Napaphile: Chef Michael Chiarello strives to be as good as his terroir.
Chef Michael Chiarello defines the essence of the Napa Valley
By Alex Horvath
There is an art to finding the perfect ingredient for any dish, and Napa chef Michael Chiarello has a renowned knack for finding it. The first place he often looks is in his memory, going back in time to his mother¹s kitchen, far from the upscale Napa Valley, to his hometown of Turlock in California¹s Central Valley.
"We didn't have any money growing up, but our table was always full," Chiarello recalls. "My mother was amazing. Even before the press was writing about it, she understood that, of course, cooking is all about the ingredients. Flavors are part of the story. She would search the woods for two hours just to find the perfect wild mushroom. People taste with their eyes and noses, but you have to get in touch with the intellectual side of your food. You've got to taste with your mind."
He adds, "There was always family coming through. And there were always the stories. It's where I learned about family history--the face of my family." Chiarello's parents and grandparents were natives of Calabria, Italy. His family emigrated to the United States in a couple of waves around the turn of the century.
Fast forward to a recent rainy morning in St. Helena, and Chiarello, 42, now a nationally known chef, is seated behind his desk at the corporate offices of NapaStyle, his Internet and mail-order company. Chiarello is decked out in wrangler jeans, a red and black plaid shirt, and a rugged looking cap. A moustache and goatee are beginning to take shape, offering even more of a disguise from his cooking-show persona.
Indeed, on this day, Chiarello looks more like a worker than he does a CEO and media mogul or host of PBS' Michael Chiarello's Napa and Season by Season television programs, as well as the Easy Entertaining cooking program that airs on the Food Network, where he entertains and cooks up gourmet dishes for guests. His fifth book, Michael Chiarello's Casual Entertaining, publishes in September, and in February, Chiarello begins taping 13 new episodes of Easy Entertaining. He is the also the host of radio's Another Bite, which is syndicated to 400 markets. And don't forget the line of gourmet olive oils, cooking and home décor products that he sells through his NapaStyle catalog and NapaStyle.com website. He's a regular on the CBS Early Show, and Chiarello has even appeared on the Weather Channel with a program aptly titled Cooking up a Storm.
With storms in mind on this day, he confesses that he has been up since 3:30am, digging a trench to save a rain-soaked vineyard near his home. Ruined grapes would have been an intensely personal loss, since each of the four vineyards is named after the women in his life: wife Eileen and daughters Felicia, Margoux and Giana. He adds that the thing most viewers of his cooking shows would be surprised to learn about him is that he looks and dresses this way nearly every day. "I'm just a country boy from Turlock," he says.
His offices are in the process of moving from their present location--directly across the street from Tra Vigne, the legendary Napa Valley restaurant that Chiarello helped found and about which he co-authored his first cookbook, The Tra Vigne Cookbook: Seasons in the California Wine Country--to downtown Napa and the site of what were once the offices for Wine.com. He sold his stake in the restaurant a few years back, and while it was rumored to be a nasty split, he still speaks kindly of the current owners and the experience.
"I tend to look forward, and not back," he says.
But Chiarello does look back for a moment, remembering the first time he told anyone of his career aspirations. "I was in fourth grade, and we had to get up in front of the class and tell what we wanted to do when we grew up. I said that I wanted to be a cook and to have my own restaurant one day."
Chiarello followed that dream in his teens, apprenticing at his first restaurant when he was 14. Later, he trekked into San Francisco by bus on the weekends, staying with a godparent and working shifts at Ernie's, where he did prep, washed dishes--whatever needed to be done. When things were slow, the chefs at Ernie's showed him cooking tricks. Graduating from high school early, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. After finishing there, he went to Europe, where he worked in several kitchens before coming back to the states to attend the prestigious FIU Culinary School in Miami, Fla.
Back in California, Chiarello opened Tra Vigne in 1986. Soon, the chef was branching off into flavor-enhanced olive oils, making them on a press outside of the restaurant between the lunch and dinner shifts.
He was named Chef of the Year by Food & Wine magazine in 1985 and by the Culinary Institute of America in 1995. At Tra Vigne, Chiarello could often be spotted running down the street during the lunch rush to the tiny Napa Valley Olive Oil Co. (a nondescript white barn at the end of a road that is the real deal as far as Italian markets go) to get fresh ingredients. Did he ever share any secret recipes with the store's owners, Ray and Leonora Pardocelli? "It was more like the other way around," Chiarello laughs.
Back in the office in St. Helena, boxes are being packed by staff members for the move to Napa. Nick Petrelli, an assistant who does behind-the-scenes prep work for Chiarello's TV shows, enters and the two men discuss the upcoming tapings for the Food Network program. If Petrelli can get time off from the restaurant where he works to help with the show, Chiarello promises a plug for the restaurant on TV, which will, he assures, "help to put butts in the seats."
Chiarello is generous like that, passionate about using indigenous artisans and farmers for the majority of his cooking and product offerings on Napastyle.com. When traveling, he will sometimes come across old items that could be converted into something different--wine barrels into coat racks or sugar molds into candle holders--and he'll often put local workers in charge of production. The resulting objects are then sold on Napastyle.com. "It's not recycling," he explains, "it's repurposing."
Chiarello attributes his business and media success to an enviable list of advisers. The chef we see on TV is "pretty much who I am," he says. "It's not my CEO voice. All of the guests on the shows are friends. I love to entertain. I am a total goof."
Whether goofy or serious, Chiarello is always an indefatigable booster for his home.
"It's a constant worry of mine to make sure I am doing a job that is worthy of the Napa Valley," he says. "It's my job to support the lifestyle here--not to be it."
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From the January 26-February 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.