Chris Cosentino Doesn’t Give a Damn About His Offal Reputation
Chris Cosentino doesn’t think there is anything funny about offal, and he wishes you didn’t either. I caught up with the executive chef of San Francisco’s Incanto during his whirlwind book tour promoting Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal, his first book that ironically doesn’t deal with offal, but instead consists of recipes for starters and small plates. Of course, the meal at DBGB Kitchen & Bar couldn’t go by without a little offal, and though Cosentino ordered the Frenchie burger, it wasn’t long before the kitchen sent out an iron-rich boudin basque, also known as blood and pigs head sausage, and pied de cochon pane, or crispy pigs feet. We ate it all as Cosentino chatted about his past as a hardcore skier, getting saved by chef Chris Santos during a bar brawl in Rhode Island, and his upcoming stint on the fourth season of Top Chef Masters.
Know any good jokes about offal?
No. I don’t joke about offal. It has a hard enough track record and I don’t need to put it in a category where it’s made fun of. It’s already looked down upon and I think when people start joking bout it, it doesn’t demystify it and instead puts it in a category where it’s something to point at and make fun of. I really try to focus on bringing it to light in positive way as much as I can.
It’s hard to do I am sure, though I feel like it’s becoming bigger and bigger.
Yeah, offal has really taken off. You are seeing more chefs knowing where their whole animals are coming from, and the consumers and guests are more interested.
It skipped a generation. You have the children of World War II, right. They had to have it. It wasn’t a choice. So now, my mom’s generation won’t eat it because it was something their parents would try to get them to eat because it was a necessity. Then it skipped over and now this generation, my generation, is more interested in learning how to cook it. It’s interesting how it skipped and jumped. Sometimes if feels like food trends are like clothing trends and stuff regurgitates itself. For instance, 70s clothing, the high-wasted pant is coming back. Personally, I don’t think it should, but just like clothing styles you see disappear and then it comes back, with food it’s same thing.
So what are some things that you have been doing or seen done, to help make people more educated an interested in offal?
A lot of people think about Fear Factor and all those things, but it has nothing to do with that. For me it’s about tasty parts and doing justice to the animal. And doing it the right way by cooking it properly and making it delicious. One of the tricks we use, though it’s not really a trick it’s a fact, is that we use the familiar with the unfamiliar. You can put bacon with a cut someone isn’t familiar with and they would be willing to try it. What you are dealing with is that the majority of the public has never had offal cooked properly, or they are advised to the texture. There is a culture of texture all over the world, and in the United States we are a culture of crispy. Our potato chips, our French fries, our fried, our fried, our fried. If you say crispy on a menu it sells.
So unctuous, gelatinous, jiggley is not really sexy and people don’t really want to gravitate to that style. That being like chicken feet, beef tendon, or liver, people don’t like granulated when it’s over cooked but they don’t like it undercooked either because they can’t deal with the quiver. So like with tripe, we will fry so it gives you that well-known, crispy texture. Also, everybody wants everything to be tender. They don’t want to chew the meat they just want it to melt. But sometimes toothsome meat is good. I am not saying it should not be like chewing a rock, but like octopus, that’s also toothsome.
What are some of the other things are you doing to highlight offal?
I just do what I do. I don’t try to reinvent the wheel, I just try to make it taste good and make people feel comfortable with it.
Is there an ingredient you find harder to work with?
Not really, there is always something to learn with every product. I learn from my mistakes. There is always a way to get better. Every year we do our head to tail and I have never had a repeat dish in nine years.
Is there a piece of the animal you really like?
You know, I don’t pick favorites. I feel that all the cuts are good. It’s like me coming to a parent with six kids and saying, “Pick your favorite.” For me, I love different cuts for different reasons. I love pigs feet, I love trotters—always have, always will. They have magical-ness to them and can be used in so many ways. But there is no perfect cut for anything. Each one gives me a different result and the guest a different experience.
In your new, and first cookbook, what made you decide to break the mold and not write about offal?
The book Beginnings is very different because 80 percent is all vegetable. It’s all about first course food and setting the tone for the meal. I think that’s a really important thing. You can either set a bad tone or a good tone. Like when you go to a show when that curtain opens, you really want it to catch your eye and keep your attention. You hear a lot of people say, “The best part of the meal is the first course,” or, “I liked the starters.” I really wanted to focus on that and give people options.
It’s a deviation from what you are known for.
Yeah, it was kind of my gentle “fuck you” to everybody who was expecting me to have an all-intestine book. I am not a one-trick pony and unfortunately, the populace thinks I am, so I wanted to do something different.