Monthly Archives: March 2010

Michael Chiarello and Bottega: Best Seat in the House

Napa was more than just a trip filled with excessive wine drinking and gluttonous indulgence of fine cuisine–it was a place where I fulfilled a lifelong dream.

Every gastronome secretly obsesses over meeting a celebrity chef.  You strategically plan visits to the “hottest” restaurants when there is a slight possibility that the genius behind the succulent short ribs you are devouring may just have a second to greet his groupies.  When I visited Santuary at Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona Beau MacMillian, (host of  “Worst Cooks in America” and culinary God) often popped out to rub elbows with Scottsdale’s heavy hitters.  I, being a second class citizen enjoying an off-season rate, stared and groveled until my husband had enough embarrassment for one evening and pulled me away.

There was also the time when I was sitting blissfully with a croissant and latte in Bouley Bakery when David Bouley had to rush out of his kitchen to take a call on his cell – “no reception” was the complaint.  The starchy white coat with gold embroidering sent chills up my spine –the doctor of French fare had arrived.  And just as soon as he swiveled by, he quickly disappeared behind the double doors to the fiery abyss of his kitchen.

Both of those experiences were pleasing but nothing compared to the evening I spent in Napa at Bottega restaurant, owned by the sexy Michael Chiarello, host of Easy Entertaining with Micheal Chiarello.  On this fairytale of a night, the stars aligned just for me. I tried to tell myself that it was the shaved brussels sprout salad, or the creamy mozzarella burrata with butternut squash, or even the perfectly plump- melt-in your- mouth ricotta gnocchi drizzled with salsa di pomodoro della Nonna–but no– it was something so much more than the incredible food.

After checking in with the restaurant’s hostess, my husband and I were escorted to our table.  Distracted by the beautifully rustic decor, it was not until I reached the table that I saw three cameramen filming Chiarello himself.  Heart palpitations and an onset of perspiration took over my body. I gazed over to the open kitchen area where Chiarello was laughing and showing off one of his innovative dishes for the show.

The night was just getting started as the wine flowed, appetizers arrived and Chiarello continued to film.  My neck eventually became sore from twisting every few seconds to get a glimpse of the celebrity chef and to assure myself that he was still in the room. After about ten minutes the show was shut down and Chiarello left the kitchen.  I was completely heartbroken over his departure but tried my best to not let it ruin our dinner.

When the main course arrived I noticed several waiters setting the table next to us with great care. The linens were smoothed over gently and the silverware given a last minute polish.  A very attractive blond-hair, blue-eyed man in a designer suit was escorted over, and told that the chef would join him momentarily. His eyes scanned the room, then widened when he found what he was looking for.  As I searched to find the person he was signaling to, Mr. Chiarello himself walked towards us and sat down at the man’s table.

I could feel my face generating immense heat as I tried to hold back the enormous grin I felt my lips forming.  My husband smiled at me and tried to start a normal conversation, but it was no use. I just “yesed” and “um hmmed” here and there while straining to hear the conversation next to us. The handsome mystery man was a French winemaker that was an old friend of Chiarello.  He came to discuss the opening of a new vineyard in Napa and Michael was offering advice on how to get started.

I continued to delicately chew each pleasurable bite of my gnocchi stopping to spew comments of praise in hopes that Michael would hear how much I adored his dishes.

“How’s the food?”

I nearly choked as I forced the bite I had just placed in my mouth down my throat whole.  I looked up and tried to act casual.

“It’s unbelievable!” (O.K. so the casual thing didn’t work.)

“Glad you’re enjoying it.  Please allow me to introduce myself– I’m Michael Chiarello and this is my friend Pierre.”

Michael placed his hand out for me to shake it.

“Ssso nice to meet you,” I faltered.

“How about a photo?” I’ll take you and your husband and then we can get one together.”

I nearly fell to the floor. “Absolutely!” I replied.

Michael wanted a picture with ME? Had I missed something? Did I put some kind of altruistic karma into the universe that day to deserve such an privilege?

Whatever it was, I was not going to sit around trying to figure it out for another second. I slid beside him and smiled away.  After our sultry photo shoot (O.K. so maybe it was just me sweating from excitement), Pierre began sharing stories of his family’s vineyard and of being a winemaker. Michael ordered dessert for my husband and I, and when the molten cake arrived he drove a spoon into the top forcing the cake to slightly crumble into the gooey goodness of the warm liquid chocolate.

The dessert was divine, and when I realized I could no longer pretend to be drinking coffee that had been gone for over ten minutes, I signaled to my husband that it was time to leave.  I, in no way, wanted Michael to think I was some star-struck groupie.  Integrity was important in leaving gracefully and ending the night on a starry note.  We thanked the chef for the fantastic food and said “au revoir” to Pierre.

As we exited Bottega, I looked back one more time, and realized I really was just another celebrity chef groupie. So, I figured “what the hell?” and surreptitiously snapped a few more pictures.


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I Left My Heart in Napa Valley

After an obscenely frigid, punishingly long winter the streams of warm air and brilliant rays of sun amidst a playful blue sky seemed to bring all that has hibernated during the darkness of the cold dreary months alive and celebrating the approach of a carefree uninhibited lifestyle.  As I sit here on my porch sipping a glass of Merlot I can’t help but think of a recent trip to Napa where I spent sun-kissed days nestled between interlocking rows of an ambrosial vineyard sampling various creations of skillfully fermented grapes and a variety of delicate and pungent cheeses.

