I recently had the opportunity to sit down with wine country chef Michael Chiarello at his Orange County branch of NapaStyle, inside South Coast Plaza. A storyteller by nature, he charmed his way through a condensed version of our On The Line series before conducting a demonstration of fresh burrata caprese from his Bottega cookbook. For a little insight on the gentleman behind Easy Entertaining and Chiarello Family Vineyards, uncork the vino and take a seat.
Tell us about NapaStyle's wine bar and your happy hour?
I'm a firm believer of "like what you drink and drink what you like." You don't just get a tasting, you get a 'tastication'. I love to shop and drink, and drink and shop. James, our store manager, selects all the wines for happy hour.
What are six words to describe your food?
Unctuous, provocative, savory, flavorful, approachable, celebratory.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen:
We innovate once you learn how to do it right. Opinions are something that is earned. Everything is in its place, and there's a place for everything.
You're a very busy man. What made you want to compete on Next Iron Chef 4?
Being a chef today is more like a sport, so cooking in competitions is a natural extension of that. It's a battle of super chefs, not your normal Iron Chef talent.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Olive oil-basted eggs. We take a Calabrian chile with the olive oil, and barely barely [Editor's Note: Yes, he said it twice.] warm it up. It's absolutely delicious. Then we just baste it over the egg. Then we take prosciutto in a non-stick pan and make it crispy. We also add bruschetta, maybe sliced tomato.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of?
Hummus. I buy them by the threes. It's not a guilty pleasure; it's like the original fast food. (When) I come home at 10:30/11 p.m., I'm done cooking for the day. I grab a glass of wine, salami, a piece of cheese and crackers, and I'm done.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Salt salt salt salt salt. It's the only ingredient that goes in every single thing we make. It's a trampoline for flavor.
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What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
I'd probably be a farmer. I farm now. I never wanted to be anything but a chef. There's a lot of businesses I'm in that have come out of being a chef: NapaStyle, the wine business, television, writing. They've all kind of come through the same door.
What dish would you tell newcomers to Bottega to try first?
I wouldn't give somebody a dish. I'd talk to them for a second. I'd take them up to entrees, because for some reason they are personal. I'll do a little family-style antipasto of 5 or 6 things; do a couple of rounds of small bites. I would take them through the menu based on the weather, who the people are, what their experiences are, how they're dressed. I like to find out where they are from. A 40-yard throw for a 20-yard receiver doesn't do you any good unless you catch the ball.
What advice do you have for those who might be thinking about a career in food?
My youngest daughter is going to CIA in the fall, and I'm sort of testing a lot of my career advice - not always with the best success. I tend to ask them to cook with their heart. This isn't a business that is fun at all unless you're good at it. You really have to be able to find out where the balance where the balance is if there is one. You have to look at a career over an arc, because every decision you're making is adding powder to the trajectory of your career.