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By Olivia Boler
Mark Pastore, owner of Incanto Restaurant and Wine Bar on Church Street, recalls his first meeting with his restaurant's chef, Chris Cosentino. It was 2003, a year after Incanto opened. Pastore interviewed over a hundred candidates for the job. He called a friend who immediately recommended an ambitious young man. "Chris pulled up on his bicycle with the faux-hawk and tattoos," Pastore says with a fond laugh. "I knew my prayers had been answered."
Chef Cosentino might wear the trappings of a punk rocker--what he describes as his Upper Playground (a Lower Haight shop) T-shirt, rolled-up jeans, and clogs--but he's all business when it comes to the fine Italian cuisine that is a major part of his heritage and daily life. Working 16 hours a day doesn't leave much time for relaxation--never mind a rock-and-roll lifestyle--for this chef, businessman, retired bicycle racer, husband, and father of a 3-year-old boy.
"I don't do the Martha's Coffee thing, I don't hang out on 24th Street," Cosentino, 35, admits. He lives near Dolores Park and rides his bicycle to work. "I would like to think that people view [Incanto] as a huge part of the neighborhood."
He says a large percentage of the restaurant's diners are Noe Valley locals, but with high praise and accolades from industry insiders, including inclusion on San Francisco Chronicle's list of Top 100 Restaurants and a 2006 Santé magazine award in the sustainable foods category, Incanto draws customers from all over the Bay Area.
In fact, because of Cosentino's recent turn on the Food Network television series The Next Iron Chef, Incanto is getting a lot of business from--wait for it--Clevelanders. If readers aren't familiar with the show, The Next Iron Chef, an offshoot of the hugely popular Iron Chef America, is a competitive reality show in which eight chefs go through a series of cooking challenges, and are judged on creativity, presentation, and leadership by a panel of culinary experts. As an example, at one point during the six episodes this fall, Cosentino was asked to make a dessert using tripe--without butter or sugar. He succeeded in that feat, along with several other challenges, and was third to the last to be knocked out of contention. His friend Michael Symon, chef of Lola in Cleveland, Ohio, eventually won the Next Iron Chef title, and has been sending hungry patrons to pal Cosentino.
Cosentino had already appeared on Iron Chef America last April. He was one of several world-class chefs who "battled" Iron Chef Mario Batali, a cooking industry dynamo with his own TV show, Molto Mario.
Celebrity No Piece of Cake
While business is good for Incanto and Cosentino, there are downsides to celebrity. Before the shows aired, more than one restaurant diner told Cosentino that they didn't want him to win the title of Iron Chef because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to get a table at Incanto anymore.
Cosentino found this really frustrating. "Of course I want to win [the TV competition].... This restaurant is also a business, and we do need people to come in. We can't have an empty house just so you can stroll in and eat anytime you want."
Cosentino does get recognized on the street, mostly by kids, he says, but celebrity is not why he got into cooking. "It's bizarre. All I ever wanted was to make a restaurant where every chef would want to go and eat." He rails about food celebrities like Rachael Ray ("a nincompoop with no real experience who everyone loves because she's like their sister") and the under-appreciated talents of chefs such as New York's Bobby Flay (another Iron Chef winner).
"Unfortunately, we all have to pay our dues," Cosentino says. "I paid them by working two jobs, not having a lot of money. When I first came to San Francisco, I would work 14-hour days for two weeks straight without a break, and then I'd take on a gig on my day off, because that's what I had to do. Today, I don't make over a hundred thousand dollars. I can't afford to buy a house. But I'm always working. I'm not sure what to say about the celebrity phenomenon, but I do see kids who come into this business thinking they're going to be a TV star, but then they realize it's actual work. I got into it for the instant gratification, so I could cook for people and make them happy."
His experience working at restaurants such as Chez Panisse, and with chefs like legendary Jean-Louis Palladin of the Watergate in Washington, D.C., also taught Cosentino that the job was far from glamorous. "In this business, there are always curve balls, like a piece of equipment breaks in the kitchen and you have to fix it yourself. It's always a challenge, but in the end, it's the food that matters."
New Salumi Society
And food is what Cosentino focuses on with intensity, even if what he likes to serve might give some people pause. Offal, or non-muscular meats, are his passion, as anyone can see by his web site, www.offalgood.com. Offal includes things like heart, lungs, liver, eyes, and brain, and Cosentino doesn't shrink from using such ingredients--they underscore his belief in "whole-animal," or what some call "green" cuisine.
Incanto's menu, which changes daily, almost always includes an appetizer of house-cured meats, known in Italian as salumi, which has spun off into a second business for Cosentino and Pastore. They recently opened Boccalone (www.boccalone.biz), described as an "artisanal salumi business." Small batches of the cured meats are manufactured in an Oakland factory and can be purchased at Incanto, 1550 Church Street, on the second and fourth Saturday of the month, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The people who raise the meats and make the salumi are on hand to answer questions and offer tastings.
Several of Boccalone's 23 items are hard to find, such as ciccioli, or pork terrine. Cosentino and Pastore describe it as "unctuous," and it's basically the "parts of the pig that are difficult to chew, like the gristle, sinew, and skin," says Cosentino. "It's spiced with rosemary and garlic, and becomes soft and gelatinous when cooked. I like to cube it and toss it in with some beans." Other products include lardo, which is cured pork back-fat that can be spread like butter on grilled bread or figs, as well as more common specialties like mortadella and paté.
Having more control over the quality of the meats, fish, and produce he serves will mean Cosentino can continue to bring exotic new tastes to Incanto's customers. And his reach and that of the restaurant may soon extend far beyond Iron Chef America, with or without a title win.
"It's amazing how TV can break stereotypes," he says. "At Incanto, we've always done things differently. We started filtering our water five years ago, and now it's the norm, and Mark was just interviewed on a French television show about that. We also do a service charge so that the kitchen staff can get raises. There's always been inequalities in pay between the kitchen and the front of restaurants. We also offer health care to our full-time employees. We're proud of what we stand for. We're really ahead of the curve."