It’s mid-morning on a sunny August day as Michael Chiarello drives from his Napa home over the hills to an apple orchard in Sebastopol. The award-winning chef is giving careful consideration to the apples he’ll find ready for picking in the thicket, but it’s not just in regards to how they will be used in one of his recipes. Chiarello’s also thinking about the family that has been growing these apples on their land for years and years, and how the trees have weathered this drought year, and how the grove has been tended. He’s thinking about all this because for Chiarello a deep understanding of where food comes from and how it is made is at the core of every great dish.
“When you have a relationship with your food then every bite is like remembering some adventure,” Chiarello said. “The idea of knowing where it came from or growing it yourself enhances the flavor of every bite.”
This endeavor to bring the best seasonal and sustainably grown ingredients to his table and restaurants started in the kitchen of his Italian family’s Turlock home. The family kept to their Calabrian roots by making their own cheeses and wines, butchering and curing their own meats, and growing and preserving their own produce. That tradition of using fresh and local ingredients made an early impression on the young Chiarello.
“I was a farm fresh boy growing up in Turlock,” Chiarello recalled. “My family kept to their Italian traditions, especially when it came to food. Happiness for us was gathering at the table and celebrating what each season had given us.”
Chiarello knew he wanted to be a chef from a young age. He spent many days by his mother’s side in their kitchen learning all her tips and techniques, but his realization that he wanted to be a chef came to him when he was eating a rather unappetizing meal of crickets.
“I did it on a dare,” Chiarello said. “My mother wasn’t too pleased with that. Later, I remember in first grade when the teacher asked us all what we did over the summer, I told about eating the crickets and how I wanted to be a cook one day.”
By his teens Chiarello was honing his skills at Turlock restaurants. He soon ventured away from his Turlock home and California to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After graduation he started coursework at the Florida International University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and by age 22 he had opened his first restaurant, Toby’s in Miami and three years later he was named Food and Magazine’s Chef of the Year.
Chiarello had realized his dream, but the West Coast was beckoning him home. He returned to California in 1986 and settled in the Napa Valley. It wasn’t long after his return that he opened up Tra Vigne, an authentic Italian eatery with just a hint of California cuisine. The restaurant quickly grew in acclaim and reputation as Chiarello magnified the family philosophy that good food starts from the ground up. The restaurant featured home-cured meats, hand-crafted cheeses, breads, and locally grown produce, but it really set itself apart when Chiarello opted to replace butter with his own California olive oil. In 1990 Chiarello took it a step further by purchasing 100 acres of 90-year-old olive trees. He started producing his own olive oil brand, Olia Santo, in partnership with Williams Sonoma and helped reinvigorate the olive oil business in California.
“My love was not just for making food, it was for making the ingredients as well,” Chiarello said.
The success of Tra Vigne set Chiarello on a path that would see him named as the managing partner of Tra Vigne’s collection of seven restaurants and create Consorizo, his line of infused olive oils that remains a bestseller. The success of his olive oil line helped launch a new title for Chiarello — author. His first book was “Flavored Oils: 50 Recipes for Cooking with Infused Oils” was followed by one detailing vinegars and a host of cookbooks, including the “Tra Vigne Cookbook.”
Chiarello turned his attention to the wine grapes growing in abundance in the Napa Valley. He started sustainably farming 20-acres of grapes at his home and in 1998 he released the first bottles of wine from Chiarello Family Vineyards.
His interest in creating unique food experiences had not waned during this time as Chiarello opened several restaurants in the Napa and Bay Area regions, as well as in Colorado and Arizona.
His success in the kitchen soon brought him into the homes across the country as the host of the PBS series “Season by Season.” In 2003, Chiarello began a long-standing relationship with the Food Network, with the start of his series “Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello.” The show has since garnered three Emmys.
Chiarello expanded his culinary empire in 2000 when he launched NapaStyle, an online retail and catalog enterprise specializing in culinary creations and cookware, cutlery, bakeware and kitchen appliances. With the site's ensuing success, NapaStyle developed into a handful of retail stores in California.
Chiarello opened Botegga in Yountville in 2008, a restaurant that celebrates Napa’s bounty while highlighting his Italian cuisine. The restaurant was named one of the best new restaurants in America in 2009 by “Esquire” magazine, which also named Chiarello as their Chef of the Year in 2013.
More recently Chiarello decided to test his culinary skills with the opening of Coqueta in San Francisco. With this new endeavor Chiarello is exploring Spanish cuisine and it appears to be paying off. In its first year it has earned a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant.
Through all his varying ventures, Chiarello says the success he has seen is built upon his understanding of the land that produces such bounties.
“Knowing where your food is coming from and who has been growing it and having a connection to it will make all the difference,” Chiarello explained as he continued his drive to Sebastopol. “I’ve known the family that grows these apples for a long time and I know how they tend them and I know that first bite of apple is going to taste fantastic.”