Taste Maker: Michael Chiarello

Taste Maker: Michael Chiarello


According to your bio on napastyle.com, your family had a profound impact on your dream of becoming a chef. Butchers, cheese makers, ranchers, and, of course, mom's kitchen. Can you tell us more about that? 
You never know the wonderful lessons growing up until the lessons prove out. My lessons have been around listening closely – with all of my senses – and pursuing what speaks to me.

I had a really interesting childhood. My parents were first generation Italians from Calabria. Calabria sits at the southern end of Italy, like our California neighbor to the south, Mexico. Calabria is the backbone of Italy, just like Mexico, and neither the country nor the service industry, my industry, could live without.

One of Michael's tasty creations

We weren't rich with money, we were rich in food. Food became this healing thing for me. It was such a passionate way to grow up.

My father became disabled when I was four and he wouldn't let my mother work, so we lived off his very modest disability check. My mom did the best she could with very little. Instead of playing catch with the other kids, I was out working in the fields or foraging for mushrooms or helping my mom in the kitchen after school. 

My mom was my best friend. She was a phenomenal cook, and we lived as our family has for generations in Calabria, like she lived in Calabria. I learned early on that I could have a relationship with ingredients and food as much as with the people who taught, shared and guided me. Even today, every time I make gnocchi, I can feel the weight of my mom’s arms over my shoulder holding my hand, guiding my thumb over the gnocchi board…my mom helping my hands and teaching me how to roll it off the board. We weren’t rich with money, we were rich in food. Food became this healing thing for me. It was such a passionate way to grow up.

I knew if I could do this every day and feel good then imagine doing this for a living? I knew that having a relationship with my food, ingredients, people and learnings would be a lifelong pursuit.

You're a really busy guy. When you're not working, what's your favorite way to relax?
Sometimes work is the way I relax, it’s just framed under a different set of lenses. We live among these amazing 100-year-old vines and going out on my John Deere through the fields, looking at the health of the plants and fruit (for our wine, Chiarello Family Vineyards), allows me to be 100% focused on the moment and supports this need to be outside; like my childhood being connected to the earth, the land sustains and nourishes me. 

Preparing a meal for friends and family is also relaxing for me, especially if it’s outside. A live fire can actually transform the meal into a gathering, whether you’re cooking for two people or two hundred. It satisfies a deep, primal urge. Who doesn’t like watching a marshmallow take a hold of the fire and become this warm sweet bite? For me, I love the primal emotion of transforming a raw ingredient into a meal to gather around. Deep inside each and every one of us is the tribal need to gather, prepare and protect around the fire. Fire can be transformative when it comes to cooking and connecting with people. There’s nothing better than hanging out with friends and family, watching and feeling the fire crackle, sharing stories and having a pure moment of healthy relaxation.

Preparing for a feast

People don’t often think of sports or exercise as relaxing – you’re sweating, your heart rate jumps up a few notches and it’s not your best look. But for me, being on the bike, pedaling up the country roads of Napa Valley is probably one of the most relaxing activities I can be doing – second to cooking. Last year we started the Bottega Gran Fondo, a food, wine and cycling event, which for me celebrates all of my passion points. In fact, our tagline is “we ride to eat.” Isn’t that what’s it all about?

Do you have a favorite piece of Tommy Bahama clothing (or a favorite dish at the restaurant)? What do you like about it?
I am loving my Sea Glass Breezer Shirt at this particular moment; it’s super comfortable and can be worn on the dressier side, but here in Napa Valley we mostly are fairly casual. If I’m not cooking, spending time with my family, or on my bike, I’d likely be entertaining with close friends and the Breezer shirt is the perfect item for those moments.

TV, vineyards, restaurants, consumer goods... what's next for Michael Chiarello?
Something I consider to be extremely important and settles my soul is living a sustainable life. As a chef and farmer, a sustainable life means supporting the people who are working to make our food healthy — for us and the planet. This starts with our farming practices and food purveyors who insist on sustainability as the standard. My wife Eileen and I recently launched Barnraiser, an online crowd-funding community, “raising the roof” for change. From healthy and artisanal foods to community kitchens to educational and organic farms, Barnaiser is the place to meet the modern day heroes and innovators behind these projects, share their inspirational stories and fund their success.

Bottom line for me is that living a sustainable life starts with relaxation. Taking care of one’s self, doing good for others, and ensuring we are doing all we can for our children and the planet is what matters most. This is what’s next for me – taking care of one another and making sure projects that come to Barnraiser get the visibility and funding that they need.