Anyone who loves food entertainment knows celebrity chef Michael Chiarello. He has his own Food Network show, Easy Entertaining. He was a top competitor in both The Next Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters. His gorgeous Napa Valley restaurant, Bottega, attracts a mile-long list of famous athletes and celebrities.
But people may not realize Chef Chiarello is also passionate about sustainable farming on his own Napa Valley vineyard. And he has some insightful theories as to why Americans’ food consumption has increased in recent years.
I interviewed Chef Chiarello to learn more about his new show Supermarket Superstar (airing on Lifetime on Thursdays at 10:30PM), which follows home chefs as they pitch their products to titans of the food world for the opportunity to have their creation launched nationally in a major grocery chain.
He was a very friendly, engaging person who had a lot of interesting things to say, about both his new show as well as food in general:
Q. What do you like most about your new show, Supermarket Superstar?
MC: This is something that all people, as consumers, are experts in. Watching me in the kitchen, [viewers] don't necessarily follow everything I'm doing. [But with Supermarket Superstar], every consumer is an expert at this. They can play along and consider: Would I buy that? Do I need that? Do I believe in that product and what [that contestant] is doing?
Q. And what did you most enjoy about the process of filming the show?
MC: Getting to know who the contestants were as people and learning about their personal stories.
Q. What were you looking for in the products contestants developed?
MC: Does it taste great? Is it a product that America needs? Or a product they don't know they need yet? Is it at a good price point? Does it make you say, "Oh my God! I can't believe no one has thought of that yet!"
Q. How does this show compare to your experiences on Top Chef Masters and The Next Iron Chef?
MC: Top Chef was a measured risk [for my career]. But Supermarket Superstar is also a risk. The quality of contestants will improve with each season of Supermarket Superstar, just as they did on Top Chef. The contestants are great right now, and there's only room to grow.
Q. So, having experienced both sides now, do you prefer competing or judging?
MC: It's funny. It's television. So, for [my] brand, [I] have so much more control on the judging side. But at the same time, I'm also hyper-competitive. So I love the adrenaline rush and being right in the middle of it.
Q. That’s interesting. So, at this point in your career, do you feel like you’re able to take risks to the degree that you used to?
MC: It's tough. My new restaurant [Coqueta, in San Francisco] was a giant risk that a lot of chefs would never take. Supermarket Superstar is a risk too, being on a network not known for food.
Q. You’ve mentioned your new show, a new restaurant, and you also have a new cookbook, in addition to other projects. How do you juggle it all?
MC: I focus on my highest good. I concentrate most of my time where the product meets the customer. But my true passion and my highest calling is cooking.
Q. So, considering all the projects you’re involved in, you’d say your true passion, above all else, is being in the kitchen, cooking?
MC: Yes, being a restaurateur and a chef. Seeing people sitting at a table, their eyes lighting up, as they learn to appreciate the experience of eating good food.
Q. So many of us are still searching for our passion. When did you first discover yours?
MC: It's funny, I found it really young. All I ever wanted to be was a chef. I grew up in a very humble way, but you can always find wealth in the kitchen, through the food that you create.
Q. I know sustainable farming is important for you now. Was that always a focus?
MC: I come from a farming and ranching family. Back in the days when [it was commonplace to have] a family of six, the labor was free and it was more expensive to buy chemicals. So [sustainable farming has always been] a part of me.
And it is a way of life. [Concerning the state of the planet,] everyone's afraid "we're too far gone." But [I know from my farming background that] the planet is super durable. You just need a conscious change.
Michael goes on to describe his personal goal to help people rediscover the joy of finding a relationship with their food. He is concerned that as a culture, we have become too concerned with nutrition labels and convenience foods.
MC: [I’m concerned that] we've removed our relationship with our food. We've also lost the heritage of the dishes and the relationship with family.
My theory is that we have increased our consumption of food to make up that debt.
Here's an example: I'd rather see a kid eat a half-and-half-laden macaroni and cheese in a 4-ounce portion than a packaged “low-fat” mac and cheese (that doesn't resemble anything the child’s grandmother used to make) in a 19-ounce portion.
I prefer to look at the flavor per calorie. For example, compare a processed cheese product for $2.69 to a $14/pound Parmigiano-Reggiano. You'd need 9 tablespoons of that [processed cheese product] before you'd begin to taste the cheese. And then that's all you'd taste. You wouldn't taste anything else. I'd much rather someone take that $14 full fat cheese and use a smaller amount. This leaves room for more layers of flavor too.
Q. Considering that passion you have for food, what has been your most memorable meal?
MC: I remember my mom making gnocchi for me and teaching me how to do it. Something about that dish, it has always been my choice for my birthday meal.
Chef Chiarello goes on to describe an amazing dining experience he had in Northern Italy, a true feast of foods “all attached to the ground, without any bells and whistles,” involving “guinea hen stuffed with local truffles.”
This prompts my last question:
Q. So do you plan to ever write a book about your life?
MC: No, I'd rather be living it! You'd have to stop living your life to write a book about your life.
Q. And you'd rather be cooking, right?
MC: Yes, I'd rather be cooking!
If you want to hear more from Michael on the food industry, check out his latest blog on the Huffington Post.