The San Francisco chef is translating ancient recipes for contemporary diners
Chris Cosentino’s Twitter handle is @offalchris, matching his penchant for cooking organ meats. But this -owner of Incanto in San Francisco, who buys and prepares whole animals, does plenty with vegetables, too, along with anything else that helps him explore the Italian cuisine that is his restaurant’s muse.
“We’re based in the peasant cookery of Italy, and I think that’s a really special way of life,” Cosentino said. “There’s no magic to it; it’s just learning to love it.”
Although Cosentino makes his share of television appearances, including the current season of Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters and a one-off television special called Time Machine Chefs, he spends a lot of time delving into Italian history to inspire new dishes.
“I’m always trying to push what I’m doing,” he said.
Recently he discussed some new menu items with Nation’s Restaurant News.
What are you working on these days?
Right now I’ve been doing a lot of research into Roman techniques. We’ve made our own garum [an ancient Roman condiment similar to Southeast Asian fish sauce] with anchovies and squids. I found out that the Romans did a lot of other fermenting, as well. So I’m doing a fermented Chioggia chicory. It’s a mixture of garlic, chile and some of our fish sauce, as well as the most beautiful [commercial] fish sauce.
We do a mixture of that and long-cut scallions, and make almost like a kimchi chile paste, and let it ferment for a while at room temperature and then refrigerate it.
So the Romans were not only making fish sauce, but also kimchi?
Yes and no. Unlike kimchi it’s bitter and not crunchy. The flavor notes are extremely different. For example, I use bitters for the sugar starter for it.
What do you plan to do with the chicory?
We’re making a dish that came out from me doing SF Chefs [a charity event]. I served it with thinly shaved braised cold pork belly and mint, scallions and toasted pistachios.
Sounds weird and awesome.
It’s not really weird. Pistachios give it crunch, scallions and mint are refreshing, then you have bitterness from the chicory, and the belly smoothes it all out.
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How do you make garum?
It’s another fermentation process. It’s a salt-to-weight ratio of whatever seafood you use. Classically it’s made with anchovies, and I’ve done it with local anchovies, but squid as well. I have a bottle of six-year-old garum that I made. I only pull it out on occasion because it’s really special.
Does it age like wine?
It clarifies itself as the sediment sinks to the bottom.
How does it fit into modern Italian cuisine?
I use a lot of historical components in food. How many different countries have occupied Italy? Everyone — whether they left a wife behind, whether an Italian woman married a Moor — everyone left something there and the Italians took what was best of it. There’s a lot to be said for that. You find blood oranges and Berber spice. Ginger was a big thing in Florence, and galangal [a cousin of ginger found in Southeast Asia]. A lot of it was used to mask the flavors of rancid meat, but they have important meaning in aspects of Italian cuisine.
But there’s also a philosophy of Italian food that’s really important. They work with what’s in season, they use what’s best, and they work to make a great meal.
Are you using ginger or galangal or other spices from Italian history in your food?
We use “ancient spice,” which is an adaptation from [ancient Roman chef] Apicius. I use it quite often with squab or venison in the fall.
Apicius is supposed to be especially hard to understand.
There’s a thousand different translations, and it’s very unclear, but that’s what Italian food is like — if you think about it. French food is bound by the book of Escoffier. In Italy it’s bound by grandma, and your grandma cooks differently from my grandma. You have different names for the same ingredients, and people are confused by that, but that’s what makes the food very special, and very soulful. I think that’s what’s cool about Italian food, and that’s a really important part of Italian cookery. That, and using what you have.
We dried all the big favas, and I pulled all the skins and served them with only preserved items — preserved tomatoes and preserved white anchovies, and that will be a dish on the menu tonight. I call it peasant gruel, but that’s not what I’ll call it on the menu.
What’s it like being on Top Chef Masters?
Top Chef Masters is very interesting. It brings a lot of interest in what the chef is doing, but for me it’s really about my charity, and what’s exciting for me is what it brought to the Michael J. Fox Foundation [for Parkinson’s disease research]. My uncle died of Parkinson’s. He lived with it for 30 years and he donated his brain for research, so I’m donating the money in his honor. When you donate your brain for research, you want to make sure that research is done. For me, it’s really about that.