Fired Up

Sophisticated grilling with Los Angeles chefs Josiah Citrin and Joseph Johnson

Fired Up
Citrin and Johnson cook on Citrin’s custom asado-style grill. (Oriana Koren)
From the Sep 30, 2018, issue

WINE SPECTATOR MENU

GRILLED OYSTERS WITH HIBISCUS SEAWEED BUTTER & TOASTED BREADCRUMBS
Valdespino Manzanilla Sanlúcar de Barrameda Deliciosa NV

CABBAGE BAKED IN EMBERS WITH YOGURT, SUMAC & LEMON ZEST
Knoll Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Wachau Loibner 2016

SLOW-GRILLED PORTERHOUSE AND COAL-BAKED POTATOES WITH CRÈME FRAÎCHE, AGED GOUDA & CHIVES
Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2015

GRILLED STONE FRUIT WITH YOGURT, MAPLE SYRUP & PUFFED QUINOA
Domaine Huët Vouvray Moelleux Le Haut-Lieu 2015

Charcoal Venice, Josiah Citrin's grill-centric restaurant on the southern edge of his hometown, was inspired by home entertaining.

"I got a Green Egg for Father's Day years ago. We always had cookouts and parties; you have a lot of friends when you stay where you grew up," he says. "It's a vibe, raising kids with friends. They play, we cook, have some wine. Now they're older and I miss it."

He wanted to bring that feeling to a restaurant: "That was how Charcoal was born. Live fire means an afternoon at someone's house having a good time."

Charcoal, which opened in 2015, is as warm and fun as intended. Mélisse, Citrin's more serene fine dining restaurant, turns 20 next year. Together, the restaurants reflect the backgrounds of Citrin and Joseph Johnson, Charcoal's chef de cuisine.

Citrin was raised three blocks from the beach in Santa Monica and then in nearby Venice in the 1970s, in the area known as Dogtown that was popularized by skateboarders. It was a rough neighborhood, but affordable, which suited his parents just fine: "They were total hippies. My dad was French and did gray market Converse and Vans importing to France. Mom was a self-taught chef and caterer. Their dinner parties were very '70s L.A., with eclectic French, Indian and Moroccan food. She has a great palate without any training."

Citrin's French grandmother exposed him to things his friends' parents weren't serving, like leg of lamb with flageolets, very rare steak and good mustard. Without knowing it he had started training young. "I'd have friends over to eat after surfing," he remembers. "Mom would serve all these courses, but I wanted to eat fast and go play. It's ironic that I opened Mélisse, where you have to have multiple courses."

He doesn't remember a single moment when he decided to become a chef, but he dates it to late in high school: "I always thought I'd go to college ... until it was time to go to college. With restaurants, I could surf in the morning and work at night."

Soon after graduation, his father hooked him up with kitchen work in fine-dining restaurants in Paris. For three years, he toiled and learned classic French cooking at restaurants including Le Café de la Poste and Le Vivarois. These experiences formed a cornerstone of what he would do when he returned home, but interestingly, it was also a time when the typically conservative French cuisine was folding in other flavors such as the North African spices his mother used. There was also an influx of young Japanese chefs coming to Paris to learn.

Back in Los Angeles in 1990, Citrin was drawn to innovative restaurants run by inventive chefs, like Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main, and Joachim Splichal's cutting-edge Patina. Citrin would work at both.

"I was at Chinois on Main for two years and Patina for two years," he recollects. "What I learned was to adapt the French lessons to American restaurants." This included greater attention to the shifting availability of prime produce, but also a looser feeling: "At Chinois on Main, we served family-style. It was easier to plate but also just felt easier. It was delicious and intricate, but easier."

In 1996, Citrin and chef Raphael Lunetta, with whom he'd worked elsewhere, opened JiRaffe. "When you're a 28-year-old trying to make your name, you push limits," he says. "It was lower-end bistronomy, like fine dining but in a bistro." Citrin left on amicable terms in 1999 to open Mélisse.

While today the dining room at Mélisse is the picture of refinement, it was not so at first: "Believe me, when I opened in 1999, the look was totally different. I didn't know what I was doing and I had no money."

What he had, besides hard-earned chops, were good connections to sources that would support his goals: "I had spent a lot of time searching for great products, so I had forged great relationships with farmers. Most proteins are available 12 months of the year. Vegetables are more exciting because you can only use them for a limited time. You get to start over every year." Charcoal may be a steak house, but seasonal vegetables are given major roles, and his contacts get him special produce.

Citrin also riffs on the old rack of sauces on every table. Each of his sauces has some twist. The idea behind his vinegar sauce comes from a place called La Tantina de Burgos in Biarritz, France, but here has touches of lemongrass and ginger; "it's the least-used sauce [in the restaurant], but I use it on everything, dipping, salad." The chimichurri has pickled mustard seed, an idea he got when he was gifted a jar in a swag bag. The barbecue sauce has red wine and smoky chipotles. Taste the steak sauce and you'll know where it comes from: "I loved A.1. sauce, but I couldn't use that, so I made J.1."

