Michael Chiarello Death

Chef and Food Network Celebrity Michael Chiarello Passes Away at Age 61

On Friday in Napa, the dedicated and camera-ready chef Michael Chiarello passed away. His culinary expertise and instinctive aptitude for marketing had helped define a period of Italian-influenced Northern California food and the rustic escapism of the Napa Valley lifestyle. He was 61.

According to his youngest daughter, Giana O’Shaughnessy, he died of anaphylactic shock brought on by an intense allergic response while hospitalized. No one knows what brought on the allergic response. Mr. Chiarello belonged to a group of Northern California chefs who, by the 1980s, had broken away from classic French and Italian techniques.

Long before “farm to table” became a menu cliche, people were substituting olive oil for butter on their bread and using seasonal food and locally made cheese and wine. Later, in 2016, two of his waiters sued him and his restaurant chain, Gruppo Chiarello, for sexual harassment, drawing him and his business into the #MeToo movement.

The matter was resolved out of court, but not before his image had been damaged and his possibilities in the television industry had dried up. Michael Dominic Chiarello was born on January 26, 1962, in the Sacramento Valley city of Red Bluff. He spent his childhood two hundred miles south in the farming community of Turlock, situated on fertile land not far from Modesto.

Michael Chiarello Death

His parents were Italian immigrants from Calabria, and he was their youngest child. His first teacher in the kitchen was his mother, Antoinette (Aiello) Chiarello. Harry Sr. was a banker who had a stroke in his forties that left him paralyzed.

“We never had much money and always had to scrape by,” Mr. Chiarello told The St. Helena Star in 2006. “We foraged for our food. The kitchen table was our entertainment. If we had pasta with porcini mushrooms, we’d talk about how we picked them. How wet and rainy it was that day, or how the truck broke down. There was a story to all the food we brought home, and it made everything taste even better.”

By the time he was 14, he was juggling a job in a restaurant with his schedule at Turlock High School’s wrestling practice and courses. At the age of 22, he had already received degrees in hotel and restaurant management from both Florida International University in Miami and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

When he launched his first restaurant in Miami in 1984 and was selected chef of the year by Food & Wine magazine in 1985, he began to get national acclaim for his food, but this did not sit well with his father.

“When I decided to be a chef, it wasn’t what it is today. It was just a trade, not sexy like today,” he said in the 2006 interview. “I remember my father was concerned about me. One of my brothers is a Ph.D., one an attorney. I was a cook. He’d say, ‘The family came all this way from Italy. He could have done that over there.’”

Mustards Grill, owned by Cindy Pawlcyn, a pioneering Yountville roadhouse with a massive wine list where the great winemakers of the day would stroll in covered in farm dirt, was just featured on the cover of Bon Appétit magazine, where Mr. Chiarello was seated. She needed someone to manage the Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena.

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The ambitious Mr. Chiarello showed up for his interview draped in a chef’s neckerchief. “Michael was a very driven man; there was no doubt about that,” Ms. Pawlcyn said in a phone interview. “Tra Vigne was a good place to start, because Michael was outgoing and exuberant and could be charming on the spot. He met a lot of people there.”

Guests included the who’s who of the culinary and Hollywood worlds, such as Julia Child and Danny DeVito, and regulars included Robert Mondavi and other prominent winemakers. The eatery served as a springboard for Mr. Chiarello to launch his eventual restaurant chain, olive oil business, vineyard, and mail-order retail firm with an extensive product catalog.

To pursue a career in the media and merchandising, he quit Tra Vigne in 2001. In that year, PBS premiered “Season by Season,” his first television program. And he launched NapaStyle, an online store and a little retail chain selling his own brand of paninis, flavored olive oil, and other gourmet foods, in addition to kitchen gadgets, home furnishings, and wine.

The Food Network series “Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello,” which he launched in 2003 and for which he won a Daytime Emmy, was his big break. In the future, he would appear on “Top Chef Masters” and serve as a judge on “Top Chef.”

Mr. Chiarello has penned eight books, one of which, “The Tra Vigne Cookbook” (1999), was at one point as popular in Bay Area bookshops as Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” which was published not long after.

Northern California culinary writer and cheese specialist Janet Fletcher, who collaborated with him on two books, says he was among the first to perceive Napa Valley as a lifestyle and brand. They didn’t come more charming or gorgeous, she added, and he was a fantastic cook and marketer and merchandiser.

“He really was a very good cook but also an amazing marketer and merchandiser,” she said, adding that “they didn’t come more charming or handsome.” In 2008, Mr. Chiarello returned to the restaurant industry with the establishment of Bottega in Yountville, a casually stylish Italian eatery.

He opened the Spanish-themed Coqueta on San Francisco’s Embarcadero five years later, and in 2019 he brought the concept to Napa. Many women accused him of sexual harassment. In 2016, two servers at Coqueta sued him, alleging that he presided over a sexually charged atmosphere, improperly touched staff, and made indecent gestures with a baguette, among other things.

Mr. Chiarello has categorically refuted the allegations and promised to defend himself in court. After some back-and-forth, the parties reached an out-of-court settlement.

Mr. Chiarello is survived by his daughter, Ms. O’Shaughnessy, from his first marriage to Ines Bartel (which ended in divorce), as well as his daughters, Margaux Comalrena and Felicia Chiarello, from his second marriage to Eileen Gordon; his son, Aidan Chiarello; his brothers, Ron and Kevin Chiarello; and his grandchildren. According to a business representative, Mr. Chiarello and Ms. Gordon were divorce proceedings when he passed away.

According to Ms. O’Shaughnessy, Mr. Chiarello was a family guy at heart who valued preserving the history of his family despite his successful profession. While his mother taught him to make gnocchi when he was seven, he made it a point to pass on the skill to his own children and has even named Chiarello Family Vineyards wine varietals after them.

“In the restaurant business I lost a lot of time with my girls,” he said in 2006. “I don’t want that to happen again. I don’t want to be saying anymore that I should have spent more time with my children, more time with my wife. If I get hit by a bus, I don’t want my last thought to be about a wine deal I was doing with Walmart.”

Updated on October 13, 2023: The original version of the description accompanying the photo with this obituary incorrectly named the other author of Mr. Chiarello’s “The Tra Vigne Cookbook.” Penelope Wisner, and not Janet Fletcher, co-wrote it.

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