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Toque of the Town

The transcendence of chef Michael Chiarello’s culinary stardom.



Alex Farnum

He’s handsome and accomplished, and his culinary ingenuity just got him named as Esquire magazine’s 2013 Chef of the Year based on the success of Coqueta, his new Spanish restaurant on San Francisco’s waterfront. With this award, and lots of other critical acclaim, Napa Valley–based chef Michael Chiarello has eclipsed his talent from Italian master to international genius.

While his remarkable food speaks for itself, it’s not the only thing that sets Chiarello apart from other celebrity chefs. From his tales of learning as a child to make gnocchi from his mother, to tenderizing octopus in a washing machine (you’ll just have to ask him), Chiarello has table-side charm that is a gift equally as unforgettable as his dishes.

Think he rules his roost like a tyrannical toque? Not a chance.

Unlike other exalted chefs who maintain an elevated status above their staff, Chiarello treats his  like family. He has hosted Thanksgiving dinners for employees and their families, cooked for a family of brothers who lost their father in an accident, and underwritten tuition for employees who could not afford culinary school. Once, he even paid a medical bill for an employee who needed help.

“I dropped out of law school to work for him, so obviously he is easy to love,” says Tasha Renee McIlwraith, assistant general manager of both Coqueta and Bottega, Chiarello’s flagship Italian restaurant in Yountville. Her husband, Ryan, whom she met and married while working at Bottega, helms the kitchen as chef de cuisine at Coqueta. When the two became engaged, Chiarello threw a party to show his support of their pending union, which came as no surprise to his staff, who are used to his magnanimous spirit.
 

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“If I walk into the restaurant, and he sees something is wrong with me, he’ll immediately sit me down and talk me through it,” says McIlwraith. “He is always a shoulder to lean on, and a huge mentor for me in my career and my personal life.”

He also inspires his employees with his work ethic and passion for the craft. “Chef Chiarello rides 60 miles a day on his bike, and he is still the first person in the restaurant,” McIlwraith says. “No matter how hard I work, you can’t ever outdo him, and you just can’t help but be inspired.”

To understand what makes Chiarello tick, you have to pull back the curtain on his childhood, growing up in California’s agricultural Central Valley. His father suffered a stroke and became disabled at 40, leaving Chiarello’s mother to support the family on a limited income.

“My mom didn’t do anything for herself other than go to Mass every day before we woke up,” he says in a soft, matter-of-fact voice. “It was a really hard life, but you never knew it by living there.”

She also taught him to cook, and this is where he learned many of the recipes he uses at Bottega. “She managed the kitchen, the gardening, the foraging, and the gathering. If I wanted to spend time with my mom, that’s what I did,” he says. “I didn’t play with Legos.”

It may have been a hard life, but it also taught Chiarello how to persevere and be tenacious.“My mom used to knock on someone’s door to ask if she could pick the dandelions off their lawn. If you’re sitting on the cold concrete floor shucking walnuts because it was so much less expensive to go gather some walnuts than buy them, that’s what we did.”

Now, Chiarello keeps adding more to his portfolio. In addition to running his restaurants, writing cookbooks, and managing his retail store, NapaStyle, he is collaborating with the Weinstein Company to develope an Entourage-like comic show based loosely on his life, according to the New York Times. Busy with these projects in addition to being a father and husband, he still finds time to greet his guests in person, sometimes at their tables.

Booking reservations at Bottega or Coqueta must be done weeks—if not months—in advance, but once you’re in, you’re part of his family. Locals and visitors alike are often surprised with complimentary dishes he might deliver to their table, along with one of his trademark, humorous anecdotes. Sometimes, he emerges from the kitchen at the request of a patron—some of whom date back to his days at Tra Vigne in St. Helena—who is hoping for a photo with the dynamo.

One evening, as my fiancé, Michael—a friend of Chiarello’s—and I departed Bottega’s bustling main dining room, we noticed a table of giddy female patrons posing with Chiarello for a group photo. As we giggled at this frequent, rock-star-like moment, the handsome gent looked over at us with a nefarious grin and underscored the real way to a woman’s heart, shouting a playful tease to my fiancé: “Hey, Michael, learn to cook!”


 

Chiarello’s Calendar  

1982 - Graduates from the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

1985 - Is named Chef of the Year by Food & Wine magazine.

1986 - Arrives in Napa Valley as the founding chef at Tra Vigne.

1993 - Founds Panorama Baking Co. based in San Francisco.

1995 - Is named Chef of the Year by the Culinary Institute of America and publishes his first book, Flavored Oils.

1997 - Opens Caffe Museo in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Tomatina in St. Helena.

1998 - Receives the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award.

2000 - Creates NapaStyle, a lifestyle retailer and product line.

2001 - Launches Michael Chiarello’s Napa on PBS.

2003 - Launches Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello on The Food Network, and NapaStyle on the Fine Living Network.

2006 - Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello wins its third Emmy Award.

2008 - Opens Bottega in Yountville.

2009 - Earns second place on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, and he and his wife create Dirt to Dine, a farm-based culinary camp for kids.

2011 - Bottega Cookbook earns IACP and James Beard Award nominations.

2013 - Opens Coqueta in San Francisco and is named Chef of the Year by Esquire.

 

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