Offal good: Checking in with Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco

“Offal, huh? Must taste like it sounds.” Ba-dum-dum.

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard more than once, and quite possibly one I myself expressed multiple times many years back. Heart. Tongue. Brain. Kidney. The “nasty bits”, many wouldn’t consider sniffing at. How can it possibly be any good? I can tell you from personal experience, though, that when these cuts are handled by the hands of a capable chef, they can be good. “Offal” good.

One such chef is Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco. Having built a brand around offal, Cosentino is part of a movement of chefs that see the importance (and common sense) of utilizing every part of an animal. Waste not, want not! I had the opportunity to check in with Chef Cosentino, touching on where his love of food came from, the importance of passing on cooking knowledge, and writing his first cookbook.

Chris Cosentino
Chris Cosentino

Foodie Journal: Did you always love to cook?
Chris Cosentino: Yes, I grew up around great cooks.  My great grandmother, Rosalie Cosentino, was from Naples, Italy and my grandmother, Helen Easton, was an amazing English cook.  Some of my most cherished childhood moments are with both of them in the kitchen, making great food memories and learning from them.

FJ: Where did you end up getting your start in the business?
CC: My true beginning in the food business was at a ripe age of 15 as a dishwasher at IHOP.  It amazed me to watch the 2 cooks make so much food with such perfect timing and execution.  Ever since that first job I have craved knowledge of food and been passionate about cooking.

FJ: It seems like offal has really become much more common place in restaurants these days. Why did you decide to gravitate towards offal, and nose to tail cooking in general?
CC: When I started cooking offal 10 years ago it wasn’t very common.  Now, it is great to see it featured on so many menus in the country.

FJ: Do you have a favorite piece of offal that you enjoy working with?
CC: Each cut of offal is so unique that I couldn’t pick just one.  It would be like picking your favorite child.

FJ: I saw a web short from Breville where you’re out on the town with Chef Jamie Bissonnette in Boston, and you both touch on the importance of teaching others to cook. Can you just speak a little about why teaching others to cook really is so important?
CC: Sharing with peers is extremely important because technique and product sharing can help change the way people work to improve the quality of food.  If we don’t share our knowledge of cooking, we don’t see progression for the next generation.  Like the many great chefs who came before us, it is our responsibility to make sure each generation is growing and making the food world better for everyone.

FJ: In line with teaching people, you just published your first cookbook last year. What was the experience of getting that out there like? Ready to get started on your next one?
CC: It was a huge challenge.  I was always a poor student so writing a book was a big personal achievement.  I was always told that you should never write like you speak when I was in school and now everyone tells me to write so they can hear my voice!  I learned so much from this first experience and I can’t wait to make my next cookbook even better.

FJ: The final question for you: Do you have a specific food memory from your life that you’d like to share?
CC: I feel so fortunate to have so many great taste memories in my life.  At the age of 12 years old I ate a raw clam on the half shell alongside my grandfather, Thurston Easton, for the first time.  I had never had an uncooked clam so when he busted open the clam, drizzled on some lemon, and told me to chew it, it was a total game changer.  It was crunchy with a huge explosion of brininess but it was also so delicate.  I was immediately hooked and ate a dozen.  To this day, I will always love them and think of my grandfather.

Chris Cosentino is chef/partner at Incanto, located at 1550 Church Street, in San Francisco. He released his first cookbook, “Beginnings: My Way To Start a Meal” in 2012.

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Architecting the American dining scene as we know it: A conversation with Jeremiah Tower

Jeremiah Tower was supposed to be an architect. A young man at the time, he was on his way to Hawaii to do just that. But, as has happened throughout history to many a young man trying to make their mark, Jeremiah hit a snag. He was down to his last $25, and stuck in San Francisco. So, what’s a man to do?

Why not become one of the individuals credited with completely redefining the American dining scene? Perhaps become the person that many consider to be “the father of California cuisine”?

If you ask him, Jeremiah will be the first to tell you that he never set out to change the culinary world. A lover of food since childhood, working as a chef seemed a natural way to earn some money so that he could continue on to Hawaii as he’d planned. Along the way, however, things changed. Not only did Jeremiah find success in the kitchens of California, he found a way to become one of the main architects of the American dining scene many of us know and love today.

I recently had the honor  to speak with Chef Tower. During our conversation we spoke a bit about where his love for food began, what it’s like to have had such an enormous impact on the culinary world, and what he has on the horizon for the culinary world.

