Blending culinary influences from the south of Italy with a distinctly Napa style, Michael Chiarello was named Chef of the Year by Food & Wine Magazine just three years after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. As a winemaker, Chiarello Vineyards has repeatedly received top marks, including 92 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate for the 2009 Eileen Cabernet Sauvignon. As a restaurateur, his Napa Valley Bottega restaurant has been named best newcomer by Zagat, top 10 by Forbes and top 20 by Esquire. As a Food Network star, and host of Easy Entertaining, he won an Emmy. Whatever Chef Chiarello does, he does it right.
We spoke with Chef Chiarello about appearing on Next Iron Chef, his passion for cycling, and of course, his love for music.
There’s a natural intersection between food and music. In the restaurant setting the pace of the kitchen doesn’t always allow for it, but when you’re at home preparing a meal for family and friends, what are some of your favorite artists/albums to cook to?
Prep – I go to my country roots; Gretchen Wilson or Latino rock, my good friends Los Lobos, something classic like “Wolf Tracks.”
Cooking – One Republic, Bruno Mars, Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl is a friend and Bottega regular) and Cold Play.
Clean up – CCR! If you have to ask, you’re too young!
Define “NapaStyle,” what is it/ how do you live it? Does NapaStyle have a sound?
NapaStyle is a relaxed elegance that has texture, a rich palette of colors with the wonderfully passionate backdrop of flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert. Words get in the way of the Napa music, let the vineyards sing.
Pair the Chiarello Vineyard wine with a song (each wine is named after a member of the Chiarello family).
2008 Eileen Cabernet Sauvignon – Lenny Kravitz “American Woman,” sexy song from a sexy man for my super sexy wife! She’s my American Woman.
2009 Bambino Cabernet Sauvignon – One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” reminds me of our son Aidan’s first concert performance (Bambino is his wine), he’s our Pop Prince.
2011 Chiara Bianco Ribolla Gialla – “I Loved Her First” by Heartland. This is the white wine poured at my daughter’s wedding this year and the song I chose as my first dance!
2010 Felicia Old Vine Zinfandel – Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It brings out the art in my artist daughter, her go-to feel-good song.
2010 Giana Zinfandel – Band Perry, “Walk me down the middle.” Giana is my lil’ country girl living in a big city looking for the boy who will “walk her down the middle” of their life.
You’ve referred to the ‘living décor’ of your restaurants – what role does music play in the dining experience?
Music provides the high-notes that move the dance along, making everyone feel good.
You recently threw your “toque in the ring,” competing on the Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef,” what’s that experience like?
Like competing underwater in a cartoon: Sponge Bob Cooks. Seriously fun, intense, stressful and did I say fun?
You’re also an avid cyclist. Having travelled the world, what are some of your favorite rides?
I have had three epic rides this year. Stage one of the Tour of California a couple of hours before the pros (with Chris Carmichael, Lance’s trainer). Stage 11 of Tour de France, in the French Alps, was the single hardest ride I’ve ever done. The Pinnarello Granfondo in Treviso, Italy, a classic giro loop of 100 miles in the Dolomites, a perfect day (until I crashed) but I finished strong.
How about your favorite songs to ride to?
Cycling in the mountains – Green Day.
Cycling on the flatta – (Believe it or not) Lady GaGa, she keeps my pace up.
Do you remember the first album you ever connected with?
My brother is 12 years older than me and he used to play a Joan Biaz album all the time.
What kind of impression did it leave on you?
That album taught me that you can have an inspired statement written into song lyrics.
What about live shows? Which was your first?
Which was your favorite?
Are there genres of music you absolutely can’t stand?
Any music that takes advantage of another gender, race or religion.
If you could have dinner with any musician, living or dead, who would that be?
What would you cook that musician, if given the chance?
I would cook him a medley of dishes inspired by his greatest hits.
What music have you discovered in the last year that excites you?
For a full playlist of Chef Chiarello’s favorite songs, click here