Interview with TV Chef Michael Chiarello
What was your first big break on TV?
"I had done a series of four half-hour entertaining shows for Fox when I was 27 or 28. So I had a taste for it. I was picked up by PBS when I was doing a presentation and the director of programming was there. There were 250 people watching, and I love live audiences. I had a wireless mic and just cut loose. And they said, ’Wow! There’s something here.’"
What do you think distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"I try to portray that where you eat is as important as what you eat. I try to concentrate on the cook—what’s the experience that they have? How can I help them be a guest at their own party? Can I share a sense of place? One of the things we do is show the valley, the harvest and other things that are going on in Napa. We do parties that are topical, whether it’s at the pool or a little-league party, so it’s not just all about this wine-country life. It’s really, what problems can I solve for people in their everyday lives? How can I bring a certain point of view? We try to weave stories into every dish. That storytelling is the terroir of cooking and entertaining. If there wasn’t a story that went with the dish, you wouldn’t call it entertaining, you’d call it inviting people over to eat."
What are some of the best recipes that you’ve made on-air?
"I did a polenta party where we poured the polenta out on the table—it’s a one-course meal, right? My favorite kind. You take five gallons of polenta and pour it over an eight-foot table covered in butcher paper, and you pass out grilled meats, sausages, two or three different sauces, and condiments and sautéed rapini, and everybody just kind of takes their fork and marks off how much they want to eat and goes after it. And you give them tumblers of Zinfandel poured out of magnums. That’s one of my favorite things to show, because it really is a diner-participation meal.
"I love to do my version of a shrimp or lobster boil as part of my New Year’s Day tradition. We do it at 3 P.M., when the hangover’s worked over. It’s the same kind of thing: pot after pot of shrimp and artichokes and potatoes and lemons and onions and whole garlic and shellfish and lobster dumped out onto the table, and everybody brings their own spices and makes their own bib, and nobody sits down. "Those are the things I love to show people on television. I love to show how to cook out of the fireplace; to move the location of where you might cook or where you might serve. Those are the things I love—to do a full-on summer picnic in front of the fireplace in the winter. My job on television is to take a dish that everybody understands and present it in a way that they couldn’t imagine. When TV chefs say, ’I’m here to educate,’ well, I’m not here to educate; I’m here to elaborate. Take one dish, master it until you can do it blindfolded, present it in an interesting way, and make it your own."
Have you ever had something go awry while filming? What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV?
"Every once in a while I’ll do a recipe from somebody in the valley who I really love, and who’s a great cook. This one pastry chef is so brilliant that I knew the recipe was going to be nailed. But the kitchen didn’t tell me that their version of this blackberry tart was a little wetter. So I pull this tart out of the oven in front of my guest and kind of whip it around in television motion, and there’s literally, like, soup on the top of this scalding tart filling, and it goes right onto the chest of this woman in her white shirt. So we had to do a bit of triage on her because there were body parts burning, and everything kind of stopped. How did we fix it? We fixed it by filming her back, with her side to me. So we took a ’twin’ tart from the kitchen and tweaked the thing a little bit, with me handing her just a bite, so the shot was her looking over her shoulder saying, ’Wow! That’s amazing!’
"I was also once doing a brown-butter vinaigrette with a serious home cook who I’ve cooked a lot with before and is dynamite on camera. And the butter is browning and I’m going through my thing, ’Wait until the foam goes down and then, boom! We need to go in with a big squeeze of lemon juice.’ For some reason—I’ve done this 40,000 times, or whatever—some of the lemon juice got underneath all of this boiling fat and created Nagasaki, and it was, like, in slow motion. I saw a mushroom cloud of boiling fat at 500 degrees beginning to come up, and it was like, ’Noooooooooooooo!’ So I pushed my guest off to the side with my right hand, and with my left hand, I pushed the pan as far away from me as I could. I tilted it forward, and the camera was staying on me. So we got a great shot of this thing exploding in slow motion. And it didn’t just do it once, it did it a second time when I took the pan back. Finally, I said, ’To hell with it!’ and I took the pan and hit the deck. Thank God that was one that we could actually reshoot."