Introducing the Daily Meal Council: Chris Cosentino
The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.
Chris Cosentino, aka @OffalChris, is a graduate of the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University and went on to build his résumé at Red Sage in Washington, D.C. and Rubicon, Chez Panisse, Belon, and Redwood Park in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cosentino took his first executive chef position at Incanto in 2002, where his interpretations of rustic Italian fare earned the acclaim until the place closed earlier this year. Along the way, he gained international recognition as a leading expert and proponent of offal cookery. He is now chef/partner of Porcellino, open the site of the former Incanto, and is also the co-creator and chef of Boccalone artisanal salumeria. Cosentino has been notably featured on the Food Network in "Next Iron Chef America" and "Chefs vs. City" and has written for several national publications, including the cult-favorite comic "Wolverine." His first cookbook, Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal, was published by Olive Press in 2012. He won the fourth season of BRAVO's "Top Chef Masters" series, earning over $140,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Cosentino is a brand ambassador for Shun Cutlery, with a proprietary line of knives, and is currently working on a book dedicated to offal with writer and photographer Michael Harlan Turkell, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2015.
What's your earliest food memory?
Having clambakes with my family as a kid in Portsmouth, RI. All of my cousins would come down to the beach and there would be lobsters, steamers, chorizo, clams, corn, and potatoes buried under seaweed and all layered to cook perfectly. Dipping clams in drawn butter and cracking lobsters are some of my fondest and most powerful food memories.
When did you first decide that you wanted to be a chef, and why?
As a 14-year-old I found myself working at an IHOP washing dishes alongside two cooks making breakfast for so many people with so many options. I was completely blown away at what high volume they were cooking at and that energy really resonated with me. I came from family where food was such a big part of our life. I grew up on the beachfront of Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island, digging for clams and fishing for bluefish with my grandparents. As I got older, I started working with my friend’s father helping lobster and commercial fishing, and this instilled in me a deep respect for hyper-fresh product. I was never an ideal student in the classroom, but the kitchen is where I always thrived.
Who was your most important culinary influence?
The first chef that really changed the way I thought and my approach to food was Mark Miller. He was an anthropologist first then a chef second and his approach was so eye-opening. He showed me that understanding history in food would help guide me in the future and I am forever grateful for that. He truly fueled my obsession for food.
What are the most important lessons you learned from that culinary influence?
That the importance of food history is so key to understanding why things work. He also taught me: acid and herbs before salt!
What advice would you give to a young would-be chef just starting out?
Be patient because success and respect of your peers takes time. Listen, read, take notes, and follow direction. Most of all show up early, leave late, and always ask questions. Find a restaurant that you want to work in and a chef you want to learn from. Commit to the restaurant and work your way up the kitchen brigade. Don’t think that you will be the sous-chef in a year. It takes time to build a solid base of skills to work with before you can be a leader.
You were a pioneer of what has come to be called "nose-to-tail" cooking. What led you to this approach?
I wouldn’t call myself a pioneer as I was just reviving what thousands of grandmothers and peasant cooks did all over the world. You don’t need to yell at someone to eat a carrot but to eat liver or tripe you need to be a little more persuasive. I think I just had a big mouth and yelled a lot and that’s why people call me a pioneer. I am a cook who loved the tastes and flavors of all the cuts of meat because they are so unique that I wanted to share those flavors on my menus. Peasant food is based on the principle that you had to make the most out of everything, and at the time when I started cooking these cuts of meat I was focusing on the traditional peasant dishes of Italy. I was also so frustrated and unsettled by how so much of the animal was being pitched into the trash bin because people were afraid of what they didn’t know how to cook. There was such a dearth of appreciation for offal in the U.S. and I was hoping to make sure that these cuts of meat wouldn’t disappear off the dining tables out of fear and the misunderstanding of how to cook them. When prepared properly, each cut has so much to offer and moreover, tastes so damn good.
Have Americans become more appreciative of offal and other "exotic" foods in the years that you've been cooking, and if so, why do you think that is?
I think more people are willing to try offal now than they were even five years ago because more talented chefs are putting it on mainstream menus. Also, great travel programs from people like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern have helped catapult the appreciation of global cuisine overall, including offal.
Do chefs and restaurateurs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?
Yes we have a responsibility to our staff, our guests, and the public to do our jobs with integrity. What I mean by that is treat people well, buy properly, educate, and help by donating time to others, volunteering, and giving back to the community.
What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?
I am opening a new place mid summer in the SoMa area of San Francisco that will be entirely different from what people expect. I’m most excited about that!