I am a long-time admirer of Michael Chiarello, accomplished chef, restaurateur, vintner, and television personality. Locally, most know him as the chef-owner of Bottega Restaurant in the Napa Valley. Outside the Bay Area, he’s remembered for a feisty performance on Top Chef Masters debut season. His deft skill with rustic Italian cooking landed him in the finale, beating out an impressive roster of high-profile chefs along the way. Despite a drool-inducing four-course preparation , he ultimately came in second place behind Chicago's Rick Bayless, another favorite of mine.
I became a fan of Chef Chiarello while watching his 2001 PBS series Season to Season. Shot on location at his vineyard home in the Napa Valley, this show beautifully captured the spirit of the California wine country and highlighted its then-burgeoning food scene. He was a shameless promoter of the region whose essence he has successfully bottled, printed and sold in the years since. Yes, the show served as a platform for his commercial ambitions but he shared the spotlight with area farmers, chefs, and purveyors who frequently appeared to showcase their exceptional product and chant the mantras of "local, sustainable, and organic". It's hard to remember a time when these were unfamiliar ideas and it's worth remembering that they owe their current ubiquity to people like Chiarello. Family was another recurrent theme. Relatives often joined him in the kitchen as he stressed the importance of the dinner table as societal bedrock.
At the time, I was making my first post-college meals without microwaves and cardboard browning sleeves. What I lacked in hands-on experience I made up for in encyclopedic knowledge of television cooking shows. Long before the era of 24-hour food coverage, I grew up watching Julia, Jacques, The Frugal Gourmet and Martin Yan. Chiarello’s show immediately jumped out at me. It was groundbreaking in subject matter, production quality and, most of all, the intimacy it conveyed. I felt welcomed into Chiarello’s home and beckoned to the kitchen for a well-planned lesson on Italian cooking. There I learned a number of fundamental techniques that I still use today, including:
- Seasoning each ingredient seperately as you build a dish
- Using freshly ground sea salt
- Adjusting caramelization and acids based on the time of year
- Using product at the peak of seasonal excellence for simple, Mediterranean dishes
12 years later, I am still a Michael Chiarello super-fan. Not surprisingly, I jumped at a recent opportunity to attend a Harvest Dinner celebration at his St. Helena home. Thrillingly, this was the very same house where the PBS series had been shot. The reception and dinner were staged outdoors, alongside the vineyards and underneath a cloudless Napa Valley sky. It was a lush, green setting with vine-striped hills off in the distance baking like loaves of bread in the warm September afternoon. After a glass of our host's Chiara Bianco, I finagled my way indoors and had the surreal experience of standing in the very same kitchen from the TV series as a swarm of cooks prepared our meal. I snapped some pictures and sat for a moment in the reading nook (still adorned with over-stuffed leather couch and cow hide rug) frequently used on the show.
Chef Chiarello was a gracious host, stopping multiple times to talk to Christina and me. Donned in his white chef’s coat despite the heat, he had the suave humor and first name recall of a politician. He and the rest of us were brimming with cheer and swerving from the wine when it was finally time to eat. Each course came with a short speech from the chef where he touched on the familiar themes: place, season, family and their connection to the food we eat. As the meal progressed, the speeches went from colorful to pretty much “R Rated”. The crowd of 75 laughed and cheered him on, understandably smitten with the whole experience. They included his wife, daughters and personal friends, along with business associates and lucky tag-alongs like us.
The food impossibly succeeded in surpassing my expectations. The antipasto, Short Stack Tomato with Angry Prawn, was classic Chiarello: small ingredient count, gigantic flavors. The briny head-on shrimp, smoky and charred from the grill was punctuated by the heat from the chili. Then the sweetness from an entire tomato, end-of-summer perfect, glowing orange in broad daylight on the plate.
The secondi’s protein was called Pork Belly Porchetta and it came riding on a spill of heirloom polenta. That name makes a big promise: to deliver on the best qualities of two separately amazing things. The first bite allayed my skepticism and shut my drunk, yapping mouth. We had hit dinner party paydirt—fun people on all sides—and I was taking center stage. With that bite, I stopped being hilarious and concentrated, forcing momentary sobriety. With the party blocked out, I took small bites and lingered on this fatty, porky, earthy indulgence.
Things were getting blurry when dessert arrived. Thankfully, the sun was rolling atop the hills on the horizon giving us badly needed relief from the heat. After dinner, we played like kids among the vines, shooting photos and stealing grapes. I said goodbye to a personal hero before stumbling across the gravel driveway to the parking lot. That’s when we realized how smart we were for booking a limousine, which sat waiting to whisk us back to the city.