Jeremiah Tower - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Jeremiah Tower – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

Foodie Journal: When was it that you first realized that you had a love for food?
Jeremiah Tower: I fell  in love with food and restaurants when I was five, and we lived in Sydney. There was severe  food rationing at the time, except for in restaurants, so we ate in them a lot and I was allowed to go along.  The most glamorous at that time was Prunier.

FJ: I take it that food continued to play an important role in your life through your teen years, and when you were in college. What were some of the dishes you enjoyed making in those formative years?
JT: Well, my aunt sent me off to college with a hot plate, a Le Creuset frying pan, two bottles of hundred-year-old Madeira, and her recipe for chicken livers, which I cooked in the closet for my roommates. [LAUGHS] But, a favorite of mine, because of my Russian experiences, I loved making coulibiac, though I don’t typically do it with sturgeon. I prefer salmon, or something similar. Do you know what coulibiac is?
FJ: No, that’s new to me. It’s a typical Russian dish?
JT: Yes, so it’s a brioche pastry in to which is stuffed a whole salmon filet with rice, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs. It’s beautiful in cross-section, and served on a big plate. Then you pour butter and sour cream all over it.
FJ: Wow, that sounds brilliant!
JT: It is! Then you have it with vodka. It’s really unbelievable! Aside from that, I would also make blinis. Obviously without caviar at the time, as it was very expensive.

FJ: So, despite that love for food and cooking, you didn’t originally start down a path that was likely to lead to becoming a chef or a restauranteur. What was it that finally drew you to the kitchen?
JT: Circumstance. I had cooked a lot for friends in college and graduate school, but thought I was going to be an underwater architect. I was on my way to Hawaii to help with a pavilion for a World’s Fair, but I ran out of money in San Francisco. So, a friend suggested I take the job of chef at a café in Berkeley. I was down to my last $25, so I went for an interview.  It was called Chez Panisse.

FJ: Now, from Chez Panisse you moved on to Stars, which was one of the biggest restaurants to open in the United States. Many credit you and what you did there as really changing the landscape of what it means to dine in America. What was it that led you to make Stars in to what it became? Were you interested in “changing the world” so to speak, or did you just want to cook your way?
JT: At the time I was equal partners with Alice Water at Chez Panisse, but I decided to leave after she would not agree to do what is now the café.  I was tired of Berkeley, and wanted to live and work in San Francisco.  I was also in love with the idea of a brasserie,  along the lines of La Coupole or Boeuf Sur le Toit in Paris or the old Delmonico’s in New York, with a huge bar.  But, as a footnote, I really want to say that we had no idea what we were doing in terms of changing things, or creating what became known as California cuisine. I was not aware of the idea that we were changing anything. I was just doing what I wanted to do.  Ultimately, what  I wanted was what Johnny Apple, a writer at the Washington Post, later called “the most democratic restaurant in the USA”.

FJ: You definitely made an impact on the culinary world, and on many chefs with what you did at Stars. I recently had the chance to read your Kindle Single, A Dash of Genius, about Auguste Escoffier, and its obvious that he had a big impact on you as an individual. Can you talk a little about some of the others that impacted who you became as a chef, and what you want to create in the kitchen?
JT: Another mentor was Fernand Point and his book Ma Gastronomie.  I learned to cook from my aunt, her Russian uncle, and also my mother.  Then the two people who influenced me when I was working in restaurants were my great friends Elizabeth David, and Richard Olney.  Another mentor for me, not so much as far as food was concerned but very much for advice in general, was another great friend, James Beard.

Potatoes in paprika - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Potatoes in paprika – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

FJ: So, what do you have in the works now as far as the culinary world is concerned?
JT: Well, 10 minutes ago, I group of people just approached me about opening a dinner club in Merida (Mexico). [LAUGHS] Much to my surprise. But, what’s really going on is the project in New Rochelle, in New York. We’re going to be doing a big urban renewal of some old buildings there, the first of which will be a big food hall. It will involve lots of outreach and educational programs with students and farmers.
FJ: That sounds really exciting! Glad to live not too far from New York so I’ll be able to pay it a visit when it opens.
JT: It will be great for the community. A renewal for the culinary and agriculture in the region. It’s very exciting!

