Why Michael Chiarello Went Spanish In San Francisco

Michael Chiarello strolls into the sixth floor lounge at NYC's Soho House looking more like he's about to appear on a TV show than meet for coffee in a shabby-chic private club. Dressed in an immaculately ironed (yet untucked) button-down, and flashing his trademark half-smile, the chef, entrepreneur and TV star has in fact just returned from an on-camera appearance, plugging his new Lifetime show Supermarket Superstar (the fourth episode airs tonight at 10:30 Eastern). Hosted by former wrestling star (and ex-George Clooney flame) Stacy Keibler, the competition series aims to find new food-product entrepreneurs, kind of like a Shark Tank for food, as Chiarello puts it.

But while his looks and charm pretty much will him toward TV, Chiarello's actually deeper than most of what you find on the dial. The chef and restaurateur behind beloved Napa Valley spot Bottega has successfully transitioned into organic farming to launch a winery, and founded the smartly appointed lifestyle brand NapaStyle. Chiarello is a thinking man's chef and a worldly gentleman with a clear sense of how to set goals and achieve them. When I ask him how he maintains such a cool façade when he has so many projects buzzing along simultaneously, he grows dead-serious:

"Well, I am here with you right now," he says. "When I am here, I work very hard on being present and I fight the urge of multi-tasking. People say, 'I emailed you! I texted you...twice! I Instagrammed you! You didn't get back to me!' Well, you're right! Now, how can I help you?"

Despite the plethora of projects, Chiarello remains passionate about restaurants. Here, he discusses the inspiration behind the just-opened restaurant Coqueta, his first venture into Spanish cuisine and his entry into San Francisco. He also talks Bottega, Supermarket Superstar and more in the latest FR Interview.

Let's talk about going into the San Francisco restaurant market. What made you want to open Coqueta there rather than closer to home in Napa?

I looked in Napa. I think what that type of dining needs is a really vibrant and public social scene. People spend a lot of time in their homes in Napa Valley. In San Francisco, like in Europe, people's homes and apartments are smaller. You sleep there but you go out for coffee and lunch and out after work and such. I love that about San Francisco.

What were your motivations for going Spanish with the cuisine?

In 1987, When I opened Tra Vigne, Italian food was at the same raw stage of development as Spanish food is today. A couple handfuls of talented and passionate people working on something more macroregional. It changed the way Americans think about Italian food and I had a chance to be a part of that.

So, Spanish is the new Italian?

It takes long blocks of time for traveling patterns to change. I read all the time, "Peruvian cuisine is the next big thing!" and I hope so, because it's a brilliant culture, but there are not enough American travelers to bring back that passion. My customers in the '80s were learning about how to live under the Tuscan sun, starting with Florence and Tuscany – where the word "Tuscan" became part of our everyday language — and then Venice and Rome and Milan.

Right, so now we're starting to explore Spain beyond the obvious?

A few years ago, [Americans] started to go to Barcelona, which is the new Florence to me: The iconic place where everyone in the know is starting to go. Now, everybody that I know has already been to Barcelona and is going to San Sebastian or Valencia. I think that the avant-garde had a lot to do with not necessarily just avant-garde cooking, but with this concept of the excitement going on in Spain — with there being something to see.

Did you ever go to elBulli?

It was a deeply personal restaurant. We talk all the time about the difference between taste and flavor – that something that tastes good isn't enough. Flavor is the stimulation: it's your emotional, historical, intellectual charge to something. In this case, it was intellectual. In the early days there, it was taking food that everybody understood and presenting it in ways that they wouldn't imagine it. That's always been a recipe for success and that was blown up.

OK, so you started La Coqueta. What does the name mean?

