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.