Michael Chiarello, a hard-working, TV-ready chef from California’s Central Valley whose culinary prowess and intuitive knack for marketing helped define a chapter of Italian-influenced Northern California cuisine and the rural escapism of the Napa Valley lifestyle, died on Friday in Napa. He was 61.
His death, in a hospital, was the result of an acute allergic reaction that led to anaphylactic shock, said Giana O’Shaughnessy, his youngest daughter. The cause of the allergic reaction has not been identified.
Mr. Chiarello was a member of a generation of Northern California chefs who by the 1980s had freed themselves from the conventions of continental cuisine. They swapped olive oil for butter when they served bread, and they used seasonal produce and locally made cheese and wine long before the term “farm to table” became a menu cliché.
He would later get caught in the #MeToo movement when two servers filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2016 against him and his restaurant company, Gruppo Chiarello. The case was settled out of court, but his reputation was tarnished and television opportunities dried up.
Michael Dominic Chiarello was born on Jan. 26, 1962, in Red Bluff, Calif., in the Sacramento Valley, and raised surrounded by almond trees and melon fields 200 miles south in Turlock, a farming town built on the rich soil not far from Modesto.
He was the youngest child of a couple with roots in the Calabria region of Italy. He credited his mother, Antoinette (Aiello) Chiarello, for his earliest culinary lessons. His father, Harry, was a banker who suffered a debilitating stroke when he was in his 40s.
“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 14, he was working in a restaurant in between wrestling practice and classes at Turlock High School. By 22 he had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and Florida International University in Miami, where he earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management.
Even though he was starting to receive national attention for his cooking — he opened his first restaurant in Miami in 1984 and was named Food & Wine magazine’s chef of the year in 1985 — his father wasn’t pleased.
“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.’”
He caught the attention of Cindy Pawlcyn, who had recently been on the cover of Bon Appétit magazine for her restaurant Mustards Grill, a pioneering Yountville roadhouse with a giant wine list where the great winemakers of the era would walk in covered in farm dirt. She was looking for someone to run a new restaurant in St. Helena called Tra Vigne.
Mr. Chiarello arrived for an interview wearing a chef’s neckerchief and brimming with ambition.
“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.”
Indeed, Robert Mondavi and other top winemakers would become regulars, and guests often included culinary and Hollywood elite, from Julia Child to Danny DeVito.
The restaurant was a jumping-off point for Mr. Chiarello’s empire, which would eventually include several restaurants, an olive oil company, a winery and a retail business with a robust catalog.
He left Tra Vigne in 2001 to pursue a career in media and merchandise. His first TV show, “Season by Season,” debuted that year on PBS. And he opened NapaStyle, a website and a small chain of retail stores where he sold panini, flavored olive oil and other specialty foods, as well as cookware, table décor and wine from his own vineyard.
He jumped to Food Network in 2003 with “Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello.” which landed him a Daytime Emmy Award. He would go on to compete on “Top Chef Masters” and was a judge on “Top Chef.”
He wrote eight books, one of which, “The Tra Vigne Cookbook” (1999), was at one point as popular in Bay Area bookstores as Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” which came out shortly after.
Mr. Chiarello was one of the first to see Napa Valley as a lifestyle and a brand, said the Northern California food writer and cheese expert Janet Fletcher, who wrote two books with him.
“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.”
“Walking through the dining room at Tra Vigne, you could just see the star power,” Ms. Fletcher said, “but there was substance, too. You wanted to eat every dish on his menu.”
Mr. Chiarello jumped back into the restaurant world in 2008, opening the casually elegant Bottega in Yountville. Five years later, he added Coqueta, a Spanish-focused restaurant on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and in 2019 he expanded it to Napa.
Sexual harassment claims dogged him. Two servers at Coqueta named him in a lawsuit in 2016, claiming that he presided over a sexually charged atmosphere, touched employees inappropriately and, among other things, made lewd gestures with a baguette.
Mr. Chiarello vigorously denied the charges and vowed to fight them. The parties eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
In addition to Ms. O’Shaughnessy, his daughter from his marriage to Ines Bartel, which ended in divorce Mr. Chiarello is survived by two other daughters from that marriage, Margaux Comalrena and Felicia Chiarello; a son, Aidan Chiarello, from his second marriage, to Eileen Gordon; two brothers, Ron and Kevin Chiarello; and two grandchildren. A company spokesman said that Mr. Chiarello and Ms. Gordon were legally separated and in the process of divorcing when he died.
Despite his outsize career, Ms. O’Shaughnessy said, Mr. Chiarelli was a family man at heart who wanted to keep his family’s stories alive. He made a point of teaching his children how to make the gnocchi his mother taught him to make when he was 7, and he named various bottlings of wine from Chiarello Family Vineyards after his children.
“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.”