Wake Up, Food Television Execs! So Says Chris Cosentino.
Discovering there's more to the chef than off cuts
Intentionally, I didn’t drop an “O” bomb once during a recent morning interview with Chris Cosentino while sitting in New York’s Madison Square Park. The San Francisco chef and recognized food TV guy was in town for the James Beard Awards to celebrate his nomination, his first, for Best Chef: Pacific for work at his Noe Valley restaurant Incanto. (Matt Molina of Osteria Mozza would win the honor.)
But back to that O. It's offal, or “off cuts,” and the single topic Cosentino is most famous for. He’s a modern master of preparing things like tripe, heart, feet and brains in a style that leans to the rustic side of Italian cookery — more Babbo than Del Posto, for those familiar with Batali. Cosentino’s also a skilled salumerian, having opened Boccalone in the Ferry Building, where people line up for mortadella and dried lonza by the cable-car full. His website (offalgood.com) and Twitter account (@offalchris) both more than hint at this passion.
But I got a sense that there was a little more to this man than talking up guts. So let me present you what may be the first 100% offal-free interview with Chris Cosentino. Topics discussed: Travel, TV concepts and the inhumanity of a 99-cent hamburger.
I follow you on Twitter, as do about 128,000 other people. You recently set up a reservation with Andrew Carmellini (@AndrewCarmellini) via @-reply. It's fully transparent. Is that what Twitter is about to you?
The thing about Twitter is that it’s open, but at some point you have to be careful. I asked for a reservation, but I got a nasty gram from someone who couldn’t get in. It’s my own fault because I made myself public, but I still have a lot of fun with it. Twitter is pretty powerful.
I like Twitter because it’s brief, but also strikes at the heart of you as a person. A chef talking to another chef about being genuinely excited for an upcoming visit is a beautiful thing…
I have the utmost respect for Andrew. Sometimes there’s no way to get in touch with people. I didn’t know where he’d be. At The Dutch or Locanda Verde. But I knew eventually during that day he’d check his Twitter. Twitter is fun. It’s 140 characters and a photo. A chimpanzee could do it. And it’s good for time-stamping dishes! People can send you a response or send you questions. And people will be like "I really like that dish or that dish looks like shit."
When somebody says your dish “looks like shit,” you probably don’t agree with them. What do you say?
These people are constant. “You should make that look better.” They think it’s going to taste bad. “You serve gross food.” It’s funny because my response classically is if you don’t like what I do, don’t follow me. You have choice. You can choose to follow me or you can choose to not follow me. And if you don’t like what I do, fuck off. Follow somebody else.
Where do you want to travel next?
I’m going to Japan in October, where I’ve never been and really looking forward to it. I have a knife line coming out in the fall with Shun, so I’m going there to see the knives getting made. I’m going to Tsukiji fish market and am in the process of setting up a few stages. I’m really excited to see the food culture because it’s so distinctly different. In the U.S., everybody wants a plethora of items and there’s no definitive restaurants for one set thing. When you go to Japan, there’s generations of people doing just ramen or just soba or yakitori or katsu. We don’t have that here.
It’s about craftsmanship. When I was there I saw people repairing the roads by getting on their hands and knees to spend five hours working on a pothole. It’s different.
The aesthetic is different too. It’s all about making everything as perfect as possible.
You’ve had a number of TV shows and appearances go down over the years, so I can ask you this and you will know what you are talking about. What food TV show needs to be made right now?
I put a show out there for the world to see. It was called Chef Unleashed and shook the boat for a lot of people. But I’m not doing television anymore. I basically walked away.
Why did you walk away?
I felt that what was being conveyed wasn’t who I am. The racing around in particular. Yes, I’m a [bike] racer. I love the competitive aspect. But the food gorging? That isn’t what I want to convey to kids. I have a 7-year-old son and I don’t want him, or anybody’s child, to emulate that. Like, to eat as many chilies as you can. I just don’t think that’s intelligent. Me doing that was a bad thing.
Tell me more about your ideal show…
How often do people beat fishermen down for prices? I grew up commercial fishing. I worked on a commercial fishing boat on the East Coast. I know what it’s like for my feet to freeze to the deck with salt water, which is pretty hard in the middle of winter. So when I buy fish, I never complain about the price. What would it be like to go on a boat, say in Rhode Island, and go lobstering for the day. That’s some hard-ass work. So do the work for the day, and take a percentage of the catch and make a meal for them — like they would get at a restaurant. It’s a show for the public to see how hard it is to get the fish to the plate, but also a reward the producer in the process.
You sound like you’ve made this pitch before.
I’ve made the pitch multiple times and I have no idea why it’s not green-lit. I think people are scared of the subject. Honestly, people are scared of the truth. Everybody is stuck on the fucking Styrofoam container. Food comes from some place. The more we understand where our food comes from, the less food problems we will have.
And it’s not just meat!
It would be great to go to a farm. I would go to one of my local farmers in the Bay Area. How about bee hives? How about salt? Has anybody realized how hard it is to get sea salt? How much work goes into that? It could be an interesting learning curve for everybody, and also me.
Can you imagine a world without meat? A society with an all-vegetarian diet?
I know there are people pushing for it. (Long pause.) I find it’s possible, but I don’t agree with it. I feel that moderation is key. I don’t feel that people should dictate what other people eat. Right now, we do have issues with factory farming that need to be repaired and I’m pretty adamant about that. I know where all my meat comes from. But you make those choices with your dollars. You don’t make those choices by forceful hand. Make that change by how you spend your dollars. If you buy from the right person on a regular basis. I think people need to be intelligent about their purchases. We have this problem and everybody is talking about where there meat comes from. But we have this massive monster called McDonald’s that has a 99-cent hamburger. That’s a quarter-pound hamburger. When was the last time you saw a quarter pound of beef for 99 cents?
Oh, I see where this is going…
Is it only the beef you’re getting for 99 cents? What else is there? You have the paper wrapping, bun, condiments and cheese. All for 99 cents. Start breaking that down. How much money is spent on the beef? If you go to that same establishment, it’s $3.99 for a fruit smoothie. We have a problem here! It’s $3.99 for a fruit smoothie, so obviously they are buying fruit. But how is a hamburger 99 cents? Let’s think about that. There is too much of the public that is dependent on that food. It’s a sad processing food system. We need to look at the big picture of things.
How do you de-program people then? Sure, people need to realize where their food is coming from. But how do you give incentive?
Education. You have to train and teach. You have to make people feel comfortable about cooking at home and that has been taken away. Sunday Supper with Grandma is gone. I have childhood memories of having dinner on Sundays with my grandparents, and those are important memories. Do kids have those nowadays? In some parts of the country, yes, but it’s not as big as it should be. Cooking with your children changes that dynamic. If you get them excited about cooking, they are going to cook.
I try and spend time at my son’s school with classes and I provide a healthy snack for an event at the school. Processed food is what is tearing us up in this country. We pay the least per-capita of our income than any other country in the world on food. Ten percent is what we pay annually. That’s ridiculous. I recently spoke with a woman from South Africa and she was amazed how inexpensive food is here. It’s like, really? We have to get over that because we demand a low cost, and because it’s been subsidized for so long. People don’t understand that food takes money. It costs money to make food. People are clueless and it’s because of education.
Check back next week when Chris talks about his days as a professional endurance bike rider. Yes! His first book, Beginnings: My Way To Start a Meal, is out now.