Chef de cuisine Joseph Johnson grew up in Petersburg, Va., a lot farther from the surf than Citrin, but just as close to the kitchen. "My mother and grandmother were always cooking; we didn't go to restaurants," he remembers. "I was curious, always watching, being nosy."

He watched cooking shows too, especially Emeril and Iron Chef, but says, "It didn't occur to me that I could be a cook." His mother worked reception at a hotel; at 16, he joined the property's restaurant as a dishwasher. "Then I got bored, so I asked to help prep. I'm pretty sure I got on a lot of people's nerves because I asked a lot of questions."

By 17, he was in charge of breakfast. He rose quickly and soon was running the kitchen. Around this time, he thought, "I'm really good at this, and I like it. Should I stay here or go to school and broaden my horizons?"

He started at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena in 2010. "I vowed I wouldn't work in hotels again. There is a lot of food waste; it's one-note, repetitive work." His first externship was at Savory in Malibu, a boutique place run by decorated chef Paul Shoemaker. "I worked every station and learned a lot," he says. "It was a great introduction to California cuisine. We were shopping at the market; everything was made from scratch; it was all fresh, simple flavors."

The day before Thanksgiving 2012, he dropped off a résumé at the back door of Mélisse. Two days later, he staged there, and that night, he was offered a job. "My goal was to not leave until I could lead the kitchen or be sous chef," he says. "I moved up stations and was sous in about a year, and did that for two years." He was working an event with Citrin when the chef cornered him and said, "Hey, do you want to be the chef at Charcoal?"

He has enjoyed the change. "I do miss Mélisse, but we use a lot of the same techniques, but simpler and not as showy. This food speaks to me more. I want to cook for everyone."

The original concept for Charcoal had a few simple elements: Cook 90 percent of the food over fire; have sauces on the tables; serve family-style. And despite sophisticated flavors, a lot of the dishes here are rooted in simplicity.

The cabbage recipe that Citrin and Johnson have provided here is dead-simple technique-wise but gives new texture and flavor to the vegetable, and "the yogurt and sumac brighten it and bring it to life," Citrin says. For their oyster appetizer dish, "We wanted to create something simple and classic. This is a riff on oysters Rockefeller, with crunch from the crumbs and a little smoke."

On a sunlit outdoor wooden table, a platter with a sliced porterhouse accompanied by bowls of sauces and glasses of red wine
The porterhouse recipe and technique were inspired by chef Josiah Citrin's children, as his son likes filet and his daughter likes New York strip. (Oriana Koren)

The technique on the main event was born of the practical challenge of cooking both muscles in a porterhouse-tenderloin filet and strip steak-properly. "My son likes filet and my daughter likes New York strip, so I had to cook it perfect," Citrin explains. "Sous vide, the results are good, but that's not cooking. I wanted that result but with fire. So I turn it every 30 seconds for five minutes, then rest for five, then grill again, three times. It's low and slow on a grill."

The technique behind the potatoes came from a time he saw them being cooked in the coals at a house in Nice. The rest of the dish combines the American stuffed potato with chef techniques. Chefs often salt by using salty ingredients rather than salt itself: "I love the salt nuggets in aged Gouda, so I put that in. It's decadent: It's a gratin, basically, with the cream and cheese. Aged Gouda takes it up a level."

Even the dessert feels the kiss of fire. "When you're grilling in summertime, you usually eat a lot, so dessert has to be light and refreshing," Citrin says. "Stone fruit takes grilling really well." Yogurt brings creamy texture and tang, and quinoa a nice crunch.

"Grilling is cooking by intuition," Citrin says. "You're always learning when you're grilling. With live fire, you feel it and hear it. There's so much life to it."

It's particularly evocative for Johnson: "My dad was animated and funny when he cooked, because he didn't cook much, so grilling reminds me of hanging out in the yard waiting for Dad to cook. After Hurricane Isabel, we had no electricity for two weeks. We had candles inside, ice, grilling food. It was the best."

GRILLED OYSTERS WITH HIBISCUS SEAWEED BUTTER & TOASTED BREADCRUMBS

18 large oysters, such as Hama Hama, Fanny Bay or Beausoleil, scrubbed clean
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
Hibiscus Seaweed Butter (recipe follows)
Rock salt, for serving

1. Preheat a charcoal or gas grill to medium-high. Grill the oysters until they pop, then remove from the grill. Heat a small saucepan over medium and toast the breadcrumbs, stirring constantly to be sure they don't burn.

