Chris Cosentino is the chef behind Cockscomb in San Francisco, Jackrabbit in Portland, Oregon, and Acacia House in Napa Valley. He was Monday’s guest on our new daily podcast Food Republic Today, stopping by the studio during a trip to New York City to promote his new cookbook, Offal Good. Here’s the transcript of the podcast interview:
First of all, I wanted to ask you about a thing I had to write about in Cured magazine, grenier Médocain—have you ever had it?
Can you say that in English?
It doesn’t have a translation because it’s so obscure. It’s a French tripe dish where you turn the stomach inside out and you—
Stuff it? Yeah.
So that was one of the weirdest things that I’ve found in this world of charcuterie and offal. It’s a French dish that even the French are repulsed by. [laughs]
Why would you be repulsed by your own culture?! I don’t get it. I mean there are certain things but it’s just a stuffed stomach. What’s the difference between that and haggis?
Yeah, I guess it’s not different.
That dish is on the cover of Variety Meats, the original cookbook written by Richard Olney in the Time-Life series! It’s a stuffed stomach where it’s turned inside out and the honeycomb is on the outside and the inside’s stuff. I mean for crying out loud, I do a pig stomach à la Tauntuan in [Offal Good]. There’s nothing off limits.
I hear ya. You got me to eat brain once, and it was one of the few times I had a hard time separating what it was and how it tasted.
You watch too much Walking Dead.
[laughs] I actually don’t. But I did want to ask you that question. I’ve eaten quite of bit of things that most people will not touch. You were making a sandwich at a food event and you were like “It’s a calf’s brain sandwich.” For me, it’s hard to separate what that is from what you think. How do you get people pass that point to understand what you’re doing here?
I think perception versus reality is a very powerful thing. We, as in the United of States, are the only culture that refuses to eat these cuts on a daily basis, as a regular part of our dining, whether it’s a fine dining restaurant or casual restaurant. You eat anywhere else in the world, and these cuts are right out there, right in front of you. All of the Asias, the Latin Americas, all throughout Europe. There’s a couple ways how it’s happening. When you start looking at these cuts of meat, and you start thinking about them like, “Okay, brain.” Brain is very pillowy, it’s very rich, it’s got a lot of fat to it. You don’t eat a whole brain, you eat half. It’s a half a lobe. You have this whole culture that will watch zombie, Walking Dead, people eating people movies but yet they’re afraid to eat things that have been culturally acceptable for hundreds of years. So, how do you break this cycle? How do you change the visual or the mental perception of these cuts? There are a couple of ways. One, you make them as appetizers, you don’t make entrees first, right? And you put the familiar with the unfamiliar, that’s usually an easier way to get people to start. For instance, there’s a dish in the book, called This Is Your Brain On Drugs. I’m everyone remembers that. It was during the Regan era. It was like, “This is your brain [psssh]. This is your brain on drugs.” It’s an egg sizzling in a pan. It was classic! I think I was in maybe the eighth grade and you’d just watch it between The Cosby Show.
It made a lot of people want to do drugs, basically.
I mean I don’t know what made people want to do drugs, The Cosby Show or the commercial. We kind of play a riff on it and we do a pan-seared calf’s brain with the duck egg, slathered in truffles and some toast, saying, “This is your brain on drugs.” So, we have to give levity to the food, as well as kind of draw you in a little bit, whether it be something historical, something comical, but also it’s putting the familiar with the unfamiliar. Put truffles with it, put some bacon with it, put some lobster with it, put a bird on it.
[laughs] Is it important for you, besides the triviality of some of this, forcing these zombie-loving people to confront—
The key thing is no forcing, ever. It’s never a force, it’s just a slight push and if they want it, they’re gonna have it. It’s called a menu item because it’s a choice. It’s there for people to choose, and if they don’t want to have it, they don’t have to. I’m not trying to push this on people for them to have to have it. I just want to broaden some palates, some perspectives on food. I mean, you wanna talk food waste? Let’s just use that as an example. Forty percent of the animal, once it’s harvested, is sent to dog food or shipped elsewhere because we won’t eat it. It’s either made into everyday dog food or it’s shipped to the Latin Americas or Asias. The reason why it’s being continuously shipped out is because they get three times the U.S. dollar value of what they would sell it here to the local consumers. I mean, that’s a bad number.
