penthouse! On my nightstand, for every novel, there are six other books all about food. The novels barely get read.
Lastly and most importantly, how do you feel about new potatoes?
I think we have an obligation to support people that do things in food. I’m a big believer in the difference between taste and flavor. If you look at your piece on Alex Guarnaschelli, (she’s a dear friend) I see her laughter in your piece. She is one of the most hysterical people on the planet. I love it, because I can read about people like her (on The New Potato) that I do know, as well as people I don’t know that I’d like to know more about. Their food tastes better that way.
When they used to ask restaurateurs ‘What’s your favorite restaurant?’ They’d say ‘The one I get recognized in.’ That’s an old joke. For me, my favorites are ones from chefs that I respect and love. It’s not just about taste; it’s about the flavor of the personality behind that flavor. So, in your case, you’re bringing out the flavors and personalities of people I adore and people I want to know more. I think it’s deeply important. You have Nate Berkus (someone I want to know more about) next to Anita Lo, someone I do know. Those stories are deeply interesting to me. It’s great what you’re doing.