The Host with the Most
Far too often, holiday entertaining is stressful instead of celebratory.
But with the help of unflappable celebrity chef Michael Chiarello, hosting the
perfect party can be easy and fun—all while pleasing guests’ palates with simple,
healthy dishes inspired by organic, local and seasonal ingredients.
Anxious holiday party hosts, meet your savior—celebrity chef Michael Chiarello. A restauranteur, entrepreneur, winemaker and Emmy Award-winning host of Food Network’s Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello, Chiarello demonstrates time and time again with his trademark relaxed, congenial style what party hosting should be: A casual, fun event full of spiritual, social and sensory gratification. To realize this vision, Chiarello creates low-maintenance dishes that allow quality ingredients’ intense flavors to shine through. For Chiarello, who defines his unique cuisine with sustainable, regional eating, these ingredients are best found at the peak of their season from farmers and local artisans in his home, California’s Napa Valley.
With its sublime pastoral beauty, rolling hills and endless vineyards, Napa Valley closely resembles southern Italy—so it’s no surprise that Chiarello, true to his Italian heritage, chose to settle here. Naturally, Chiarello took advantage of his locale to launch Chiarello Family Vineyards (www.chiarellovineyards.com), a biodiesel-powered operation that makes small batches of organic, handcrafted wines from grapes he personally farms on acreage surrounding his residence. In addition, as a byproduct of his seeking to capture the region’s essence in lifestyle home goods and artisanal specialty foods, Chiarello launched NapaStyle (www.napastyle.com), which he is proud to run as a sustainable, fair-trade retail store and catalog business.
But ultimately, it’s all about taste with this enlightened food guru. With an emphasis on local, organic, fresh and seasonal ingredients, Chiarello creates dishes that are not only nutritious and nourishing, but also healthy for the environment and community that surrounds him. Energy Times sat down with Chiarello to discuss his sustainable eating philosophy and solutions for simplifying holiday entertaining.
Energy Times: What kind of holiday entertaining tips do you have for hosts who want to throw a great party without stressing out?
Michael Chiarello: There are a number of holiday recipes that we do that can be made in advance. Almost every culture has a long shelf-life series of baked goods that can be done early in the month of December that will last through the entire month so you don’t have to run around to bake a warm chocolate chip cookie. There are also a number of recipes that last a good couple of weeks in the refrigerator, from a marinated Parmesan dip to all the different eggplant caponata spreads.
Other things that you can have around could be cured olives that are reflavored; just pour them out into a serving dish and refrigerate whatever is left over for the next time another guest comes. For the party, all of the ingredients, all of the slicing and dicing and chopping, could, would and should be done the day before you’re going to get going so you actually get to enjoy cooking; it’s like you already had a sous chef do all your prep work. I also think we tend to do too many dishes. If you’re a family that really loves to have 20 different dishes out during the holidays, and you’re the entertainer in the family, push back on your siblings and cousins and everybody else—ask them to do something. Most people want to participate and they’re happy to help along the way.
ET: You’re an olive oil enthusiast and trendsetter. In addition to its healthy omega fatty acids, what makes olive oil so great?
MC: It’s a fantastic, healthful carrier of flavor. Fats are kind of a shortcut to flavor, so I think it’s really key to find fats that you can use that are healthful and versatile at the same time. My mother and father came from a region in Italy where butter was a rarity and very expensive; I didn’t grow up in a culture of butter so when I opened my first big restaurant in Napa Valley, Tra Vigne, I put olive oil on the table. I’m told that’s where that trend started. I tend to think of olive oil like I think of picking different wines. If I’m cooking seafood I’ll pick an olive oil from a region that’s close to the sea because they will inevitably make a lighter olive oil that’s meant to go with their cuisine. If I’m cooking something rustic and Tuscan then I’ll use a Tuscan oil that’s very green.
As far as the whole flavored oil thing, with me it started as a kid...we would make dried tomato paste, put it in a crock and top it with three to four inches of olive oil. Then we’d just go down into the basement all winter long and take a spoonful out of it when we were making a tomato sauce. At the end of the winter you had this amazing flavorful oil that was so awesome to use. It’s a great ingredient to infuse flavors into, so you can take the bounty of a harvest whether you are making basil oil, garlic oil or chili oil. That’s a theory of Mediterranean cooking; it’s a cuisine of preservation, preserving the flavors when you have them to save them for when you don’t.
ET: Wine contains amazing healthful compounds like resveratrol. . .but it also makes us feel good and seems to be good for the soul. What is wine’s mystical secret?