FJ: So on to one of my favorite questions. You’ve had a storied career, and undoubtedly have had countless experiences with food, so I need to ask the impossible question. Is there a particular food memory or experience that stands out in  your mind? Something that really left a mark on you, and solidified what you love about food?
JT: Fried eggs with a blizzard of white truffles in Barcelona last week at Ca l’Isidre. No, just kidding…

I think it was the meals with my aunt, and my Russian space scientist uncle in Washington D.C. when I  was a teenager. My aunt was an extraordinary cook, and my uncle loved to talk about food. It was just amazing to sit around with them, eating and hearing stories told by some of my uncle’s friends, including a man who was a childhood friend of the man who killed Rasputin! These meals would just go on for hours, and I remember that, for me being a teenager, I always saw it as a check of my manhood to start off by trying 5 different types of vodkas, caviars and then make it through dishes like my aunt’s chicken liver with hundred-year-old Madeira. So that was an amazing introduction to how to eat glamorously, because they were glamorous and the conversations were extraordinary.

A Dash of Genius is available as a Kindle Single on Amazon.com. You can stay current with what’s going on in the world of Jeremiah Tower by visiting his website at jeremiahtower.com.

Chatting with Chef Hiro Sone

He’s a James Beard Award winning chef. Both his restaurants, Ame in San Francisco and Terra in St. Helena, have been awarded one Michelin star multiple times, the former also garnering best new restaurant awards from the Zagat Guide and Esquire Magazine when it first opened. Chef Hiro Sone has earned the right to think highly of himself, yet during our brief exchange there was no such attitude. Instead, I found a passionate man from humble beginnings who has nothing but the utmost respect for the ingredients he transforms, and the diners he serves.

Hiro Sone

Foodie Journalist: You were nominated a few times for the James Beard award for Best Chef before you finally won it in 2003. Did it ever bother you to not have won those first years you were nominated?
Hiro Sone: Did not bother me at all.  I’m not a good speaker in front of thousands of people, and the winner has to make some speech on the stage. So when I found out I didn’t have to come up on stage I was so happy.

FJ: Does being a “James Beard Award Winning Chef” change things at all?
HS: I remember a few days later after the JBA, I was in my kitchen and found one of the drains clogged. So I snaked the drain to clear it and I opened the grease trap to remove the stinky grease, and I was thinking, “Wow, I just won the Best Chef of California award. Why am I still cleaning this grease trap?”  It actually made me laugh, it was so funny. So my answer to you is nothing has changed, and I do what I like to do and what I need to do.

But, I really appreciate the recognition. There are so many hard working and talented chefs out there, and they deserve the same recognition I got. I’m just a lucky man.

FJ: I visited your restaurant in St. Helena, Terra, a few years back. The entire menu and experience in general was brilliant. It was one of my first experiences with foie gras actually. We’re coming up on the end of the grace period for the foie ban in California. Obviously, once the ban takes full affect you have to live by it. But, how do you feel about it as a chef?
HS: Sonoma Foie Gras is one of the greatest products we have in California. Californians should be proud of this little farm instead of terminating it. It was an easy target for the animal rights people and for a politician who likes to put his name on new laws only for his legacy, without correct research.

Most responsible chefs study the ingredients before they put it on their menus. They go through the exercise of standard routine, “Is this safe? Is this reliable? Is this sustainable? Is this organic? Is this local? Is this humane?” What is “the humane way” anyway?  We must discuss what “real world humane” is, and not “Disney world humane”.

FJ: For a chef that has been in the industry and worked with some of the most renowned chefs in the world, what is it that drives you to keep cooking?
HS: I think that, number one, is the guests’ smile. I always feel like giving our guests pleasure gives me pleasure. A restaurant can create some little happiness for  guests when they are dining in the restaurant, where they can forget about work, they can enjoy themselves and recharge themselves for tomorrow. Number two is teaching young cooks, and watching how they grow. Being able to visit their restaurants.

FJ: Finally, why is it that you love food and cooking? And, is there a particular memory or food experience or memory that really speaks to you?
HS: The feel. Like music, you don’t have to have a language to understand food.  Food is universal. Only thing you need is an open heart. Also respect.  You must respect your ingredients. The least we can do as cooks is to use whole animal (or whole vegetable) and make it delicious and make it look good. Don’t waste. Respect farmers and fishermen, because without them we cannot do what we do.

I came from a small farming family who has been growing rice for eighteen generations in northern Japan. I still remember in the fall harvest time, my grandma would be picking the lost grains of rice in the field until complete darkness arrived. Whenever I see the  Jean-François Millet painting “Les Glaneurs (The Gleaners)”, it always reminds me of my grandma and who I am.

Ame Restaurant, in the St. Regis Hotel, is located at 689 Mission Street in San Francisco. Terra Restaurant is located at 1345 Railroad Avenue in St. Helena. Both restaurants are owned by Chef Hiro Sone and Pastry Chef Lissa Doumani.