Special of the day: Celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello

08 Aug Special of the day: Celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello

Michael Chiarello

           Michael Chiarello’s first love may be cooking, but spend just an hour with him, and you’ll soon discover his passion for people is not far behind. A generous sprinkling of funny family stories throughout his “Spain: An Italian Chef’s Pilgrimmage” seminar at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic in June made watching him cook an entertaining experience for all.

Having made a big name for himself as celebrity chef, winemaker, author, founder of NapaStyle brand, and chef/owner of Bottega, his restaurant in the heart of the Napa Valley, Chiarello appears on Food Network’s Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello, Top Chef Masters and The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs.

Famous for his Mediterranean cooking style with strong roots in Southern Italy, Chiarello has developed a recent flirtation with Spanish cooking brought on by his Spanish son-in-law José. According to Chiarello, Spain and Italy are like cousins, and he has been thoroughly enjoying learning more about Spanish cooking which he calls fantastic.

“To get good at something, you have to do it a lot,” Chiarello said, recommending that home cooks pick a couple of cuisines and practice classic techniques.

The Spanish tortilla he demonstrated for us reminded me of a frittata with sautéed onions, potatoes and asparagus cooked into a whisked egg mixture and then finished in the oven.

Seasoned chefs have three or four things going at a time, Chiarello said, as he started beating the egg yolks for the saffron mayonnaise in the mixer and got to work on sautéing onions for the tortilla.

Saffron comes from the stamen of a flower commonly known as the saffron crocus. Chiarello explained that it takes 3,000 flowers to make one ounce of the tiny saffron threads which makes them expensive to buy. Chiarello recommends buying saffron that comes from the Middle East when you can find it. He is not a fan of Mexican saffron.

And now, back to the tortilla. Cooking the onions, garlic and bay leaf first in the seasoned olive oil laid the foundation of flavors he continued to build upon as he systematically removed the sautéed aromatics from the oil and added potatoes, cooked until tender and then removed, before finally poaching the asparagus in the oil. After letting everything cool, Chiarello folded the onions, potatoes and asparagus into the whisked eggs. The assembled tortilla was cooked briefly in the same pan and then finished in the oven for a few minutes.

The veritable versatility of the Spanish tortilla is that you can serve it anytime of the day. An easy breakfast, a fast supper with a salad or a next-day sandwich stuffing, it can be made ahead easily and served at room temperature or refrigerated and eaten later. In Spain, a lot of the food is served at room temperature.

Once you have the technique down, you can change onions and tubers around. It would be great made with sweet potatoes, Chiarello said.

“Try to figure out what you can get going at the same time,” he said, moving over to the mixer to start the saffron mayonnaise.

“Get the best eggs that you can,” Chiarello recommended, “Look for the burnt orange yolks.” Bright yolks are a sign that the farmer fed the chickens well.

“To have a relationship with your food, there has to be a Farmer John,” Chiarello said, “They love the ground, the animals and the food they grow. We need to treat our soil and water like our children. When we take care of each other, we will have a better planet naturally.”

Squeezing the lemon with his mouth (I know. You had to see it to believe it.) was a trick he learned from his “Old School Grandmother” whom he described as “ugly but good” just like the signature “Bitchy Hen Sauce” she made using the nastiest hen she could find. Stories and recipes and cooking tips, oh my!

Running a three-ring circus would have been a piece of cake for Chiarello, I think, who in addition to the saffron mayonnaise and Spanish tortilla was also demonstrating how to do a salt-roasted fish. Talk about having three or four things going at the same time.

Another tip he threw into the mix was to allow every protein (meat, chicken, fish) to come to room temperature before cooking and rest afterwards before slicing or serving to ensure that the meat doesn’t dry out.

Chiarello uses chilled olive oil for cooling blanched vegetables instead of an ice water bath which washes the flavor away, he said.

He believes there is a big difference between taste and flavor and thinks an experience really creates a food memory which makes it something special.

The best way to learn about a new cuisine is to travel to the country or befriend someone from the country and watch them cook, Chiarello said. I couldn’t agree more…

Head off to Spain, at least in your kitchen, with this week’s Special of the day: Celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello and recipe for Spanish Sweet Onion, Potato and Asparagus Tortilla with Saffron Mayonnaise. Enjoy!

Recipes and food photography by Sydne George

Spanish Tortilla Slice

Spanish Sweet Onion, Potato and Asparagus Tortilla with Saffron Mayonnaise

Inspired by Michael Chiarello

Serves four

*This would be great served with sautéed crab or shrimp on top.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2 eggs

½ cup olive oil

¼ teaspoon Kosher salt

1/8 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

½ sweet onion, sliced into thin rings

1 bay leaf

1 clove garlic, minced

1 Yukon Gold potato, peeled and sliced into thin slices

1 cup asparagus tips

In a medium sauté pan with straight sides over medium high heat, heat olive oil.

Add salt and pepper.

Whisk eggs in small bowl. Set aside.

When oil is hot, add onions, garlic and bay leaf and sauté until onions are soft.

Remove onions from pan.

Keep oil hot in the pan.

Add potatoes and cook until lightly browned on both sides.

Remove potatoes from pan.

Add asparagus tips and cook briefly.

Let onions, potatoes and asparagus cool.

When cool, add vegetables to egg mixture in mixing bowl and fold together gently, being careful not to break potatoes.

Return egg mixture with vegetables to sauté pan.

Place in preheated oven and cook for about 4 minutes, until set.

Remove from oven and let cool in the pan on a rack.


Flip pan onto cutting board and slice into wedges.

Serve with Saffron Mayonnaise.


Saffron Mayonnaise

Inspired by Michael Chiarello

(Serves four as an accompaniment)

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 clove garlic

½ teaspoon Dijon mayonnaise

1 tablespoon canola oil

½ tablespoon olive oil

1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt

Several threads saffron

Using an electric mixer, beat egg yolks until thick.

Add lemon juice, garlic and mustard and beat to combine.

Stream in oils a little at a time, beating contantly, to create an emulsion.

Add salt and saffron and beat to combine.

Serve with Spanish tortilla.


Sydne George is a food journalist specializing in recipe development, food writing and food photography. She can be reached at sydnegeorge@hotmail.com . Sydne’s recipes from “Special of the day” are archived at http://sydnegeorge.com/blog/.



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