Yeah. As a chef, can you put percentages on how much that means to you, helping solve the food waste issue versus turning people onto new things versus honoring tradition—is that all part of it?
It’s 100%. I’ll start from World War II, let’s start there. World War II, we go to war, meat became a luxury, right? Because most of the meat was being tinned and sent to soldiers. So, what happened? Everyone was handed rationing stamps. No more pantyhose, no more sugar, no more skeletal cuts. So, they created a very interesting term called, “meat without joints.” You get a rationing stamp book, you had a certain amount of rationing stamps per cuts of meat. So you start looking at these cuts of meat and go, “Where can I get the best value, the most protein and nutrients for my family?” Meat without joints: livers, kidneys, tripe, tongue, things that were not able to be canned and sent to the soldiers.
World War II ends. We’re considered a prosperous nation. We don’t want to eat those things anymore because we were told we had to. The ethnic communities still eat them. Your Italian-Americans, your French, your Portuguese, your Latin Americans are still eating these things. The only strong hold of traditional American food that we still have is the South. Chitterlings, pigs’ feet were the norm and they still are a norm. They never went away. You can find those everywhere. So, you have this perception that these things should be garbage. Then you take that and you look at the even farther back. We’re going to harvest a hog. It’s October, November, it’s just cold enough out so they don’t need refrigeration to do it. It’s harvested. They make blood sausages, they put up hams, they make charcuterie. It used to be a way where one hog could feed a family through the winter by natural preservation, using the organ meats, using the blood and making charcuterie. We’ve gotten so far away from that now that, I mean, visually and mentally now people don’t connect the food that’s on their plate to what it actually is. You have the blue Styrofoam container, that means fish, the yellow one means chicken, red one means beef, I can’t remember what color the pork one is, maybe the pork one’s white. But it resonates there. You don’t see a centipede of pork chops with bacon, running through the forest as a wild pig. It just doesn’t exist. There’s more to the animal than that. So, how do we learn to approach it in a more ethical, less waste and environmental way of eating things.
They’re all tasty! Every part is tasty. There’s just a squeamish dis-involve, like you said. You were very turned off by that concept, you couldn’t take it out of your head. I think that’s because there’s a direct correlation. When you look at a fish, you’re like, “I don’t have gills or fins.” If you do, you need to see a doctor. But there’s a definite distinction where you can correlate to yourself and it makes people nervous.
Are you a hunter?
I have hunted, yes.
What’s that like, harvesting an animal?
It’s very rough. Every time I take an animal’s life, it’s rough. It’s a mix of emotion: love, hate, fear, joy. You’re overwhelmed by everything at once because you’re like, “This animal is beautiful. I took its life. Oh my god, I’m a monster.” Then you’re happy you did it properly, you’re angry that you even did it. You’re like, “Oh I made the shot.” It’s a mix. It’s not easy. I cry every time.
Let’s switch gears a little bit. You’ve been in New York for awhile. You’re about to go home to the Bay Area. When you get back home, what’s a typical day for you?
It depends on where I need to be, whether I need to be in Napa or if I need to be in San Francisco. Either way, I get up in the morning. I help my wife get my son ready in the morning, he’s 12. Make sure his lunch is ready. Drive him to school. If I need to come home and do stuff, I come home. Otherwise I go straight to work. My son’s at school no later than 8:10 a.m. So then I just go straight in. Twice a week I do the flower arrangements at the restaurant. It’s actually pretty fun. I go to the flower market and do that.
Yeah. I spend about two hours doing admin, then it’s in the kitchen working with guys, menu development, recipes. I work dinner service, work with all the staff. Then I get home around, depends on any given day—if it’s Friday night, I get home at 12:30, 1 in the morning.
Then you’re also running three restaurants. You went from having one, closing it, then you open one, then two more. One in Portland and one in Napa, right?
What’s that like? How are you managing three different restaurants in three different places?
