Celebrity chef’s California dream
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