| November 2012
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By Corrie M. Anders
For the past 10 years, Incanto restaurant on Church Street has provided a warm and often sizzling environment for the creations of Chef Chris Cosentino. Photo by Corrie M. Anders
Chris Cosentino has guts. Both literally and figuratively.
Noe Valley’s most daring chef recently took his love for all things offal to a national television audience and returned home with the top prize in a reality cooking competition.
Cosentino, executive chef at Incanto Italian restaurant on Church Street, needed only two words to describe his triumph in the just completed Season Four of Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters.
The catchy slogan sums up his culinary philosophy, says the 40-year-old celebrity as he reflects on his latest adventure. He is sitting in the front section of Incanto, surrounded by empty tables and upturned chairs, on a Wednesday in October, hours before the dinner crowd arrives.
For someone who is constantly taste-testing, cooking, and entertaining, Cosentino shows only the slightest hint of a paunch. He looks like the foodie rock star he is, sporting a circle beard, a small gold hoop in each earlobe, heavy-framed black glasses, and arms coated with tattoos. The tats include 13 gold stars circling a ship’s anchor that’s the state flag of his native Rhode Island, a butcher’s diagram of a hog, and a set of utensils—knife, fork, and spoon.
After competing on three cooking shows in the ’00s—Iron Chef America (2007), The Next Iron Chef (2007), and Chefs vs. City (2009)—Cosentino says he swore off reality TV for a while. But this summer, Bravo offered him a high-profile stage on which he could display his kitchen artistry while winning money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a charity that seeks a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
Cosentino is all too familiar with the crippling neurological disorder. He had an uncle who suffered from Parkinson’s for 30 years, and died from complications not too long ago. The mother of a friend has Parkinson’s, as does one of his mentors, says Cosentino.
Top Chef Masters “was a chance for me to stretch my neck out pretty far for something I believe in,” says Cosentino.
The Playmate Challenge
And stretch he did, by creating a remarkable variety of dishes, many featuring organ meats.
Among the plates he served during the 10-week competition were a pork-and-chicken-liver p‰té with hazelnuts and truffles; seared foie gras in a fig-rose-champagne sauce; and prawns with sautéed celery, thyme, pine nuts, and chili threads.
Cosentino says the aim of the contest was to put cooks “in uncomfortable situations to see how you’d handle it,’’ such as outdoor grilling on a rainy day with a grill that failed to work.
His most frustrating challenge came in Episode 5, when he had to please a pretentious Playboy Bunny.
“There was one Playmate and a bunch of her drunk friends,” says Cosentino, still mildly irritated, and he needed to make “a light, diet meal for the Playboy Bunny” and some “greasy foods” for the others.
The hors d’oeuvre he crafted was a tataki-style canapé of tuna bacon—with compressed watermelon, pistachios, and cherry tomatoes—that he hickory-smoked and seared.
The dish “didn’t go over very well,” he says.
For the show’s finale on Sept. 26, Cosentino created a four-course dinner featuring beef heart tartare with foie gras and fried beef tendon, scallops with pancetta and sea urchin, tripe Napoletana, and blood sausage with poached oyster and a duck egg cooked sunny-side up.
That one sealed his victory, and he was crowned Top Chef Master for 2012. Cosentino’s accumulated winnings—$141,000—were donated to the Fox foundation.
Still, it took a bit of audacity for Cosentino to prepare meals that demonstrated his endorsement of “whole animal” eating—consuming the entrails of cattle, sheep, pigs, and barnyard fowl.
Until the last decade or so, the rural South has been the only place in the country to embrace pickled pig’s feet, chitterlings, hog maws, haggis, and other cheap offal cuts—food “the rest of the world didn’t take a liking to.”
But “times have changed,” says Cosentino, and largely thanks to him, head-to-tail eating is back in style.
“What you’re seeing is a rejuvenation of understanding peasant foods—and you’re seeing a lot of people wanting to know where their meat comes from,” he says.
Other chefs have taken notice, and are too broadening their horizons. “Anybody can grill a piece of beef and put a little salt and pepper on it and call it a day,” says Cosentino, “but to learn to cook some of those tougher cuts of meat or work with some of those off cuts people aren’t used to takes quite a bit of work. That’s a really special skill.”
A Kitchen in Naples
A bit of haughtiness can sometimes slip through Cosentino’s otherwise gracious demeanor. But he’s as soft as warm butter when he talks about growing up in the presence of Rosalie Cosentino, his great-grandmother from Naples, who’s now deceased.
She made dandelion wine, hand-cranked her own pasta, grew tomatoes in coffee cans to make sauces, kept indoor window boxes filled with oregano, basil, and parsley, and preserved vegetables from her backyard garden.
“She used to cook tripe [cow’s stomach] and I used to remember the horrific smell. I hated it,” says Cosentino.
But he also hung around in her kitchen and watched what she did. “That’s a very cool way to be around as a kid. And I think that really opened my eyes and gave me insight into something I didn’t really understand.
“It makes sense now,” he says. “It’s a really big part of what I am now.”
Rising to the Top
Cosentino is an enthusiastic student and collector of cookbooks, and today owns a library of 1,500 titles. But he admits he wasn’t much of a scholar in his youth. He graduated from high school in 1990 “barely, by the skin of my teeth,” and was conditionally accepted into his alma mater, Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.
Once he found his way to San Francisco in 1996, the rising chef sharpened his talents in the Bay Area kitchens of Alice Walters and Francis Ford Coppola, and served as a consulting chef for Michael Minna’s Aqua Group. Then 10 years ago, Incanto owner Mark Pastore selected Cosentino as the executive chef for his new restaurant, located on the former site of Speckmann’s German Restaurant.