If you look at it, there are three restaurants. Each one is an hour and 20 minutes away. I’m an hour and 20 minutes by flight to Portland or I’m an hour and 20 minutes if it’s a good day with traffic to Napa. Portland: Jackrabbit, I have a great chef up there. His name’s Chris DiMinno. I’ve known him for many, many years. Super talented, has a great palate, super organized. That property up there is very fun and I try to spend—I mean I was there for 10 days last time I was up there. We go through many changes together, taste things, go to the market, work in the local community, see what’s going on.
In San Francisco, I’m at the restaurant minimum three days a week. I try to go to Napa two days a week.
That’s Acacia House?
Yep, Acacia House. It’s a lot of SOPs, and protocols and standardization and expectations. I mean it’s good. It’s been a huge learning curve for me. I went from working the line every day and expediting for 12 years to educating, documenting and just making things better in that way.
Do the restaurants attract an audience of people who actually are familiar with offal or is it just people who want to go out for a good meal and maybe they have a little curiosity about it?
Cockscomb is very different in that we’ve become very well-looked after in the way that people think to come for large groups because we do a lot of large format stuff. I have a four-pound steak on my menu. We do big large format dishes. Only about three percent of my menu at Cockscomb has offal on it and it’s the same thing in Portland. In Napa it’s two dishes, one is foie gras and one is sweetbreads. One of the interesting parts over the years is that it’s not hard to get someone to eat a carrot, but you really got to speak up loudly to get them to eat things they’re afraid of. So, I kind of became known as this offal cook and that’s all anybody thinks. “You do meat and offal, that’s it. You couldn’t cook a vegetable to save your life.” It’s really kind of funny because I started looking and listening to people and I was looking at all my food costs. I spend more money at the farmers’ market than I do at any of my meat purveyors. [laughs] And I’m buying beautiful ducks from Liberty Ducks, I’m buying great meats. Everything I’m getting is all clean, all local, all organic but the perception is that’s all I do. So, when you come in, there’s a huge variety of things to play with. What we see is a really big mix of people.
I just wanted to get this in, obviously you have a restaurant in Napa. How did Acacia House fare and have you been in touch with your neighbors there? How are people doing at this point?
We were very fortunate at Acacia House in Las Alcobas. We came out unscathed. Unfortunately, some of our neighbors did not fare so well. We did close the hotel, as well as the restaurant, then we reopened it as a space to feed first responders. So we turned what’s called the Acacia Barn, which is our banquet facility, into a cafeteria. We were feeding three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, expecting 175 a day. Whatever we didn’t sell at meal period, we then put in a car and drove up and over to Santa Rosa to feed people on the other side. It was really about trying to give back immediately and just give a safety net for people. I don’t know if you guys realize, but there were prison inmates working the grounds, fighting fires. They had Coast Guard, National Guard and firemen from all over. I think at any given time there were 8,000 people on the ground. To be able to feed them, give them a space to sleep, let them take a shower, have a meal that’s cook properly—it goes a long way. Without those folks, some of those folks lost their own homes. It’s a really big deal. Right now everyone’s talking, “What can we do for Napa? How can we support Napa and Sonoma?” You can start going back. We need people to visit. The fires are gone. Everything’s okay, we’re gonna be alright. The more you come back, the more you’re going to boost the community. And it’s really important people start visiting again and supporting whose there.
Why’d you get involved in a project in Napa? Were you a fan of California wine? How do you feel about it after having a restaurant there and operated for a year?
I think we’re about seven months in. When I moved to California in 1996, I was fortunate enough to drive through Napa. My mom had flown out to visit me, I’d been in San Francisco for eight months. At the time, my girlfriend who’s now my wife, Tatiana, and my mom, we drove through Napa. It was pretty cool. We were looking and driving around, looking at the vineyards. I remember passing all these really beautiful buildings. What’s really interesting about Napa is that some of the older buildings look like where I grew up, which is in New England. I kind of look at Napa as being like Newport, Rhode Island without the water and the sailboats. They just have wineries instead. That’s your view; it’s not a water view, it’s a winery view. Still begins with a W, it works. I kept passing all these stunning buildings and ironically enough, I pointed out what is now the Acacia House and said, “I’d love to have a restaurant in a building like that someday. I’d love to be up here, it’s so beautiful.” Lo and behold, it happened. It’s a pretty unbelievable place. During harvest, you can smell the grapes in the air. You can smell the musk. It’s cool.