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.