The line was 200-deep when NapaStyle opened the floodgates at South Coast Plaza on July 14. A stream of (mainly) women flooded into the home/cooking store to meet legendary Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello.
Chiarello has been out of a professional kitchen for the past eight years, but he never left the public eye, hosting TV shows on the Food Network (“Easy Entertaining”) and Fine Living (“Journeys Through Napa Valley”). This is all part of the Napa-centric lifestyle that he’s developed. Chiarello decided to re-enter the culinary fray late last year. The former Tra Vigne chef opened an Italian restaurant called Bottega in Yountville on December 5, “the day the Down Industrials were at their lowest point since the Great Depression.”
He’s also competing on “Top Chef Masters.” During my visit to NapaStyle, he screened the majority of his first-round battle with Rick Moonen, Nils Noren and Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson, but made sure to hold the final judging. During the event he was humble, calling the field “24 dynamite chefs” and crediting half of them with helping him through the course of his career. He conceded, “Any chef could win on any given night.” However, during his official air date, he claimed victory in Bravo’s charity competition cooking show.
Before the crowded event began, Chiarello took a few minutes to discuss his career trajectory, and the changes in the Napa Valley dining scene since he first started cooking there in the late ’80s. Chiarello estimates that when he first arrived in Napa Valley, the talent pool was at 1/100 the strength it is today. “Yountville has more Michelin stars per capita than any place in the world.” Chiarello has noticed an attitude shift. “The cooks didn’t use to ask us what it takes to be in TV,” he said. “They’d ask us how to make the perfect pasta.”
Chiarello has embraced social media to help promote Bottega and NapaStyle. He tweets about once a day @ChefChiarello and has built a dedicated following on Facebook, but believes a little goes a long way when it comes to updates. Don’t expect to see him posting about his trips to the gym, but he was happy to post about a visit from Jordan’s Queen Noor.
After speaking with me, Chiarello shared his background and approach with the crowd. He grew up near Mt. Shasta and learned early on to live off the land. “They call it farm to table or farm to fork,” he says. “Where I’m from it’s just how you cook.”
He continues to farm organically and even produces wine through Chiarello Family Vineyards. He has four children and “picked the character of the wine and matched the character of my child.” This approach resulted in wines that all scored in the 90s in Wine Spectator and feature names like Eileen (Cabernet) and Giana (Zinfandel).
Proceeds from the event benefited Share Our Selves, a nondiscriminatory healthcare facility founded in 1970 that offers emergency care and health education.
My favorite find at NapaStyle: Chanchitos, 3-legged good luck clay pigs from Chile.