This Friday, December 16th will mark the 25th anniversary of Oliveto Cafe and Restaurant. More personally, we are celebrating Chef Jonah’s first year as Oliveto Executive Chef. We thought we’d take a moment to give you our impression on this past year.
What Chef Jonah Rhodehamel has accomplished in one year here at Oliveto doesn’t seem possible. Unless you consider: Jonah is the hardest working chef we’ve ever seen. Up until a few months ago (when he began taking a day off here and there), he worked seven days a week, many of them 16-hour days. And that work has been so well directed that every minute seemed productive. The focus and energy, complemented by Jonah’s skill, experience, curiosity, and innate creativity, brought a clarity of purpose and direction which transformed the kitchen and menu, as well as enlivening the Oliveto Café downstairs. And those characteristics have brought a quality that is utterly essential: consistency.
Chef Jonah has the ability to be creative and fresh while meeting (or exceeding) the expectations of guests (many of whom are returning after a several-year-long absence), and at the same time keeping within the general, albeit grandiose, Oliveto philosophy of food based on the best seasonal local ingredients, cooked within the Italian idiom and Italian principles of cooking. Even for Jonah, with his considerable internal drive, and whose experience is consistent with Oliveto’s demands, the job was a big one. But the results after one year have been quite remarkable. Some customers describe his cooking as more delicate. Others say the dishes sparkle with their pristine ingredients, while others feel that his cooking really gets at the essence of traditional Italian dishes such as agnolotti dal plin or walnut sformatino or vitello tonnato.
We are often perplexed and find ourselves wondering, “how did he do that? How could he know that? He’s only 28 years old”
He continues to enlarge the Oliveto whole-animal project, maintaining and deepening relationships with sustainable ranchers, in particular with Mac Magruder of Mendocino County, who provides cattle from 26 to 30 months of age, boar, boar-domestic pig crosses, sheep, and lamb. Jonah has studiously observed what practices affect marbling, age-ability, texture, and flavor and has created a meat system around that knowledge. His unconventional approach to different cuts of meat appears frequently on the menu, as, for example, a choice among three cuts and ages of steak. He rethought the salumi-making process, improving mold casings, introducing a new proofing box for exact temperature control, making each salame type distinct and unique, and taking particular interest in cured whole cuts. (Lately he’s liked his bresaola and coppa.)
He took on the job of perfecting our pastas, introducing more Community Grains whole wheat varieties and blending them for flavor and texture with conventional flours, becoming adept at making them all himself, extruded and laminated, with and without egg (and with yolks only).
By phone, Jonah stays in touch with many of our farmers several times a week to discuss what’s growing best, and what the farmer anticipates peaking within the next few days or weeks. During problematic growing periods, he goes to the farmers’ market himself to make selections. He introduced us to Fred Hempel of Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, and with two assistants fed 140 persons at Fred’s Outstanding In the Field event.
For our first field trip of 2011 we visited two farms in Contra Costa County, both in Brentwood. First we stopped at Brookside Farm, owned and operated by the generous and kindly Tom family: Anne, Quong, and Welling. Welling (the son) showed us what’s in bloom and described to us a little of the journey from earth to table. The Toms grow some of our Early Girl tomatoes (and other varieties), greens, peppers, squash, beans, cucumbers, etc. and have even planted a sour cherry tree at our request. Photos by Teal Dudziac.
Then we headed over to Rick and Kristie Knoll’s Tairwa’-Knoll Farm where the Oliveto kitchen gets produce such as cardoons, beans, peas, figs, and chicories, just to name a few. The Knolls traveled to Puglia and did some seed collecting so they could grow plants such as chicories for our use. Rick and Kristie showed us how they combine science and art to cultivate their harvests; they also provided us with what could be the freshest lunch many of us have ever had.
Also very worthwhile is the Knoll Farms website, where the Knolls provide in depth their philosophy, biodynamic methods, and history, and take on modern agriculture.