It means "a flirtation" or "infatuation." It was my midlife crisis. You say, "What am I going to do with my life?" Some guys go and get a Porsche and a 30-year-old wife and some go back to college and get a degree in something that they really wanted to learn. This is my going back to college. As a chef, I've been doing Italian food — except for one time — my entire career. This part of my mind that opened back up was the same part of my mind that opened in the '80s. I built on top of what I learned in the '80s and found myself rethinking an idea of Bottega 2.0. I think you have to have a fear — I don't know if fear is the right word — to wake you up in the middle of the night wondering if they will like it or not.

Especially in San Francisco. You're up against probably some of the toughest diners and critics in the world. What has the reaction been in the city and how are you affected by it?

Every chef stays up in the middle of the night when critics are coming. Someone said to me, "Why would you risk failing at 50?" That risk of failing was the inspiration. Coqueta is more Spanish than Bottega is Italian. I had permission to do all of these Italian things and I didn't have any permission to do a cuisine that I hadn't cooked before. I think creativity is a right to be earned and not one you are born with. It also forced me to be a stronger collaborator than I was at Bottega. Everybody brought something super meaningful to it. In the end, in half a century, you learn that if you have the right team, five or six strong minds can make something better than one very strong mind. And we did.

So with Coqueta on track, will you go back and change Bottega now?

Yeah, I think certainly some aesthetic things. I'll adjust my critical thinking to include things – from uniforms to the space. The hardest thing about being an American Italian is keeping things Italian enough, because all of the influences are American. People cross borders all the time and Bottega has always had a California slant.

Tell us about the TV show. How'd you get involved in Supermarket Superstar?

I didn't want to do anymore TV unless I could be a producer. Somebody from the Weinstein company called and they'd bought something from someone else and it had some holes in it, so I wrote a treatment for something in the same genre and fixed those holes. It took forever. I've done enough competition that I'm both a fan and not a fan of it. On the morning show I did today, the only time I threw something was a bad tomato. Of course, they ran the hell out of that thing. The editors can't help themselves — they want to turn the volume up and everything. I got the chance to change the format of [Supermarket Superstars] to mentors rather than judges, where they actually participate and help make dreams come true.

Was Stacy Keibler already involved when you got involved?

No, she came on later. She's a great host – she's adorable, a total girl next door. At the beginning, I didn't know if the Lifetime viewer would feel threatened by Stacy Keibler as a host. She's had it all — and at the time had George [Clooney].

What were you guys looking for to set your show apart?

Well, it's television, so you need good characters. We had great products — or great ideas — that cover a breadth of the specific genre of baked goods. We wanted characters from around the country who have diverse backgrounds. A lot of these contestants have everything on the line. They have their life savings, their parents' life savings, their friends' life savings. One of them is now a single mother of two – her husband was killed in Iraq – looking to have a sustainable life with her children. There are great storylines. Everybody in America knows somebody that they've said to or heard their friends say to, "Oh my God, that barbecue sauce is spectacular!" Everybody can relate to it from that standpoint and it's a gender-friendly show: guys shop as much as gals do these days.

What about the highs and lows? As somebody who has run successful restaurants, do you come across anything that you would put in or ideas that were too wacky and wouldn't work?

All the ideas had merit. There were only a couple where I think that the story of the character was the largest merit. It's 27 contestants over 10 episodes — I thought they were deeply interesting. Not every product is meant to be on a supermarket show.

You have a lot of experience in this sort of business.

I've been in specialty foods my whole life. I hate it because it's a good-ol'-boys club – the brokers and distributors – and the distributors make more than the entrepreneur does. The artisan should get celebrated more. The two people who pay the most for that three-tiered system are the customer and the artisan. The customer has to pay more for a product and the artisan gets less for a product or has to dumb down the ingredients to get to a certain price point. I started NapaStyle for that very reason – that the three-tiered system is broken, and very seldom do you get the chance to buy directly from the producer. A producer will use better products if he can afford better products. We'd have better specialty foods on the show if it wasn't for the mass market way. I love the idea of having a single relationship with a retailer.

[More FR Interviews on Food Republic]