Celebrity chef’s Cal­i­for­nia dream

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - CHRIS­TINE MCCABE

MICHAEL Chiarello is one of tele­vi­sion’s pi­o­neer­ing celebrity chefs — an Emmy award-win­ner, cook­book author, vigneron and ar­dent ad­vo­cate for slow, soul­ful, Ital­ian food. Strongly as­so­ci­ated with the Napa Val­ley, his move to the wa­ter­front Co­queta in San Fran­cisco has brought a new cui­sine — Span­ish — and some very ‘‘high stakes’’. As he says: ‘‘I’m a coun­try boy come to the city, and the wa­ter­front is no guar­an­tee of suc­cess.’’

The Chiarello em­pire is head­quar­tered in the film­set-per­fect Yountville, Napa’s culi­nary nerve cen­tre (and home to The French Laun­dry), where the pretty high street is flanked by lawns so green as to be hal­lu­ci­na­tory.

Opened in 2008 in an old, ivy­cloaked win­ery, with a life­style store next door, Chiarello’s flag­ship Bot­tega en­cap­su­lates his culi­nary ethos — re­fined, but earthy — and fea­tures ex­posed brick walls and ta­bles set with beaten cop­per tum­blers and gold Frette nap­kins large enough to tuck un­der your chin.

Plenty of folk are here to grab a glimpse of Chiarello, so the restau­rant can some­times feel a bit touristy. But, as the lat­est Za­gat guide notes, Bot- tega is a ‘‘rel­a­tive bar­gain for the area’’ and it’s of­ten ‘‘tough to get in’’.

Draw­ing on Chiarello’s south­ern Ital­ian roots, the food is mar­vel­lous in­deed, ex­hibit­ing a Cal­i­for­nian pro­duce-driven bold­ness an­chored by what he likes to call ‘ ‘ deep knowl­edge’’. That’s an in­gre­di­ent miss­ing in many younger chefs, he says, who are just as likely to turn to the in­ter­net to learn how to make pro­sciutto. ‘‘When I make pro­sciutto, I’m think­ing of my mother’s hands rub­bing salt on the ham . . . of the 40 days and 40 nights . . . or spend­ing weeks with [fel­low Ital­ian tele­vi­sion chef] Lidia Bas­tianich learn­ing the craft.’’ Chiarello trav­els to St Louis, Mis­souri, four times a year to make cured meat in batches. ‘‘We’ve been mak­ing salami since be­fore it was sa­lumi,’’ he jokes.

And he’s j ust as fussy about his greens, sourc­ing as much as pos­si­ble lo­cally. Bot­tega’s shaved Brus­sels sprout salad is a rev­e­la­tion, tossed with a creamy, whole Meyer lemon dress­ing and scat­tered with toasted Mar­cona al­monds, shaved egg and pecorino. ‘‘We have a guy do­ing noth­ing but slic­ing sprouts on a man­dolin all day.’’ I’d go back again any day just to have this dish, fol­lowed by the fat, hand- rolled spaghetti tossed with hen-of-the-woods mush­rooms, gulf prawns and Cal­abrian chilli.

The move to Span­ish cui­sine has been years in the mak­ing; Chiarello does noth­ing quickly — he took sev­eral years off (‘‘my mid-life cri­sis’’) to learn to grow grapes or­gan­i­cally. It be­gan when he and his wife vis­ited Spain to source prod­ucts for their cat­a­logue store Na­paStyle. ‘‘I slowly be­gan to fall in love with the food, then my daugh­ter Mar­gaux moved to Madrid six years ago to study.

‘‘At Co­queta, I’ve tried to cre­ate a re­lax­ing en­vi­ron­ment . . . the wa­ter is very heal­ing and food tastes bet­ter when there’s a bit of space around it.’’

Work­ing with chef de cui­sine Ryan McIlwraith, Chiarello has spent two years re­search­ing and re­fin­ing recipes for a de­cep­tively sim­ple tapas line-up.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the de­li­cious chicken cro­que­tas. ‘ ‘ We’ve added some gela­tine to the bechamel which melts and dis­ap­pears to cre­ate a more liq­uid cen­tre,’’ he says, while half the bread crumbs are ac­tu­ally de­hy­drated chicken skin.

With an at­ten­tion to de­tail born of many years of hard graft, Cal­i­for­nia’s Mr Nice Guy celebrity chef is a more than wel­come ad­di­tion to San Fran­cisco’s wa­ter­front.

Napa Val­ley restau­rant Bot­tega and, right, owner-chef Michael Chiarello

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