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Burning Desire

Oakland chef Charlie Hallowell has a will to grill.


Photos by Paige Green

Charlie Hallowell has always been on fire. A culinary passion sparked at Chez Panisse nurtured the pioneering spirit behind Oakland’s ultrahot Pizzaiolo and its hipster sidekick, Boot and Shoe Service. Penrose, one of Oakland’s hottest new restaurants—with a wood-burning grill at its heart—is Hallowell’s latest flame. So if anyone can get us fired up for a Labor Day barbecue, it’s him.

Q: The grill at Penrose looks hotter than Hades. Is searing the way to go?
A: I love a steak that’s cooked superhot and fast. You get these really interesting textures in your mouth. Eating is my favorite sensual experience—at least one of the top two.

Q: They say charring is a carcinogen. What do you say?
A: I say living is a carcinogen. I like a little char on my food—not too much, but a little.

Q: Why cook with fire?
A: It’s alive. You have to be present and wrap your mind and your heart around it. When you pay more attention to what you’re doing, you become a better human being.

Q: Best local fish to grill?
A: I love salmon on a fig leaf or a cedar plank right over the coals. It’s a little goofy, but it can be delicious.

Q: What about summer produce?
A: September tomatoes are amazing. I’d do blackened tomatoes on the plancha [a slate slab] over the fire.  

Q: What’s key to a grilled feast?
A: You’ve got to balance richness with brightness, and fat with acid. In Italy, a mixed grill is always covered with lemons. A grilled rib eye steak calls for salsa verde and a big garden lettuce salad. You need fresh herbs: You need the feminine.

Q: OK, so how about a summer salsa?
A: Cherry tomatoes, cucumber, shallots, and basil, is one. Roasted Jimmy Nardello peppers [long, sweet peppers], tomatoes, shallots, avocado, and cilantro is another. So good with any meat!

Q: Chefs never rest … but should meat?
A: Meat should always rest after cooking. I just cooked a rib eye roast. It rested for 40 minutes and could have gone longer.

Q: Meat aside, how do you get that great texture on your grilled flatbreads?  
A: Use a little less water in the dough, and add a bit of yogurt. It softens up like naan.

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