Chicken Wings Agrodolce
Prosciutto-Wrapped Truffle Fries
Salsa di Parmigiano
Forever-Roasted Pork with Toasted Cocoa Rub
Written and produced by Stephen Exel
Photographs by John Granen
It’s Michael Chiarello’s Big Night. The renowned California chef (he’s also a restaurateur, author, TV star, vintner, and winner of multiple James Beard awards) and his wife, Eileen, are showcasing their deep affection for film, wine, and food with a screening party at their St. Helena home in honor of the coming Napa Valley Film Festival.
The party has been carefully planned: There’s popcorn in specially designed bags; plenty of munchies in Michael’s signature Italian style; and the table is set with film props. Three short films have been matched to wines, discussion points considered, and ballots are ready for voting.
“The filmmaking world is infatuated with what we do,” says Michael, who created Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena in 1997 and opened Bottega in Yountville in 2008. “We are just as fascinated by what they do. Film is ‘motion art.’ Food engages a different part of the brain. At the end of the festival, both groups have shared stories.”
Storytelling is an integral part of Michael’s character. His six books (the latest is Michael Chiarello’s Bottega) don’t just contain recipes—they are peppered with personal narratives and family history.
The St. Helena home Michael and Eileen share with their 7-year-old son Aiden is strongly connected to the chef’s personal history. The California native, who also has three daughters, looked to his grandfather’s Mount Shasta ranch to provide inspiration for the airy floor plan. Stones quarried on the ranch form the house’s foundation; the powder rooms are paneled with the ranch’s barn siding. Plants from cuttings from -Michael’s mother’s garden dot the property.
It’s a fitting setting for celebrating a similar story-based medium—the party is a tasty combination of Julie & Julia meets Sideways meets Babette’s Feast. As Michael puts finishing touches on the food, Eileen tends to the table setting and flowers.
Interaction with guests is essential to the Chiarellos’ entertaining style. The kitchen is designed to be the center of the house. Two stoves plus a wood-burning oven make it convenient to divide cooking responsibilities and entice everyone with both aromas and sights. “We let the evening flow pretty freely,” Eileen says. “We like to get people engaged with the food.”
A consummate restaurateur, Michael always assigns someone to help with the wine. “I hate to see an empty glass,” he jokes. There is usually sparkling wine—Eileen is a collector of vintage champagne. “Because it’s Napa, people show up with great wines,” Michael adds.
Brilliantly combining wine and film “is about finding the gestalt of the film and the wine and understanding their stories,” notes Eileen. Matching the food with wines involves the same process, plus adding the element of taste.
If you’re hungry for some intellectual nourishment at your party, “invite a group of storytellers,” Michael says. “The discussion will quickly get past the small talk of our lives. Movies prompt an individual point of view from everyone. The conversation will be evocative and personal.”
Michael chooses movie munchies that can be prepared in advance or finished off quickly during the party. “The food doesn’t have to thread together like a menu,” he says. “Choose items that are easy to eat, can be enjoyed together, but stand alone.”
Make-ahead appetizers start with Pesto Arancini—rice balls stuffed with melty mozzarella and served with garlic- and oregano-laced tomato sauce. “Cooked rice or leftover risotto can be used for this recipe,” Michael says. “It’s a very old-world dish that speaks to the frugal-mindedness of southern Italians.” For an extra layer of flavor, Michael mixes the rice with pesto.
When Michael’s daughter Gianna asked for wings for her 16th birthday party, he complied by bringing good technique and adult perspective to a familiar food—Chicken Wings Agrodolce (sweet and sour). These tender wings sport both flavors, plus a nice bite of heat from Calabrian chiles.
Eileen inspired Michael to create Prosciutto-Wrapped Truffle Fries, an appetizer she and her girlfriends could enjoy in a few bites. Rich but familiar, the indulgent little bundles can be paired with succulent fresh figs torn apart with your fingers. (Have plenty of napkins on hand!)
After the screenings, guests gather to rate the films and enjoy Forever-Roasted Pork with Toasted Cocoa Rub. Pork shoulder surrounded by pears, apples, and lemons has been slow roasting at a low temperature for 6 to 8 hours, filling the house with incredible aromas. The temptation to pull a piece of the fork-tender meat off with your fingers is overwhelming. That’s just what Michael has planned, so he hands out small tongs, and everyone digs in.
Eileen puts out a sweet or two, and another glass of wine is poured. It’s a Hollywood ending, full of camaraderie and community. You can almost see the credits start to roll across a star-strewn sky.