Michael Joseph Ghilarducci, 66, of Sonoma, passed away at home in his sleep on the morning of Monday, May 5, 2014.
Michael was born on Oct. 31, 1947, in San Francisco, to Francesco Ghilarducci and Mara Jean Ghilarducci (nee Baker). Michael graduated from Woodside School in 1965, and San Francisco City College’s Hotel and Restaurant Administration program in 1967. He married Virginia (“Gia”) Ghilarducci (nee Wade) on April 12, 1969.
Michael’s career in the restaurant business spanned 55 years, beginning with his work in L’Auberge in Redwood City and his father’s restaurant, Villa d’Este in Los Altos. Michael opened his first restaurant, “Chez Joseph” on Jack London Square in Oakland in 1970, followed by “Columbus Street” in Los Altos and “Liaison” in Palo Alto.
On Dec. 9, 1985, Michael and Gia purchased Sonoma’s historic Giacomo Mazza House, taking over a business long known locally as the “Depot Hotel Restaurant.” Michael and Gia converted the upstairs floor of the Mazza House into their family home, where they proceeded to raise their two children, Gianna Ghilarducci Kelly and Antonio Francesco Ghilarducci.
In 1987, Michael and Gia began teaching cooking classes in the Depot Hotel Restaurant’s kitchen. The courses proved popular and successful. In 2001, Michael and Gia began leading groups of their students through Europe, teaching classes linked to the locations visited. The curriculum included stays in Provence, Tuscany, Argentina and Umbria, and along the coast of the Mediterranean on board Crystal Cruise Lines. In the summer of 2002, one particularly memorable set of classes were taught jointly by Michael and Jacques Pepin in a week-long series at Château de Villette, in Condecourt north of Paris.
In December of 2000, Michael and Gia purchased a vineyard property, located north of Kelseyville. The Ghilarduccis began producing cabernet sauvignon and merlot under the Wildhurst label in 2003, and after development of an additional portion of the property, in 2007, their own fume blanc. Production from the vineyards continues today, now under the family’s own label.
In 2008, after similar training to Michael’s at San Francisco City College, and work at La Folie, the French Laundry and Sonoma’s El Dorado Kitchen, Michael’s son, Antonio, joined the family’s restaurant as head chef. Michael thereupon became chef-proprietor, working alongside his son in the kitchen.
In total, Michael operated the Depot Hotel Restaurant with his family for 1,482 weeks, during which time he typically supervised ordering, menu preparation and house operations. A week seldom went by without Michael pounding veal in the kitchen on a Wednesday morning, negotiating with wine salesmen at the bar at midday, or visiting tables and greeting guests at the door.
Michael was welcoming, gentle and affable; possessed of a deep, genuine laugh and a marvelous sense of mirth, yet also a seriousness and gravity as occasions called for. The survivor of the early and unfortunate passings of his own parents, Michael’s response was to develop an irreverent sense of humor, an abiding sympathy for any and all underdogs, and a near comical repartee with his wife Gia that brought tears of laughter to friends, staff and family alike. He was an avid amateur sailor and boater, and a lifelong fan of Formula One and the San Francisco 49ers. He thought most wine should be talked over, not about, that the best deterrent to bad driving would be a sharp metal spike in the center of every steering wheel, and that the speed limit should be waived for those, such as himself, capable of demonstrating superior skill in operating an automobile. He was a decent shot but a better boxer; a lead blocker for O.J. Simpson on the City College football team; a good bocce player but hopeless with computers. He was fond of caffè lattes in the morning and spumoni at night; could impersonate a rabbit for his grandchildren with nothing more than a napkin; and would, when pressed, demonstrate a remarkable ability to impersonate Donald Duck.