From Incanto’s adventurous nose-to-tail menu to the Top Chef Masters kitchen, Chef Chris Cosentino is bringing offal back. As executive chef of the San Francisco Italian hotspot, as well as the artisanal salumeria Boccalone, Cosentino offers with unconventional cuts and challenges perceptions of what constitutes center of plate.
Cosentino’s love of meat is probably genetic – his maternal ancestors founded Rhode Island’s Easton’s Sausage Company. A graduate of Johnson & Wales University, he worked in some of the country’s top kitchens before taking up the executive chef mantle at Incanto in 2002. He won season 4 of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters in 2012 and is currently writing a cookbook on offal cookery.
We sat down with Chris to talk about his passion for often-diregarded cuts, his world travels and his favorite pork dishes.
NPB: What inspired you to become a chef? How does your personal experience growing up in an Italian-American family influence your cooking today?
Chef: I really loved what the kitchen had to offer. It’s a hands-on craft about making people happy. I was a very bad student with many learning disabilities so working in a hands-on career was a natural transition. But seeing people be happy over a plate of food was the deciding factor. I have so many great food memories from eating with my grandparents that it inspired me to become a chef and create those lasting impressions for others. There is something so cool about making people happy with food. It’s a very powerful medium.
NPB: In general, what is your food philosophy? How do you express that in your restaurant, Incanto and salumi business, Boccalone?
Chef: We purchase from responsible ranchers and farmers. We try to educate our staff and guests, as best as possible, and try to improve what we do everyday.
NPB: Your food is offal-centric and you even have a dedicated website, OffalGood.com. What spurred your love affair with offal and made you want to elevate the oftentimes discarded parts of the animal to haute cuisine?
Chef: I am not doing anything new. I am riding on the coattails and backs of thousands of great peasant cooks and grandmas all over the world.
NPB: You are often quoted as wanting “people to understand a whole-animal ethic.” What do you mean by this statement?
Chef: There is more to an animal then chops, loins and bacon. Buying whole animals teaches people to appreciate meat in a whole new way. It’s a very simple thought process. It’s a “nothing-wasted” policy. Use all the animal has to give, make it taste great, and educate people to eat it, and that is how you can change people’s perception one plate at a time.
NPB: If you had to name one chef that has influenced your career the most who would that be and why?
Chef: There are so many chefs who influenced me along my career for many different reasons. If I were to just pick one I would do a disservice to all the others who have spent time and energy on me.
NPB: What is the most interesting non-Italian pork dish you have come across during your travels? What’s the most interesting dish with pork offal?
Chef: I would have to say on a recent trip to Japan, I had a lot of raw pork offal. I ate raw liver, kidney and heart, for a starter. Then we moved into grilling all the offal as yakatori skewers, which were perfectly grilled over binchotan charcoal. There was also a stew of braised pork offal in miso and a dish of grilled pork throat – it was so crunchy and unique in texture.
NPB: Are there any unique ingredients you have found on your travels that pair exceptionally well with pork? Are there any pork and noodle dishes you’ve tried to re-create upon your return? If so, how did it go?
Chef: The great thing about pork is that it’s a very versatile meat that works well with almost anything. That is why it is found in so many food cultures around the world.
NPB: The National Pork Board had the privilege of recently tasting a few items on the Incanto menu including the “Handkerchief Pasta & Rustic Pork Ragù.” What inspired you to menu this dish at Incanto?
Chef: This is a very classic pasta dish known as fazzoliti, which translates to handkerchief. I wanted to do a simple sugo that was a go-to for guests that were timid of other items on the menu. Because we buy whole animals, I needed to make an outlet for all the meat we were processing from these whole hogs.
NPB: What is your favorite authentic Italian pork and pasta dish?
Chef: It’s hard to pick just one pork dish but I would have to say I really love spicy sausage, white beans, rabe and orecchiette. It’s the perfect balance of rich, bitter and spicy, with a pasta shape that translates to little pig ears.
NPB: Can you tell us about Boccalone and the different types of salumi offered? How did you become so passionate about charcuterie?
Chef: At Boccalone, we make 28 different types of cooked, cured and fresh products that are sold direct, which lets us control the product and the message to guests. I started making salumi about 11 years ago because I wanted to have control over the products I was serving to guests, knowing where my meat came from and the final flavor profiles. Also, I needed a lesson in patience and this was a tasty way to learn.
NPB: If you were to recommend a dish with a Boccalone product what would you create and how would you menu it?
Chef: Nduja and cured sardine bruschetta. The heat of the nduja, a spicy Calabrian pork salame, helps the flavor of the sardines to “pop” – a perfect balance of land and sea.
NPB: You are very busy these days, traveling and filming “how-to” videos for Offal Good to writing a comic book and developing a knife-line. What’s next and how do you do all this while running a successful restaurant and salumi business?
Chef: I never really know what is next. I am always trying to get better at what we do at both Incanto and Boccalone. I am working on a new cookbook all about offal and a follow up Wolverine comic book for Marvel. There are a few new knife shapes to come out from my collaboration with Shun Blue. Every day I question if I am doing it all well. It’s a bit maddening.
NPB: What are your favorite pork dishes in the Bay area and where can we find them?
Twice Cooked Bacon and Tan Tan Noodles at Spices
294 8th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94118
Carnitas Burrito at La Palma Mexicatessen
2884 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder from Chef Staffan Terje at Perbacco
230 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111