Whether perusing Eater, watching 24-7 cable channels devoted to food, viewing videos on Munchies, scrolling through an Instagram feed filled with people’s brunches or even just debating the merits of the new hot restaurant opening, it’s clear American food obsession has grown over the last decade. The increased money, attention and innovation invested into our grub has made it a great time to be eating in the U.S.
Chef Chris Cosentino, owner of Cockscomb in San Francisco, has benefited from and fostered our food obsession. He has helped expand American’s palates (and perhaps their daringness at the dinner table) by spreading the gospel of offal, championing the discarded parts of the animal like heart, tripe and sweetbreads. His advocacy has fed a dining public craving more from their food, so we thought he’d be the perfect person to ask about the origins of this obsession.
We caught up with Cosentino at The Food and Wine Classic in Aspen to get his take on why we care so much about food now, discuss his relationship to food, point out where food culture has gone overboard and explore the struggles the restaurant industry is currently facing.
The word “obsession” is a double-edged sword. Is there a place where our food-obsessed culture has gone too far?
I think the obsession with bacon has become really fucking obnoxious. Like, leave it alone. It’s great for breakfast. It doesn’t need to be in everything in the world. But I think obsession is a really good word in a bigger picture. I hear a lot of people say that chefs are so passionate, right? Nobody is making love to a carrot in the kitchen. Our passion is obsession. We are obsessed with what we do. We are obsessed with making people happy. I would say that is a really positive obsession. And there is something to be said for making people smile. I’m obsessed with accessing a little piece in your brain, where there’s a taste memory that normally belongs to a grandma. We’re obsessed with putting taste memories in your head. That’s a cool thing to have every day.
What kicked that obsession off for you?
I am very fortunate. I grew up in New England. I was born and raised in Rhode Island. I worked on commercial fishing boats as a kid. We had a farm in my backyard. My great grandmother was from Naples, Italy so she preserved her own tomatoes and she grew all her basil in coffee cans in the window sills all year. Quality food was naturally part of what I grew up with. Then you had my grandmother Helen who is the English side, and she and I would go quahogging. We would make New England Clam Chowder. We would stuff quahogs, catch lobster and fish for blue fish. It was always a natural part of my growing up. Did we eat Steak-umms? Of course we did. Because we were kids. But it was always about really getting beautiful food in front of us. We used to do a big holiday party every year. So you think about it you have Italians and you have English, both wanted to celebrate holidays very well. And so we will have the English side and we would do the huge English, New England style night before Christmas and then the Italians would have seven fishes. So there were constant battles of which party we had to go to first. It’s just what I grew up with. And going to cooking school just made sense because I wanted to continue that.
Not everyone had your upbringing, what do you think has caused the obsession with food for the culture as a whole?
It transcends all bullshit. Everybody’s favorite thing is Thanksgiving because there’s all the family stuff but then there’s the food. The food cuts through all the bullshit. Uncle John’s drunk, Grandma Tilly didn’t put the turkey in on time so you got to tear it off the bone. There’s something to be said for those moments. And I think what we’re seeing is people really want to share. They want to have a good meal, and they’re seeing their health benefits. You know, great meat from great farmers, great vegetables from great farmers. And their connecting to it. They see the farmer’s markets, they see chef’s buying at the markets. So I think what they are seeing is this change from what people are eating in restaurants, they want to eat at home as well.
How has that changed what chefs do?
When I went to culinary school my goal wasn’t to be a celebrity, my goal wasn’t to be somebody on television. My goal was to make food that other chefs would want to come and eat. I wanted to have a chef’s chef restaurant, it changed along the way. I was in culinary school—I graduated in ‘94—there were no classes on public relations, social media and how to deal with getting on television. It was just how to cook. But I think there’s also been a major transition where people are looking at their diets, they’re looking at the health of their children, they’re looking at processed sugars, they’re looking at processed food in a bigger scope and making better health decisions. How do you see people evolving, being more adventurous?
When I started cooking a variety of meats and offal years ago it was not cool. Everybody thought I was a monster. Now, it just become part of the norm people are now realizing the health benefits from it, the sustainability aspect of having it. And it’s just a normal thing. What’s ironic is there is only 3 percent of my menu that actually had offal cuts in it. But you never have to scream at somebody to eat a carrot you have to scream at them to eat something they’re afraid of.
Was that your goal, for people to be more accepting of off cuts of meat?
Yeah, It’s great. I mean that was the goal. The goal was never to be the only one, the goal was to be reintroduced what our grandparents ate. There’s a whole generational gap. My mother’s generation they were forced to eat it during World War II. So they didn’t want to have to eat it anymore, now we’re realizing the value of why it was eaten and we’re really getting everybody to do it again.
Post-War America was an era of modern, processed, manufactured food.
Well, you have to remember post World War II we became a prosperous nation, right? We won the war, it was over. Once you have that winning of the war, we’re going to put all this great food on the table. That’s when skeletal meats only became the norm.
During World War II, when you’re told that you have a rationing stamp, you could only have meat without joints. Meat without joints were offal. You can get more meat with a rationing stamp whether it’s a tongue, a liver, a kidney, right. So what do you think everybody wants when they come home from the war, the rationing is over and they have money?
You want meat.
Yeah, we want to feel wealthy, we want to feel strong. So that’s how. And then canned meats, c-rations, all those technologies came to be from the French from Pasteur. Everybody started to do it. We started freezing corn, and that became the cool thing. If you had a freezer you could have frozen corn, frozen peas, you could have corn any time of year and that’s what skewed us, that’s what set the whole country astray.
Through technology, we lost seasonality.
Exactly, we broke out of local, we broke out of seasonal. We started relying on certain areas around the country.
What got us back on the right path?
I think chefs really pushed to make sure everybody was focused, focused, focused, focused. We had Jean Louis Palladin come in this country. Jean Louis, the thing he did was find great farmers, find the best scallops, find the best lamb, worked with the farmers direct, bring everything to the restaurant and give the guests the best thing possible. Then what happens? You have other chefs who say ‘Holy shit, this guy is bringing in the best. Why can’t I do that?’ But we could. And he set this farm-to-table movement on its wheels. You had him, you have Alice Waters, you have all these different chefs that really pushed it. Are there things on the business side that consumers don’t know about that could curb this culture?
We’re always facing stuff like that. We have the $15 minimum wage coming in. The rent is incredible. And it’s very difficult to find staff—the majority of the restaurants are struggling to find staff just for the sheer fact that they can’t afford to live in the cities anymore. What we need in San Francisco is better 24-hour public transit like they have in New York. That would solve a lot of our problems.
That’s interesting, I hadn’t someone cite public transit before.
The biggest difficulty right now is housing, affordable housing, in San Francisco. And for people that don’t live in San Francisco proper you can’t get to Oakland or you can’t get to Daly City or South San Francisco without a car after 11:45 at night. So if our public transit system upped its ante like it is in New York, so we can get home at two, three in the morning; I think it would really open up the floodgates for a lot of employment for a lot of people. Not every cook has a car. I didn’t. I had bicycles for years.
But otherwise we’re in a forever growing business, people always want to eat. Thank goodness. (laughs) But everybody always looking for great food, a good time and wanting to have fun and I think that’s what we need to do, we need to do more of that. Keep them happy, keep them smiling. Keep them healthy, it’s not hard.