Michael Chiarello is at home, making risotto alla primavera for 130 or so of the best customers of Chiarello Family Vineyards. He tastes a bit of the rice and parmesan cheese mixture, finds it to his liking, and orders it dished onto the scores of white plates which are laid out and waiting, where it will be topped off with a soffrito of spring vegetables.
Wearing his white chef’s coat emblazed with a burgundy emblem signifying his kudos from the James Beard Foundation, he dashes out of his modern farmhouse-style St. Helena home, navigates around the swimming pool, and bounds down a few stone steps, to a 125-foot table set up in the vineyards where he and his wife Eileen are hosting a late-afternoon supper for their best customers in the vineyards.Michael Chiarello with guests at a past Bud Break Party (above) and with his own budding progeny, Adrian (below)
Photos from NapaStyle.com and ChiarelloFamilyVineyards.com
Barely pausing to say a few words to his guests, most of whom have bought a case or more of his wine to qualify for an invitation to join the day’s hospitality, he dashes back up the steps, towards the kitchen. “Now, now!” he snaps at the waiters ferrying plates of risotto to the table. The temperature in the vineyard hovers around 85 degrees, even at five in the afternoon, so there seems little risk of the dishes cooling down in the moments it takes to deliver them from kitchen to table. He’s paired the course with a 2006 Giana Zinfandel, named after one of his three daughters.
As executive chef and partner in Napa’s famed Tra Vigne restaurant for two decades, Michael developed a reputation for being articulate (one of his sayings is “you know what really makes me pazzo? [crazy in Italian]”) and for his intense drive.
He spun his success in the kitchen into a brand name – on the Food Network with his show "Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello," the PBS series "Season by Season" and "Michael Chiarello’s Napa," as well as "NapaStyle" on Fine Living. He’s also authored a series of cookbooks, founded a chain of stores called NapaStyle in Northern California – including a new flagship store scheduled to open in Yountville in June – and soon will head a new Napa Valley restaurant.
Before serving the third course of slow roasted porchetta and purple potatoes, Chiarello stands on the stone wall to address his guests, and describes the difference between Tra Vigne and his new eatery. “It’s going to be a lot more expensive” he quips. He seems perfectly serious, too, as he offers his guests this heady experience in what business school types call lifestyle marketing.
With his closely shorn graying hair and reflector sunglasses, Michael is a classic example of American enterprise. Although he jokes during the afternoon that he is “just a guy from Turlock,” a decidedly unglamorous town in California’s Central Valley, this son of an immigrant family from Calabria began apprenticing in kitchens at age 14. Since then, he’s built a small business empire on the idea of gracious Napa Valley entertaining. Along the way, he’s parlayed his considerable talents in the kitchen into an entrepreneur’s dream.
His wife, Eileen Gordon Chiarello, offers me a glimpse into the kitchen while Michael is cooking. She first met her husband-to-be in 1999 at a conference called Build Brand Value in San Francisco. At the time, she was consulting for a venture capitalist group. She helped him write the business plan for NapaStyle and became the fledgling company’s vice president of marketing.
Michael and Eileen also successfully collaborated on another venture, who Michael is toting on his hip. With blonde curls and wearing tiny, sky-blue Crocs on his feet, two-year-old Aidan is the namesake for the family’s “Bambino” wine. Michael and Eileen offer barrel samples of the 2006 Bambino Cabernet, accompanied by white bean and tuna conserva crostini and fontina cheese puffs. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eileen 2004 won a 93 point rating from Wine Spectator, which described it as delivering “lots of flavor and complexity.”
As for Aidan, who looks like he’s just woken up from his afternoon nap, he doesn’t – at least at that moment – share his famous father’s easy banter with the guests. Peeking shyly from his father’s arms, Aidan looks at the long table, where so many strangers are seated. But as if this toddler scion is already being groomed to join the family business, little Aidan musters the spirit of hospitality and greets the guests with just one word: “Hi!”