Vegging Out with Chris Cosentino

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
June 5, 2015

Celebrity chef Chris Cosentino is widely known for his passion for offal—the less appreciated yet still very edible parts of an animal, such as the heart, liver, and entrails. As a pioneer and evangelist for whole-beast cooking at his legendary restaurant Incanto, at his new SoMa restaurant, Cockscomb, and at Boccalone salumeria inside the Ferry Building, he has helped to elevate the humble bits of the animal in the minds and mouths of eaters near and far.

But Chris’s skill and love of cooking goes well beyond meat. For years, he has been a diehard supporter of local fruit and vegetable growers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and fresh, seasonal produce plays a lead (though oft-overlooked) role in his menus.

Along with 40 Bay Area chefs, he’ll be paying tribute to the bounty of the farmers market at CUESA’s Summer Celebration fundraiser on June 14, with a meaty homage to alliums. We tagged along with Chris (shown above, center, with farmer Joseph Minocchi of White Crane Springs Ranch and chef Staffan Terje of Perbacco) last morning to talk about his Saturday market ritual, summer produce, and San Francisco’s changing food landscape.

CUESA: How long have you been shopping at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and how has it influenced your cooking?

Chris Cosentino: I’ve been shopping at the market since it was on Green Street, so a long time. San Francisco weather isn’t super seasonal. The only way we tell the season is by what shows up in the market. I come down every Saturday, see what’s available, make some decisions, and change the menu accordingly.

CUESA: What about the chef community here at the market?

CC: Everybody works nonstop in the restaurant industry, so when it’s Saturday, you come to the market and see your friends. It’s like, “Hey, where’d you buy this?” “Did you see this guy’s produce?” “Who’s got this today? Who’s got that?” It’s a spot to chat about everything that’s going on. The farmers market is like a chef’s idea of going to church on Sunday.

CUESA: And you’ve obviously developed relationships with the farmers.

CC: Yeah, I’ve been buying from certain people forever. Cliff at Hamada Farms (pictured at right), Poli at Yerena Farms, different people. It’s nice to see Joseph from White Crane Springs Ranch back for the season. There are always people we look forward to coming back every year.

CUESA: What do you talk about with farmers?

CC: Cliff at Hamada Farms and I have a really great rapport, and I always know what’s going on at his farm. Right now, we are all aware that we have a serious water issue, and it’s definitely affecting the way products are coming out this season. We know there’s going to be a short stone fruit and cherry season. Everything’s going to have a shortened or nonexistent cycle, so that’s a pretty big conversation we’re having.

CUESA: How is the drought playing out on your menu?

CC: The drought affects everything. I don’t look at it as, “How is this going to affect my menu.” I’m looking at it as, “How’s it going to affect the public at large? How do we use water? How do we use ice?”

CUESA: You’re known as a meat guy. How do fruits and vegetables fit into your menu?

CC: We have tons of vegetables and always have. There’s the perception versus the reality. The fact is that three percent of my menu is offal; everything else is vegetable-based. Nobody really understands that.

CUESA: Tell us about your new restaurant, Cockscomb.

CC: We’re south of Market, about six blocks from the ballpark, at Fourth and Freelon. Cockscomb is a celebration of San Francisco, and all the cool ethnic foods that came here. We’re the melting pot of the West Coast, which I think a lot of people don’t realize. People moved here for the Gold Rush, so you had the Spanish, the French, the Italians, the English. You had people coming across the country in covered wagons, you had Chinese immigrants and Latin immigrants. They brought all this food, history, and culture with them, and we now take so much of that food for granted. Celery Victor, Tetrazzini, Green Goddess Dressing, Crab Louie—the list just goes on and on. People have forgotten about these dishes. To me, those are what make this city really special, so we try to focus on that as much as possible at Cockscomb.

CUESA: You’re putting your own spin on these traditional dishes?

CC: I never do anything traditional. The cooking techniques are very old school. We have a wood oven, but everything’s really straightforward. We use farmers market products and Niman Ranch pork and beef. It’s just honest food.

CUESA: What produce are you excited about as we move into summer?

CC: That’s like asking somebody with a bunch of kids, “Which do you like more than the others?” Everything has its time and place. I feel like sometimes people push things to be ready when they’re not ready, which drives me nuts. People want certain produce earlier than it’s available. People want tomatoes year round. When something is ready, my goal is to cook with it so much that people don’t want to eat it ever again. I’m going to overdo the tomatoes, and overdo it, and overdo it, to the point that people are like, “Enough of the tomatoes; they’re done!”

In general, I think we’re very fortunate we have products here that not everybody gets that much of. Taking advantage of what’s in front of you every day is a big deal. If a farmer calls you and says, “Hey, I’ve got a bumper crop of this,” then you figure out how to use it. Helping them helps you, which helps your guests. It’s about these bigger picture things.

That said, I’m looking forward to seeing some chiles at the market; I love chiles. I’m looking forward to tomatoes. Melons are coming in now, which I’m really jazzed about. Right now’s a good time.

CUESA: San Francisco’s changing a lot, and the restaurant scene is blowing up. How do you keep up with that?

CC: I see a large influx of money, which is creating this boom in restaurants. We’ve seen that before, prior to 2000, but we also saw the crash. Is the bubble going to burst? There’ll be a balance, but there are definitely a lot of restaurants opening very quickly. We’ll see what comes from it.

CUESA: What do you love about the farmers market?

CC: I come here because I want to be here. Is the parking a pain in the ass? Yes. It’s always like that, but we put up with it because these are the people we want to buy from, and these are the people we want to see every week. That, to me, is the most important thing.

Join chef Chris Cosentino in celebrating summer on June 14 at the Ferry Building. See the full restaurant lineup and get tickets to Summer Celebration.

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