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Range & Reef Chef Sets the Backyard Grilling Experience on Fire

Above the live fire blazing from the belly of a professional-grade stainless steel grilling machine that costs as much as a Honda Civic, Chef Jim Holderbaum sees to the beef sirloin slowly turning on the rotisserie and Maine lobsters sweating on the grill grates. He was hired to cook a feast for a few dozen guests gathered on the host’s lawn. And with fresh-never-frozen meat and seafood flown in, especially for the occasion, he won’t disappoint.

He loves the part where the embers’ glow and the hardwood smoke’s sweet aroma, mixed with the umami emanating from the prime beef, lure guests like fruit flies to a ripened banana. They ask, What’s this you’re doing?

“What we do, it’s very visual,” says Holderbaum, owner of Range & Reef, an al fresco dining experience wedged somewhere between a catering service and a personal chef. “We’re not working behind a big tent. We’re part of the event. That’s what makes us a food experience.”

The Science and Art of Live-Fire Grilling

Holderbaum and his staff deliver customized, live-fire dining experiences at corporate events, wedding receptions, and private parties for as few as ten guests to as many as 200 or more. He brings his grills and all the food to any outdoor venue of his client’s choosing in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.  And because the events require extensive planning, preparing, and clean-up, he and his staff can only do about 20-30 events a year.

Grilling over natural wood is both an art and a science. Holderbaum uses primarily oak, apple, or peach wood. The different woods are cut into various shapes to help control how quickly or hot they burn. Each wood infuses the protein with varying notes of flavor. He explains that oakwood tends to burn hotter and produce a heavier smoke, which is best for heartier cuts of beef, such as whole tenderloins and big 40-ounce tomahawk steaks. “Peach wood also burns very hot but has a much more delicate smoke flavor. I use that primarily for seafood, like scallops, shrimp, and swordfish.”

Holderbaum offers a variety of menu recommendations, including West Coast Surf and Turf, Shrimp and Seafood Boil, and Bull and Oyster Roast, to name a few. But he’s also open to trying just about anything to please his clients. One had him tracking down the perfect smoked kielbasa from a small Polish market. Another requested whole sardines, which he found and had flown in from Lisbon, Portugal. The one rule he never bends is that all the ingredients must be fresh, never frozen, and of the highest quality.

The Spark That Lit the Passion

If Holderbaum had one regret, it’s that he didn’t start Range & Reef a decade earlier. If he had, he’d have nearly 20 years of doing what he loved under his belt. But the decades before he launched Range & Reef, traveling the globe as an international development advisor and sampling the local fare, he was unknowingly laying the groundwork for his future career in a rather unconventional business.

“What I do is really unique. I mean, there’s no one else doing this,” he says. “And I absolutely love it.”

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