5/31/2012 10:13:00 AM

Chris Cosentino on His New Book, Cali's Foie Gras Ban and More

The ever-feisty Chris Cosentino, offal guru and celebrity chef, has just released his first cookbook ever, Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal, a collection of 60 seasonal Italian first courses. The chef/partner of SF's Incanto and chef behind Pigg inside LA's Umamicatessen is a very busy guy these days, but we managed to catch up with him about the book writing process, his feelings on food TV, McDonald's, the impending foie gras ban in Cali, his Marvel comic book and well, loads more. Check out our chat with him below and get the book here.

Zagat: What was the inspiration for Beginnings?

Chris Cosentino: When I go to a restaurant, the most common comment I hear is that 'my favorite part about my meal was the first course' and I really wanted to focus on the aspect of first courses and beginnings and you know, beginnings to the meal.

Zagat: You're known as an offal guru of sorts, in this book you only include one offal recipe - was this a conscious choice?

CC: Yes - because that was exactly what you expected me to do. So I did what everyone didn't want me to do. Sometimes it's good to not do what's not expected of you. What I do at the restaurant is exactly what's in that book. I just speak loudly about offal because you don't have to yell at people to eat their vegetables, you don't have to make a stink about vegetables, because everybody eats vegetables, unless you're a really picky child, but when it comes to offal, you really have to make some noise about it because people are afraid of it.

I'm known for offal because I serve it and I spend a lot of time working and learning about it and educating people about it, but the perception is that's all I serve in my restaurant. The fact of the matter is - it's 25% of what's on my menu. So what's in the book is a perfect representation of what I do do at the restaurant. 

The offal book is coming, but I think Beginnings is a great way to showcase what I do do everyday because no one really knows I do, unless you eat in my restaurant all the time. 

Zagat: In the foreword you talked about different type of cookbooks, one being "TV chefs who write cookbooks and don't have a restaurant" - do you have less respect for chefs who don't run restaurants?

CC: I was specifically talking about a style a book, and my purpose of that was that those books are geared toward different consumers, that's all. I wanted a book that lets people choose to follow the recipe to the tee or not, they can substitute ingredients, it's not a book about baking. It's not a science, it's about building flavors and cooking from the heart, cooking from what's useful, and what's in your market that tastes great.

It wasn't about slamming one style or another, it was just a point that I made - there are very distinctly different books on the market. There are chef-driven books, there are television-chef driven books and then there are books that are about people just cooking. And I think there's a time and a place to all of those books. I have no ill will or less respect for anybody for what they're doing.

Zagat: Would you ever consider doing TV again after what happened with Chef Unleashed?

CC: I would do a show if it allowed me to really have the controls. With Chef Unleashed, the show that I released on my website which was kind of my guerrilla way of saying, 'you know, check this out.' Is it for everybody? No. But neither is Jersey Shore, but there's a place for everything. And I think if I could have a show where I'd get to work for farmers that I've worked with or work on a cattle farm or work on a dairy and help milk the cows. If I actually get to be the labor for that individual and then I cook for them in the end, I would love that, I think that would be a great experience. 

The whole point of Chef Unleashed is to put the chef in a difficult situation to learn, which in turns allows everyone else around me to learn. Being uncomfortable is a good thing because if you're uncomfortable, you're right. When you're in the kitchen and you get all new dishes, you're kind of uncomfortable. Or when you walk in to stage in a new kitchen you're uncomfortable because you have to learn the system. 

Zagat: How would you critique the current state of food TV?

CC: You know I think food TV has over the years changed pretty dramatically. As you can tell, I'm no longer on it, so I think that answers the question pretty well. That was my choice, I wasn't asked to leave, I chose to leave. I feel that it's just gone too far. [Note: After our interview, news broke that Chris will be starring in the next season of Top Chef Masters.]

Zagat: The beginning of the foie gras ban in Cali is getting very close, you've been one of the more outspoken chefs on the issue - between all the chefs and activists rallying against the ban, do you think there's a possibility that the law will eventually be overturned?

CC: I definitely feel at some point that it will be overturned because one - the information is incorrect. Two - it is a pretty big nightmare and we have more important things to be worrying about. There's how many children in public schools that rely on the three meals a day that come from their schools - and  everything's processed garbage. We have salmonella outbreaks in sushi now, we have salmonella outbreaks in bagged lettuce. I think there's bigger pictures to look at then to be just freaking out over foie gras.

You know it's getting to the point that people are more concerned with the treatment of animals than the treatment of children. We don't care about public school systems anymore, we don't care about books in the schools for kids, we don't care what kids are eating, it's OK to give them a $.99 hamburger but "no I'm sorry, Jimmy, I can't buy you that $3.99 smoothie because it's got fruit in it, that $.99 hamburger is all we can afford." That's f**ked up. And that's what we're worried about, we're worried about foie gras? 

As a group of chefs, foie gras for us is about taking away a freedom of speech or freedom of choice. We put together as a group of chefs a list of criteria we're working with water fowl specialists, we're putting together proven points that it's not about foie gras any more. It's about meat consumption. Have you seen some of these tweets out there? Some people are making comments like "all flesh eaters and their friends will pay for this." It's getting out of control. If anyone came to CHEFS and said "we want to stop factory -farmed chicken." I would pretty much guarantee you that all the chefs would get on board because none of us want to see that. So why not look at something big and bad and nasty in a big way? They're just going for foie gras because they don't have as many lobbyists, they have a small group of people, how many producers - four in the whole country? C'mon. 

Zagat: What did you learn from the cookbook process?

CC: I think the book was a big project for me, it was a big learning curve. I didn't have a ghost writer, I had a recipe editor, just making sure my grammar was correct, etc. I learned a lot about myself and what I'm capable of and what I'm not capable of. The cooking part's easy for me, the writing part not so much.

Zagat: Would you ever write a memoir-style book?

CC: Would anybody really care? I'm still baffled that I have this many people listening to me on Twitter. It's mind boggling. I really allowed the book to truly sound like me.

Zagat: What's the craziest thing you've ever eaten?

CC: Yeah I had McDonald's when I was a kid. I told my child that McDonald's has poop in it, he won't eat it. He doesn't drink soda either.

Zagat: Is there anything that you wouldn't eat?

CC: I don't like balut, probably for me is the harshest thing I've ever had and I don't like namako (sea cucumber). When I was in Hong Kong this year I had a sandwich with sea cucumber. The texture of the sea cucumber was like…you know when you're a kid and you put a coin in a gum ball machine and you get a clear bouncy ball? And then if you leave it in the window it starts to crack and get all brittle it starts to crack and break off in little squares? That's what it felt like in my mouth. Kinda gross.

Zagat: What else are you working on?

CC: Well I'm on a book tour right now - I have my own series of Shun knives coming out this fall. Also the comic book will be coming out this fall, I wrote a full issue of Wolverine with Marvel comic books which has been a while in the making.


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