2. Place a small dollop of the Hibiscus Seaweed Butter on each oyster and let melt. Sprinkle the oysters with toasted breadcrumbs and serve on a bed of rock salt. Serves 6.

To Make the Hibiscus Seaweed Butter

1/4 cup shredded wakame seaweed
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
1 teaspoon fleur de sel
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped dried hibiscus
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Pour 1 cup water into a small bowl. Add seaweed and let bloom until rehydrated, about 10 minutes. Wring out excess water and coarsely chop. Mash the seaweed, shallot, chives, fleur de sel, pepper and hibiscus with the butter until thoroughly combined. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours.

CABBAGE BAKED IN EMBERS, WITH YOGURT, SUMAC & LEMON ZEST

3 cups Greek yogurt
Zest of 3 lemons
3 teaspoons sumac
6 tablespoons chopped chives
Juice of 3/4 lemon
3 large heads green cabbage
Extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing
Fleur de sel, to taste

1. In a medium bowl, combine yogurt, lemon zest, sumac, chives and lemon juice. Stir to combine. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and chill in the refrigerator.

2. Preheat a charcoal grill to medium-high.

3. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add about 1 tablespoon salt per quart of water. Add 1 head cabbage and cook for 1 minute. Transfer to an ice-water bath. Repeat with second head of cabbage, then third. Once cool, transfer to paper towels and dry well.

4. Drizzle the cabbage with oil to coat completely. Using long-handled tongs, bury cabbages in the coals and let roast 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Remove and let cool 10 minutes. Cut into quarters. Place on a platter and sprinkle with fleur de sel. Serve with the yogurt sauce alongside, tearing off pieces of cabbage and dipping them into the sauce. Serves 6.

SLOW-GRILLED PORTERHOUSE

1/2 cup sel gris
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to finish
1 teaspoon ground Javanese pepper
1 teaspoon brown sugar
One 48-ounce prime porterhouse steak, preferably 35-day dry-aged
Mayonnaise
Extra-virgin olive oil
Fleur de sel

1. Prepare a charcoal grill over medium-high heat. In a bowl, combine sel gris, black pepper, Javanese pepper and brown sugar. Set aside.

2. Let the steak come to room temperature, 30 to 45 minutes. When the grill is very hot, brush steak with a thin layer of mayonnaise on both sides to coat. Season generously with the rub.

3. Place steak on the hottest part of the grill. Sear over direct heat, turning every 30 seconds, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a sheet pan fitted with a wire rack and let rest for 5 minutes. (Resting the large cut helps control the internal temperature.) Return steak to hottest part of grill and sear, turning every 30 seconds, until beginning to char, about 5 minutes more. Transfer again to wire rack to rest for 5 minutes. Return steak to hottest part of grill and sear a third time, turning every 30 seconds until nicely charred but not burnt, about 5 minutes more. Transfer to wire rack for final 5-minute rest. Steak should be medium-rare. If using a smaller porterhouse, shorten the cooking and resting times accordingly.

4. Slice the filet and remove the center bone. Cut each side into 1/4-inch-thick slices. On a serving platter, rearrange bone and steak pieces in formation. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with fleur de sel and pepper. Serves 6.

COAL-BAKED POTATOES WITH SALTED BUTTER, CRÈME FRAÎCHE, AGED GOUDA & CHIVES

6 russet potatoes, 12 to 16 ounces each
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) salted butter, such as beurre de baratte
7 ounces crème fraîche
6 ounces aged Gouda, grated (a little less than 2 cups)
3/4 cup finely chopped chives

1. Prepare a Big Green Egg or regular charcoal grill for high heat, using enough coals to submerge all of the potatoes completely. When coals are red-hot, use long heat-proof tongs to bury the potatoes entirely in the hot coals. Cook for 30 to 35 minutes without moving. If necessary, adjust coals to keep potatoes buried. When potatoes are tender, remove.

2. Split the potatoes lengthwise. Fluff the insides with a fork, and mix 2 tablespoons salted butter into each. When the butter has melted and the inside of each potato is fluffy, top with a dollop of crème fraîche, followed by a generous sprinkling of Gouda. Garnish with chives. Serves 6.

GRILLED STONE FRUIT WITH YOGURT, MAPLE SYRUP & PUFFED QUINOA

3 large, firm peaches or nectarines, sliced 1/4-inch thick (high quality frozen peaches may be substituted)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups sheep's milk yogurt or Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons maple syrup
6 tablespoons puffed quinoa or granola

1. Preheat a charcoal or gas grill to medium-high. Brush the sliced fruit with olive oil on one side to prevent sticking. Grill fruit oiled side down, until light grill marks appear. Remove fruit from the grill.

2. Spoon 1/2 cup yogurt into each of 6 martini glasses. Top with a large spoonful of grilled peaches and drizzle with maple syrup. Sprinkle with the grains. Serves 6.

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