MC: Wine is a beverage that is 95% of the time used in celebration, so when you hear the sound of the cork popping, it triggers all those endorphin-like feelings; it even reminds you of past celebrations with friends and family around the table giving toasts. I think it’s always graced the table in good times at the beginning of a great meal. As a cook I decide what I’m going to eat, then I try to find wine that has a good story that goes with the food I’m serving. It doesn’t always have to be expensive, but having a purpose is key.
ET: Your food seems to be effortlessly healthy, loaded with colorful organic fruits and vegetables.
MC: I think that healthful ingredients clarify in your mind’s stethoscope to how your body is acting and reacting. . .if I’m eating trashy food I have a hard time finding my center; the chemicals cloud my thoughts and it begins to create almost an addiction to the chemical.
ET: Can you discuss your sustainable eating philosophy?
MC: Growing up in a farming family—and being a farmer myself now, farming 20 acres of organic grapes for my own wine and winery—we have always understood how important it is to both farm and eat sustainably. We never pick more than we can eat or preserve. Ours is a very modest family; waste is never part of the equation. It used to be that the most modest families in America ate closer and more regionally because it was less expensive. When you buy snap peas in the middle of snap pea season they’re coming in by the truckloads and they’re very inexpensive. Now, with our kind of corn-fed culture of fast food and dollar burgers, we’ve kind of come off that. But growing up, we would pick wild mustard greens or wild mushrooms in season, or pick canning tomatoes after the commercial operations picked their harvest.
We always chose farmers who were organic. My mother preached it, not just for your health but for flavor. If you’re really concentrating on flavor you’re going to eat more regionally and seasonally; the natural next step is to eat more organically. I’ve always felt that 90% of the creativity of a cook came from their ingredients collection, and that part of great taste and flavor is relationships. If you know the rabbit farmer that you got a rabbit from, and you go to the farmers’ market and you see your tomato guy, and you see the guy that grows the organic white runner beans and you go home and you do a fricassee of the rabbit with those three ingredients...you’re adding flavor to it because you’re adding a sense of community. It’s not just how does it taste but how does it feel; what the community flavors are that you’re feeling at the same time.
ET: What are your favorite foods for energy?
MC: Fruits and vegetables are the key to maintaining a constant energy level with me. I also am a huge believer in a couple times a year going through a cleanse. I do an herb cleanse and have a juice fast; I start with a week of just vegetables, no caffeine. I stop all starches, white grains, wheat, caffeine and alcohol, everything for a week. Week two it goes off into a meal once a day, then starting the juice components with my cleansing additives like cayenne and psyllium husks. I finish off the last ten days with straight juice and psyllium husks, and herbs and supplements along the way. It is the closest thing I have found to what a child must feel like if you’re five or six and your body just hasn’t been brutalized with life and stress and all those things. A couple of times a year I like to stop my frantic pace and give my body a chance to clean up. I think our Buddhist friends have it right: Bodily health and spiritual health increase your ability to listen to your own body, which also increases your ability to listen to your community and the planet.
ET: What’s coming up on your horizon?
MC: I’m really enjoying making wine, I’m also CEO of NapaStyle, and it’s a very interesting challenge to bring my sustainable point of view into retail. I’ve been working on NapaStyle for about seven years and it’s been great; we do a lot of reclaimed materials, which I’m a big believer in. I buy wood from barns that have been taken down, I take apart barrels from my winery, and we turn it into all kinds of different furniture. Again, we talk about the difference between taste and flavor: a table can do more than just hold your plate, it can have a story and a heritage unto itself that can participate in the quality and the flavor of a meal. Also, if you look into our communities of artisans, we try like mad to stay out of countries that are labor advantaged and we like to buy from as close to the families as we can. We believe in fair and sustainable trade practices, and try to bring it as local as we can. I’m also dreaming of opening a little restaurant, and I just joined Food & Wine Magazine.
ET: Why is it so important for us to meet with friends and family to share food and drink at the holidays?
MC: Just as doing a cleanse resets your body health, I think that friends and family help reset your emotional health. At the time of the year when we’re supposed to be slowing down, we’ve kind of pushed our clocks a little bit too far. But this is the time where it’s dark a lot longer, we get a chance to rest and to celebrate and to hear the stories of what’s really important. As a parent of four, as I’m telling the stories of my family to my children during the holidays or making these dishes that I grew up on, they get a chance to have that same heritage as they grow up. When you understand the health of a community and how you could, would and should be feeling during the day, I think the rest of the year you live in increased consciousness.