I originally wrote this article for Smoke Signals Magazine, an online publication of The BBQ Brethren, it is reprinted here with their permission.
Turning something many Americans would easily refer to as awful into meals that San Francisco tourists and residents alike flock to eat is what Chef Chris Cosentino is all about. Chef Cosentino has taken the art of cooking offal to a place most American chefs have shied away from.
According to Chef Cosentino’s website offal is described as “those parts of a meat animal which are used as food but which are not skeletal muscle. The term literally means “off fall”, or the pieces which fall from a carcass when it is butchered. Originally the word applied principally to the entrails. It now covers insides including the HEART, LIVER, and LUNGS (collectively known as the pluck), all abdominal organs and extremities: TAILS, FEET, and HEAD including BRAINS and TONGUE. In the USA the expressions “organ meats” or “variety meats” are used instead.” (www.offalgood.com)
Chef Cosentino’s interest stems from a desire to feature peasant cuisine of Italy, “so much of it is based on offal. When I slaughtered my first animal, I was amazed at how much meat was thrown away. From that moment on, I made it my mission to educate myself about how to cook and use every part of the animal. By doing this I am able to preserve and resurrect old techniques before they are gone.”
“These parts are only thrown away in the USA; every other country in the world eats them. Using every part is simply the right thing to do. When an animal gives its life for food, it’s important to do it justice by serving all of it. Moreover, each cut is beautiful in texture and flavor in its own special way, so why not enjoy all of them,” Chef Cosentino continues on why he gets a certain satisfaction out of making tasty eats from parts of animals most people would throw out.
Watching someone eat offal for the first time in his restaurant Incanto or his salumi Boccolone provides him with a certain satisfaction, “It’s great to see someone change their opinion about something they initially felt was a horrible thing. Most of the time customers have a bad perception of offal because of a past experience where it was not cooked properly or was not fresh,” said Chef Cosentino. “So when you serve offal in all its glory, cooked properly, people are usually very excited at how good it can be. To see the look of hesitation when they first get the dish turn into a smile and then to see clean plate tells me I have done my job.”
Chef Cosentino’s favorite part of the pig? “I love pig’s feet. They are delicious, rich and unctuous. They can be served so many different ways. Whenever I am out to eat, I like to order pig’s feed to see what other chefs like to do with them.”
One of the most important aspects of properly cooking offal is being able to acquire fresh animals and fresh fruits and vegetables. Being located in San Francisco is a key factor in his success, “being in San Francisco has given me access to great small ranchers, which in turn provides me with some of the best animals and produce around. The local farmers become like family; we now work together to find new varieties of vegetables and different stages to serve them. The fact that everything is so close makes things a bit easier.”
As much as Chef Cosentino loves San Francisco he does have other favorite “food” cities, “there are so many great food cities. I love going to New York and Chicago. New York is always pushing the limits of design and food and Chicago is a meat lover’s town, which is near and dear to my heart.”
Chef Cosentino’s history as a chef starts at a young age cranking the handle of his great-grandmother’s pasta machine in her kitchen. He was raised in Rhode Island where he was raised on a fusion of typical New England Yankee fare and classic Italian cooking.
His family has a rich food tradition. His maternal ancestor’s, the Easton’s founded the Easton Sausage Company. Founded in 1860 in Newport, Rhode Island the Easton Sausage company was well known on the Eastern Seaboard for their quality sausage. In 1942 they closed their doors due to a shortage of quality spices. Recently Chris fulfilled what he calls his greatest food achievement by “keeping a promise to my grandparents and brining back Easton’s breakfast sausage from the original family recipe.”
Whether it was cooking in his great-grandmother’s kitchen or the kitchen of Red Sage in Washington DC after his graduation from Johnson and Wales University other chefs have played an important part in his success. Chris lists Marco Pierre White, Fergus Henderson and Martin Picard as inspirations. However, Mark Miller was his most impactful food mentor: “All of the chefs I have worked for have been impactful, but Mark Miller was the first chef I trained under and an amazing teacher. He has also been my harshest critic over the years. He taught me that knowledge is power when it comes to food. And I’ve learned from him that examining history allows me to properly build dishes that make sense.”
“I admire all chefs who put their heads down and works. This is a hard job and it takes a certain type of person to “marry” the kitchen. My hats is off to all chefs who have committed themselves to the stove. I have a lot of admiration for Daniel Patterson of Coi (San Francisco) and David Chang of Momofuku (New York). Each of us, in our own way, has chosen to follow the beat of a different drum,” he said.
Many of Chef Chris Cosentino’s patrons would agree that he has mastered the art of following the beat of a different drum.
(If you’d like to read more about Chef Cosentino take a look at In To The Flames, a new blog from my friend Rob.