A Taste of Nirvana in Napa with Chef Michael Chiarello

Chef Michael Chiarello, of the restaurant Bottega in California, describes his cooking style.

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For a foodie like me, going to Napa was like sending a child to a toy shop – a thrilling and somewhat overwhelming experience. I did my homework before I got on the plane and asked some of my esteemed colleagues to fill me in on their favorite restaurants and wineries. I wasn't surprised when they gave me lists long enough to fill a thesis. But one restaurant, called Bottega, consistently stood out from the rest.

Bonnie Taub-Dix
Bonnie Taub-Dix
Although the food, atmosphere and service at Bottega were superb, chef/owner Michael Chiarello deserved the loudest applause. As a cookbook author, TV superstar, vintner and entrepreneur, Chiarello seemed to exemplify a recipe for success. The evening we dined there, he sat and chatted with us – and also allowed me to share a slice of his life with you in this interview. You'll see that Chiarello brings much more than just food to the table by setting an example for his family and for all those who appreciate the role food plays in the fabric of our lives.

BTD: What was your household like growing up? Did your mom cook?

MDC: All of my family is from Calabria in Southern Italy, so I had a very Italian upbringing including farming, ranching and growing and preserving our own food. Half my family moved to California and the rest remained in Italy. I grew up in a culturally wealthy family, but not financially wealthy. I remember hanging out in the kitchen with my mom – that's how we played, while cooking together.

[Read: How to Have a Plant-Based BBQ.]

BTD: When did the light bulb go off for you when you realized that cooking was going to be your passion and profession?

MDC: First grade, when we were asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I knew then that I wanted to be a chef in a gourmet restaurant.

BTD: I know you grew up surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables, and you certainly bring out the best in them. But has the more recent push for healthier, leaner cuisine effected your style of cooking at all?

MDC: It has always been the way we cooked – we didn't rely on butter and cream, especially in Southern Italy. It wasn't, "Do you want zucchini?" It was, "What do we want to do with this zucchini tonight?"

[Read: Unusual Uses for Greek Yogurt.]

BTD: Do you cook at home for your children, and do they share your passion for cooking?

MDC: My children all went to market with us – they were born into the food business. They grew up with the ideology of food being the center of mind. All of my girls worked at Tra Vigne [the restaurant Michael worked at in St. Helena, Calif.]. Another daughter of mine worked at Bottega, and she is graduating tomorrow from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I never planned on them being chefs, but they grew up popping in and out of the restaurant business.

BTD: I love when my kids help me cook, but sometimes it's hard for me to pass along the whisk, so to speak, and let someone else cook. Is it difficult to leave the cooking to someone else, like a chef de cuisine in one of your restaurants?

MDC: It gives me joy to work with a chef like Brian Bistrong at Bottega. He is very farm- and produce-oriented, and he brings a lot to our collaborations. We always work side by side; we enjoy working together and we balance each other out. "Hey, let's try it this way," or "Taste mine," are some of the exchanges we have. It's an interesting process.

BTD: Do you have a favorite recipe?

MDC: I love to make gnocci and pasta. I especially remember making pasta as a small boy, feeling the weight of my mom's arm over my shoulder.

[Read: Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]

BTD: What are your kitchen must-haves?

MDC: I stock ingredients that go in all the things I cook: salt from Brittany in France, olive oil, vinegars and mustards. Although I don't eat a lot of cured meat, you don't need to eat a lot to add flavor. It's also important to have a powerful food processor, a Vitamix for grinding and a Champion juicer for creating sauces. I also have three knives that are uniquely mine – everyone knows that they're mine.

Michael went on to say, "I learned and loved to celebrate life through food every day, throughout the seasons." No matter what time of year, you can visit his brand new restaurant, Coqueta, in San Francisco on your way up to Napa, or go to his website for his insight, inspiration and mouth-watering photographs. His latest venture, a TV show called "Supermarket Superstar," premiers on Lifetime on July 22.

And while you're waiting … Mangia!

[See: Video: Top Chefs Talk Healthy Eating.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.