Napa Valley is a destination that can trick the mind into believing that there is truly no reason for any kind of traditional career-but instead- life should be spent drinking and eating off the land that Mother Earth has graciously provided.  You start to say to yourself “I could be a winemaker” waking in the middle of the night to prune the sweetest fruit from swirling vines and dragging the heavy baskets to be churned and mixed until a perfect fermentation has occurred and the skin has coated the juice so that diverse hints of floral and oak saturate this beautiful fusion of flavors.   Thoughts of living in the lackadaisical countryside milking cows and growing organic vegetables during the day while eating out at posh Michelin Star/James Beard restaurants nightly, and sampling some of the world’s finest wines as a weekend errand, stalk your psyche.  You decide you will abandon your crappy suburban town where the weather sucks, nothing grows, and Vitamin D pills are a daily requirement to ward off suicidal thoughts for 6-7 months of the year.

There was so much to love and crave during our visit to Napa and we truly did and still do contemplate moving to sunny California particularly because of the intricate experiences one can have with such indulgences.  One experience that my husband and I reflect upon quite often was a visit to a quaint winery that belonged to a couple furiously in love with the breathtaking valley, its grapes, and one another.  The O’Brien couple visited Napa as breezy lovers on their honeymoon.  As they swayed on a wooden swing looking out onto the horizon of rolling hills, drizzled with vineyards and stunning flora, Mrs. O’ Brien turned to her other-half and made him promise that they would one day own a stretch of land just like the one they were rocking above.  Mr. O’Brien promised his sweetheart that he would make her dreams come true – well, three dot com booms and 20 years later, the couple opened The O’Brien Estate Winery in the heart of Napa Valley.

One of the most perfectly spent days of our trip was in this whimsical grape plantation swinging on a wooden bench hidden among the maze-like rows imbibing Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc just as its owners did 20 years ago.  The staff treated us like old friends that had come to visit their “humble” home, sharing stories of romance and the sassy labels that sparked the beginnings of a poetic business.  It was what I had dreamed of doing since we had booked our getaway – a quintessential wine country experience-no frills, no tours- just you, your lover, the soil, and the grape.

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All is Ephemeral

The link to one’s ancestral homeland is a sentiment that brings most individuals a sense of pride and prejudice.  The foods, spirits, landscapes, and language just seem better than the rest.  It is through these cultural entities, antediluvian traditions, and nagging grandmothers that a sense of great guilt to follow this regimental way of life forms deep within one’s gut.  I have never been one to follow conventional notions or even hold a sense of great respect for these ethics, but something big changed when I witnessed a small yet very powerful gesture of love.

I grew up in your cliché Italian family.  Big, loud, lots and lots of cousins, and meals that could show up any catering hall on any given day.  We are also a very close family-  actually, I would say we are downright intrusive-  if there is something you don’t know about yourself someone will definitely let you, and the rest of the conspirators, in on the secret before you have time to defend what is left of your integrity.  Having said all of that, there is also a lot of love, support, and sacrifice that is shared between us all.

This past week it was my cousin’s 48th birthday.  He has struggled with a rare illness that has caused a tremendous amount of suffering for both him and our family.  So of course every birthday and every holiday has become a celebration of life.  His wife began planning the meal months in advance trying to accommodate her husband’s favorite foods while honoring the staple Italian dishes:  pasta, meat, hoards of bread, fish, some kind of Parmesan concoction, and of course the salad that most never get to.

Before my cousin became ill I could never understand the hype and neuroticism that went into organizing these parties.  My mother would call religiously reminding me of the event and guilting me into coming even if I had RSVP’d to something else months in advance.  To be honest, I dreaded going most of the time for the sheer monotony of the way things always played out: Arrive- bitch, eat- bitch, clean- bitch, eat dessert- bitch, kiss goodnight-bitch.  All the bitching and teasing and screaming little cousins would sometimes cause temporary insanity that could last for days.

Last Sunday my cousin invited me and my immediate family over for the leftovers from the birthday party that she had put her blood, sweat, and tears into.  It was a smaller, quieter meal that allowed for more intimate conversation and appreciation.  The food seemed to taste better than when it was first made, and for those few short hours all I could think about was how incredibly grateful I am to still have my cousin sitting at the head of the table like he always does, laughing, joking, and smiling through the aches and spasms that have become a normality of his daily life.

I once read that “all is ephemeral” and to truly appreciate the blessings we have been given we must examine our own transience.  Those words stuck with me because I often live for the future.  I tend to plan life out in increments of time often missing the everyday nuances and awakenings that should be fueling a passion to live only in the present.  My cousin is someone who has always inspired me through his beautiful attitude, light heart, and ability to make everyone around him laugh and smile.  Even now, with the constant doctor visits, treatments, pain, anguish, frustration, and fear he still, somehow, lives for each day– lives for each moment–  and there can truly be no greater inspiration then seeing one’s own transience and embracing it.

I know that the next time I get the call from my mother saying that there is a “family party” coming up I will instinctively roll my eyes.  The sights of heaping plates of food, unruly cousins, and gossiping women will flood my head, but deep down I will smile knowing that what I have is something exceptional –- something that many others do not have — and I will think of the moments and memories we will share with my cousin and I will be grateful for another meal together.

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