On Sunday, June 26th, Chef Jonah will join Fred Hempel at his farm in Sunol, CA to take part in the 2011 Outstanding in the Field tour.
This should be a blast for the obvious reasons: awesome food, breathtaking location, and great company. But it will also be a unique presentation of a close and truly collaborative relationship between a chef and a farmer.
Jonah’s allegiance to Fred’s produce was made immediately clear when he arrived at Oliveto in November 2010 and soon after flooded the restaurant with Fred’s spectacular winter squashes. Over the last six months Fred has become an invaluable resource to both Oliveto and Community Grains. His passion and extensive plant biology knowledge has made seed selection and plant breeding an exciting adventure, and only deepened our knowledge of the food we serve.
With both Chef Jonah Rhodehamel and Fred Hempel on hand, this event will be a great way to kick off the beginning of summer. See you there!
Executive Chef Jonah Rhodehamel has been at the helm of the Oliveto kitchen since November 2010. It is amazing to us how much has changed at Oliveto over these last six months. First off, Chef Rhodehamel (and all of his crew) has been working like crazy. Basically, the level of energy and focus has been turned up to eleven.
But most important, we are extremely proud of the food we are serving. Our salumi has never been better. Same goes for our pizza. The whole-animal program is expanding into new relationships with ranchers raising goat and sheep. We’ve been introduced to farmers Jonah has relationships with, including our new BFF Fred Hempel, who is growing some amazing things on his farm in Sunol, CA.
There is a seriousness, and a precision that Chef Jonah brings to Oliveto but there is also a sly sense of humor, a wry wit, and the skills of a true leader. Anyway, that’s a long way of saying we’re happy to see that all of this was apparent to Michael Bauer on his most recent visit. It was so very nice for our kitchen to be acknowledged for all the hard work that they do.
Sunday before last, December 5, Jonah Rhodehamel became Oliveto’s chef. A change of chef would be a big deal for any restaurant, but perhaps for us it’s a bit bigger. In a restaurant where vitality and curiosity are so highly valued, and with so many ideas and so much talent emerging from Oliveto over the years, how we go forward is crucial. Since we announced our parting with Paul Canales, our friend for fifteen years and chef for five, we have been asked for the inside story by many. It does probably come down to Paul’s becoming interested in other genres of cooking and other interests, and our remaining commitment to dishes that embrace the fundamental character of Italian cooking.
So, Maggie and I took several months to look for an exceptional cook — a vital, talented, and dedicated chef who could continue our tradition of learning and teaching, producing delicious food, collaborating, and, in a particular way, motivated by flavor, innovating. There were many talented chefs available, and we decided on Chef Jonah Rhodehamel. Here’s why: He is truly passionate about the food we love, he’s smart and a very good cook, and he’s a straight shooter.
Previously Chef Rhodehamel held sous chef positions at La Folie (under Chef Roland Passot), Zinnia (under Chef Sean O’Brien), and Americano Restaurant and Hotel Vitale (under Chef Kory Stewart); and tournant at Quince (under Oliveto alum Chef Mike Tusk). Jonah has been deeply involved in the Bay Area food scene since 2004, and is bringing energy, focus, and a thoughtful perfectionism to the restaurant kitchen.
Here’s what you can expect:
house-made pastas made with local flours specially milled, served with properly made ragùs, sugos, bolognesse, and other regional Italian sauces using old methods.
the best meats, fire-roasted, served simply; exquisite fish
expanded selection of brisk salads, savory antipasti, and piquant vegetables
a kitchen that creates, develops, and innovates by learning, thoroughly pursuing traditional Italian regional cooking, Italian butchering, growing methods, varieties of fruits, vegetables, and animals; preserving, curing, etc.; soils; milling and bread and pasta making; etc.
We, of course, remain committed to only the best-raised products.
Please come and meet our new Chef, Jonah Rhodehamel.
May 31, 2010