The TH Interview: Celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello

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I'm what they call a "Foodie." Not only do I love to eat, cook and try new food but I also promote it on a daily basis. Whenever I travel I visit the local farmstands and delis (the Oakville Grocer in Napa happens to be a favorite), I get excited when a new restaurant opens and I watch the Food Network a lot (okay, i'll admit maybe a little obsessively). One of my favorite shows that I look forward to is "Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello." In his show, Mr. Chiarello uses fresh and local ingredients making all of his dishes even more appetizing. He focuses on family, lifestyle, tradition and flavorful foods that can be enjoyed each season. In addition to being a chef, Mr. Chiarello also owns Chiarello Family Vineyards and has an online store called NapaStyle, which we love. Each piece, and there are approximately 1,000 pieces, on the site is personally designed, hand-picked and tested by Mr. Chiarello. NapaStyle reflects an eclectic mix of eco-friendly, hand-crafted and exclusive home goods as well as artisanal specialty foods of his creation. Recently, Mr. Chiarello announced that in September he will be opening the first and flagship NapaStyle store in Berkeley, CA. The big news: 75% of the fixtures in the store will be from salvaged materials. I'll surely be making a visit next time I'm in Napa Valley. We were recently given the opportunity to ask Mr. Chiarello a few questions about his thoughts on food and sustainability. Here's what he had to say:

Mr. Chiarello, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. Napa Valley is known for its fresh produce - what does "eating locally" mean to you?MC: Eating locally means frequenting farmers markets, seeking seasonal and local produce from your grocer (meet the produce manager, and ASK for what YOU want from their store), supporting regional artisan purveyors of cheeses, and meats, and if possible dairy products, and doing as much of your own gardening (or community gardening) as possible. Good sources of local produce are also co-ops, health food stores, and increasingly, home delivery of weekly organic produce boxes.

It also means seasonal eating, which tends to help you stay honest about local eating. Right now, summer time, I'm eating tomatoes, melons, stone fruit and cherries every day, but I'm not eating apples. If you check the apple stickers, sure enough they are coming from South America or New Zealand right now. I think if you can change 50% of your eating into seasonal eating, that goes a long way.

I think we ought to also broaden the topic from eating locally to living seasonally and sustainably, which I try to uphold in my NapaStyle line of artisan foods and hand-crafted home goods. Also, I farm 20-acres of vineyards for my Chiarello Family Vineyards wines in a sustainable fashion; we make mulch out of the grape pulp after crush, and turn vineyard prunings into ash pottery. While these pieces are farmed organically, I'm more interested in making decisions that allow the land to sustain itself naturally than in getting the USDA Organic sticker on my wine label.

Who or what inspired you to become a chef and do you use locally grown/organic produce?

MC: I was raised in a family of food purveyors; we made our own cheese, cured meats, preserved produce and made wine. When I began my own restaurants, ingredients were the key to distinguishing my style of cooking from others, so we made everything ourselves at the restaurant. And yes, I would always turn to local purveyors, often collaborating on the produce we would grow. I believe that at this point in time, buying locally from smaller producers is better and becoming more meaningful than the organic label. Consumers will want to know if a brand represents mass-farming organic or if it comes from a more sustainably farmed business.

Are the grapes for your wine grown organically and do you practice sustainable farming?

MC: I farm the vineyards myself with my vineyard manager, and yes, I do farm organically and sustainably. I will not pursue organic certification but we live on this land, and it is just as important for the health of my family as it is for my values that this land be a healthy and balanced ecosystem. Since taking it over, we've watched the layers of plant and animal life come back into existence. Its extraordinarily rewarding.

I love your show and your cookbooks - what advice do you have for food lovers like myself about eating healthy and locally?

MC: I find that the more local, artisanal, and seasonal you eat, the simpler your cooking and the higher your satisfaction. Take the time to really discover what is around your area, and plan your meals based on seasonal freshness. Youll be amazed how much more satisfying and flavorful your food will be. Also, turn to high-flavor, low fat ingredients: chilis, citrus, herbs, spice rubs, vinegars, mustard. Make vinaigrettes from roasted red peppers, tomatoes, whole lemons or other citrus, and fresh fruits. Specialize in a few things first, then once youve mastered them, use the techniques across the year on different in-season flavors. Have fun, and give your self permission to mess up, but my numer one rule of entertaining? Never test something for the first time on your dinner guests!

Photo biline: Michael Chiarello, founder of NapaStyle and Chiarello Family Vineyards, and Emmy-winning Food Network personality