Playing with Fire

Posted March 23, 2016 by The Argonaut in Columns

Joe Johnson of Charcoal Venice on the art of cooking with open flame

By Richard Foss (

Joe Johnson’s tried-and-true grilling techniques create complex flavors from nothing more than fire and hot coals Photo by Richard Foss

Joe Johnson’s tried-and-true grilling techniques create complex flavors from nothing more than fire and hot coals
Photo by Richard Foss

For many people, a day off is a great excuse to fire up the grill and invite friends over. Famed chef Josiah Citrin was no different; when not working at his French restaurant Melisse he liked to barbecue with friends. One day he hatched the idea of starting a restaurant specializing in charcoal-grilled food, and invited his sous-chef Joe Johnson to run the place.

The two men collaborated in the design of the restaurant and creation of the menu, and Charcoal opened on Washington Boulevard late last year. Johnson has been startling diners with dishes that evoke subtlety from simple cooking methods, and he was happy to share tips about the art of cooking with open flame.

Can any backyard cook do the same things you do here?

This isn’t a high-technique style of cooking, though we do use three different stoves that are suited to different purposes. We have a big Green Egg barbecue (a ceramic version of the Weber kettle) for charcoal roasting and slow cooking, and a woodstove for grilling and finishing our meats. The only thing that would be hard for a home cook to come by is the Josper high-temperature charcoal oven, an expensive piece of equipment that gets much hotter than any home barbecue.

We have an open kitchen so the customers can see us working, and some of them find it funny to see us running back and forth between three different grills.

Then why is your barbecue so different from what we’d make at home?

If you’re a backyard cook who does this maybe once a month, even if you get a great result one time you may not remember what you did for the next time. I do this every day and have both practice and an intellectual knowledge.

There are things I do by instinct, like arranging the meat on the grill so there’s an even flow of heat. There are also techniques I have learned or developed that take the characteristics of what I’m cooking into account. For instance, we split our ducks and cook them skin side down on the big Green Egg. That simultaneously renders the fat and bakes the meat, and I know how much time and temperature is needed to get that skin crisp and flesh cooked. After that’s done I know how long to let it rest before serving. That understanding about each thing we cook is the difference.

And you cook the whole
meal using charcoal, including the vegetables?

Vegetarians can come to this restaurant and have the time of their life because we do unique things with smoking and wood-roasting vegetables. I brought friends who are vegetarians here and they ate better than I did.

Can you give us some examples?

We roast a whole cabbage in the coals. It takes about an hour and when done it looks like a charred black ball, but inside it’s all green and moist. We quarter it and season it with butter, salt, olive oil and chives, with sumac yogurt on the side. We grill cauliflower on the Josper, and roast carrots in the coals and serve them with ricotta, black pepper and honey. We roast kohlrabi and serve it with our raw fish dish which is also kissed with coals — we take red hot coals and touch the surface of the fish to give it a slight smoky char, even though the meat remains raw.

Are these vegetable dishes based on some traditional method?

I haven’t found any tradition of roasting a cabbage that way, but cultures in Latin America cook other vegetables on the coals. The cowboys used to do the same thing … the first thing their chuck wagon cooks did when they made camp was get a fire going and bury a bean pot in it.  When I was in the Boy Scouts we used to do what’s called a hobo pack — you wrap your meat, potato and vegetables all together and put it in the coals. People think it would burn the food, but when done right it doesn’t — it slowly bakes it.

Do you use different kinds of charcoal to get different effects?

We use oak and hickory lump charcoal exclusively. Mesquite would have too strong of a flavor and would mask the natural elements. You might think that since we use the same wood throughout it’s going to all taste the same, but the variety of cooking techniques make it possible to get many different effects and aspects of the grilled flavor. There are varying intensities of the smoke; there are some that have a caramelized flavor or that are infused and perfumed by the tastes of the dripping juices or fat of whatever you’re cooking. There are different dynamics, and we supply condiments and sauces that complement each item. It’s not just the grill flavor; it’s everything else around it.

Josiah Citrin barbecued as a vacation from making French food. What do you do on your day off — break out the saucepans and make fancy dishes?

I’ve been known to break out the sauté pans, to hit the blender for smoothies and to make salads. I eat a lot of meat during the week, so when I go home I want some greens, either raw or simply cooked. I enjoy the meals we make here a lot, but on my day off I’m done with smoke.


Charcoal Venice, 425 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey (310) 751-6794


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