It wasn’t long before Pastore knew he had a star. “I’ve watched for years as Chris has poured his heart and soul into food he believes in,” says Pastore. “We succeeded on our own terms. We’re not making pizza or meatballs that people understand and love. We’re challenging people to eat something they don’t know. It’s challenging, but most rewarding.”
Clothes, Cutlery and Comics
Cosentino expresses some ambivalence about his chosen path. “You have a direction and you set out to do something in life. That’s the goal,” he says. “But you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Some days it works. Some days it doesn’t.”
But the indefatigable innovator seems to have everything working these days. In the last two years alone, he has co-founded the Boccalone Salumeria shop at the Ferry Building, opened a pork-oriented restaurant in Los Angeles aptly named “Pigg,” created a line of men’s pants, and designed a sold-out line of footwear for Mozo Shoes.
Last May, he published his first cookbook,Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal” (Williams-Sonoma), and even found time to sign up for another reality cooking show, Time Machine Chefs, which aired in August.
In the next few weeks, Marvel Comics will release aWolverine superhero comic that Cosentino wrote, and the chef’s imprint will be on a new four-knife collection from Shun Cutlery. And he’s putting the finishing touches on a new line of shoes that will launch next spring.
As for Incanto, the restaurant is doing well, says Cosentino. It draws diners from around the city, along with a host of Noe Valley regulars. “We have some people from the neighborhood who eat here at least twice a week,” he says.
The menu changes frequently. A recent one offered entrees such as scallops with cauliflower and lardo; beef breast with lobster mushrooms and snails; lamb cooked in a cocoon of hay; and pork chop with heirloom apples, turnips, roasted shallots, and feather kale.
And there were vegetarian dishes, too.
“We always have vegetarian options on the menu. [But] in some ways I feel like I shouldn’t have to,” Cosentino says, “because when you go to a vegetarian restaurant, they sure don’t have a meat option for anybody who eats meat.”
Tracks of Foie Gras
Incanto no longer sends foie gras out of its kitchen, however, and the restaurant is complying with a new state law that bans the sale of products made from duck and goose livers. During the food industry’s long debate with animal rights activists who felt the forced feeding of poultry to enlarge their livers was abusive, Cosentino’s defense of foie gras resulted in some nasty middle-of-the-night calls and anonymous threats.
“I don’t pay attention” now, he says. “What comes in gets handed over to the FBI.”
Cosentino, who lives in the Inner Sunset with his wife Tatiana and their 7-year-old son Easton, rarely dines in Noe Valley or spends time in the neighborhood.
“I don’t live here. When I’m not at work, I don’t want to be in Noe Valley,” says the chef, whose 8:30 a.m. shift often ends after midnight. “Nothing personal, but there’s no reason for me to come here. I’m here so much that it’s nice to get away.”
He does his produce shopping on weekends at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. While Noe Valley has one of the city’s “really great farmers markets,” he says, he already has a 15-year relationship with his Ferry Building growers, and he buys his meats directly from ranchers.
Cosentino says he’d love to make more time for his other passions—endurance bicycle racing, skiing, and traveling. And he wouldn’t pass up the chance to host his own television show.
All would generate an atmosphere that could inspire new culinary creations.
“Everything creates a thought process,” he says, “and I think that’s what is really fun.”
Chris Cosentino offers this savory recipe from Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal (Williams-Sonoma, 2012). The cookbook, his first, contains more than 60 recipes for Italian-style first courses, some of which you may have sampled at Incanto restaurant. The cookbook is available at Omnivore Books on Food, 3885 Cesar Chavez St.
Pumpkin, Pumpkin Seeds & Pickled Cranberries
The flavor of this simple combination of sweet, creamy pumpkin, tart picked cranberries, and bitter mustard greens are the essence of fall. To intensify the pumpkin flavor, I used toasted seeds and pumpkin seed oil. This dish would be a great first course for Thanksgiving or a good accompaniment to roasted game birds.
1 pound (500 g) cranberries
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
2 cups (16 fl oz/500 ml) cider vinegar
2 cups (14 oz/440 g) firmly packed brown sugar
1 bay leaf
1 fresh sage sprig
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 Sugar Pie pumpkin, about 1.5 pounds (750 g)
2 tablespoons rendered duck fat
1/3 cup (1-1/2 oz/45 g) pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup (1/4 oz/7 g) fresh sage leaves
2 cups (2 oz /60 g) baby red mustard greens
Pumpkin seed oil for drizzling
To make the pickled cranberries, place the berries in a nonreactive container with the mustard seeds and a pinch of salt. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, bay, sage, thyme, coriander and fennel seeds, and peppercorns to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat, then pour the hot liquids through a fine-mesh sieve over the cranberries. Discard the solids in the sieve. Place a pot lid on top of the cranberries, then placed a large sealed plastic container filled with water on top to keep the berries submerged. Let the cranberries stand in the liquid until cool.
Meanwhile, halve, seed, and peel the pumpkin, then cut it into 1-inch (2.5-cm) cubes. Bring a large saucepan three-fourths full of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pumpkin cubes and cook until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain well and spread the pumpkin cubes on a rimmed baking sheet. Let cool completely.
In a large sauté pan over high heat, warm the duck fat. When hot, add the pumpkin cubes and cook, tossing occasionally, until caramelized, about 4 minutes. Add the pumpkin seeds and sage and sauté until toasted, about 2 minutes. Fold in the mustard greens and cook briefly just until wilted and warm.
To serve, remove the plastic container and lid and warm the cranberries in their pickling liquid over low heat until warmed through. Divide the pumpkin-mustard greens mixture among warmed individual bowls and drizzle each serving with pumpkin seed oil. Use a slotted spoon to divide the cranberries among the bowls (discard the pickling liquid) and serve right away.