Grilling God: Jonah Rhodehamel

Jonah Rhodehamel has been at the helm of Oakland's Oliveto for almost three years.

May is Grilling Month at Food Republic, where we are offering pro tips from chefs and other well-known grilling gods.

Jonah Rhodehamel certainly took a circuitous route to his current role as Executive Chef at Oliveto, the revered Italian restaurant in Oakland that has flourished in the city for the past 25 years. Rhodehamel did not learn to cook until his 20s, but held positions at San Francisco staples Zinnia and Quince before taking over at Oliveto in December 2010 – all before his 30th birthday! Talk about making up for lost time. And the chef is definitely a meat man. He is the driving force behind a "cave" at Oliveto for house-curing charcuterie and frequently hosts whole-animal prix-fixe dinners at the restaurant. Here, he took some time out to teach us about grilling. And boy does he teach us. Grilling heart? Strawberries? Burying a steer? All part of the job...

Do you prefer working with gas or charcoal?

At Oliveto we use almond wood. If I had to decide between the two, though, I would choose charcoal.

What is the biggest mistake the home griller can make?

Using a fire which is not ready, i.e. too hot or too high of flames. The food flares up and ends up tasting like burnt oil or just tastes like too much acrid smoke. A fire should be mostly coals before one begins cooking on it. Smaller chunks of aromatic woods can be added for flavor but for the most part the fire should be pretty settled down before grilling.

What is your favorite cut of meat to grill?

Heart is a great meat to grill. About half of our entrées as well as quite a few appetizers at Oliveto come off of our rotisserie/grill and heart will occasionally be one of them. It is a great lean cut of meat that grills very well rare. We just quickly char it on both sides and serve it sliced rare. There is not really any fat to cause the fire to flare up, so you can cook it on a pretty hot fire.

What are the best vegetables on the grill?

We grill all sorts of fruits and vegetables so it's hard to say what my favorite would be. We were recently charring strawberries on the grill to go on a seared foie gras dish that worked pretty well. Grilling has a pretty profound effect on eggplant. Whenever eggplant comes into season, I'll find myself throwing it directly into the coals to char the skin and then removing it. You get a nice creamy flesh with a subtle smokiness.

What's the best way to cook vegetables on the grill?

It really depends on the vegetable. Like I mentioned with eggplant, cook it directly in the coals, blackening the skin and then removing it. With all vegetables, avoid adding oil or fat to them directly. You can brush the grill itself with minimal oil, but any on the vegetable will just cause it to flare up and taste burnt.

What do you like to drink with your grilled meat?

Sweet tea.

What's the most epic barbecue you have ever thrown, or been to?

An Outstanding In The Field event at Fred Hempel's farm, where I buried an entire forequarter of a steer to cook it. I had never actually done it before and wasn't sure it was going to work, which was a pretty big gamble for 140 paying guests but it definitely worked and was delicious. It was pretty amazing to pull 150 pounds of cooked meat out of the ground, all of which had been buried raw the night before.

What bands are on your grilling soundtrack?

I only grill to live mariachi bands named after mythical beasts.

What is the worst food item you have seen thrown on the grill?

Boneless skinless chicken breast.

Most useful piece of grilling gear you have purchased or used?

A cake tester to probe the meat and feel the internal temperature. It essentially does the same thing as a thermometer, except that the hole it leaves is needle-sized and it registers a lot quicker. One basically probes the meat in a few spots and touches the probe to a sensitive piece of skin, feeling for the desired temperature. It takes a little practice, but is much better than putting a bunch of thermometer holes in a piece of meat.

Any burger secrets (Stuffed? Toppings?)

If I told you they wouldn't be secrets but... brisket, salt and pepper!

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