Chris Cosentino Explains How a Cross-Country Move Helped Him Find His True Home
Chefs everywhere know Chris Cosentino for his love of offal, but if there is anything closer to his heart, it’s his adopted hometown, San Francisco. He spoke with us about how he celebrates the city’s culture and history at his restaurant Cockscomb.
You’re from Rhode Island. How important was food to you while growing up?
I grew up on Aquidneck Island; the people in the fishing community were my neighbors. I commercial fished, lobstered; I grew up bluefishing and quahogging. Then I went to Johnson & Wales for culinary and foodservice management. At the time, New York City was the hot spot; it was all anybody talked about, but I moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for Mark Miller at Red Sage. That was key to my development as a cook, and my understanding of the way food should be looked at. Mark became my culinary father. I still talk to him and hang out with him on a regular basis.
What drew you to move to California?
I volunteered to do events with Mark, and he introduced me to Alice Waters, Stephan Pyles, Jeremiah Tower, Larry Forgione, Alfred Portale and Jonathan Waxman. Everybody talked about California.
Then I went to work at Kinkead’s, and again, all the produce was from California. At that time, ’95 and ’96, California wine made a massive push. You saw Napa wines hit all the wine lists on the East Coast. I was overwhelmed, reading everything about California, so I said to my girlfriend, Tatiana, who is now my wife, ‘What do we do?’ I didn’t want to stay in D.C., so the question was New York or California. She’d been to San Francisco and said we should go. So six months later, we got in a U-Haul and drove out.
We got here in August of 1996, and I staged around. I spent some time with China Moon with Barbara Tropp, who was meaningful to me. Jennifer Cox was the chef de cuisine; she was a great teacher. When Barbara fell ill, they recommended I work with a hands-on chef. I got a job at One Market—George Morrone was the chef at that time. Then I found out my dormmates from Johnson & Wales worked at Rubicon, so I headed there to work with Traci Des Jardins.
That’s where I started seeing all these crazy mushrooms, greens, all this stuff I’d never seen before. Traci gave me this freedom to experiment. She is ultimately my culinary mother, and Mark Miller is my culinary father. It’s powerful, the influence they’ve had on me. She drilled focus into me, while Mark drilled history into me and made me respect the history of food. He’d say to me, ‘You can never create the future unless you know the history.’ I agree with that. Today, you have all these kids who think they know what they’re doing, and they don’t, because they don’t know where stuff comes from. You have to understand the origin of cuisine and products to really develop as a chef. It’s like sports. You can’t run a marathon after just running around the block a few times. It doesn’t work.
I still live by those words: Know your history before you try to create the future. Everything we’re doing has a basis in San Francisco’s history.
How is Cockscomb an ode to San Francisco’s food history?
It’s an ode to San Francisco as a whole. When I moved here in 1996, you could walk down the street with your hair on fire and in go-go boots, and people would be like, ‘Hey, nice outfit!’ Nobody cared what you looked like; they cared about you as a person, and your capabilities. It wasn’t judgy. It still had a little of that Summer of Love feel, about the creativity that comes from a big melting pot of individuals and uniqueness.
That harks back to the city’s past. When you look at the history of San Francisco, people talk about the same thing: the gold rush. When you scream gold, what happens? Everybody runs straight to it. So you had the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Chinese, English, all coming by ship. You had all these people bringing their culture with them. And what comes with that? The food. The booze. Gin came with the Spanish and the English. Wild fennel came with the Italians; they brought the seeds with them, planted them, and it went crazy. Cioppino is an amalgamation of Italian cacciucco and French bouillabaisse. We have sourdough bread because the bread starter soured on the ship, and they brought it back to life. The burrito was created here; it was a work-related situation—you could roll it up and walk away, and eat it without a plate. Chop suey was created here. Green goddess, the hangtown fry, crab Louie, shrimp Louie, celery Victor. The cable car cocktail, pisco punch and more. They all have cultural relevance. Oysters are a big part of the Bay Area. If you read Jack London’s A Raid on the Oyster Pirates, it’s about the guys on their sailboats who would steal oysters and then sell them to street peddlers, who would sell them on the street on blocks of ice. We have cocktail sauce because street vendors used it to hide the flavors when oysters went bad. From all that, we have cultural diversity. You can find the best pho on one side of the street, and the most amazing burrito on the other side. I love that.
We have an art culture here, the sexual revolution, music revolution, skateboarding culture, all of this smashed into a seven-by-seven-mile place. There’s all of this culture that makes San Francisco so unique. With Cockscomb, I wanted to celebrate San Francisco cuisine for the city itself. I wanted to create a place where somebody with a family with kids, a cop, a nun, a plumber, a lawyer and a prostitute would be able to come to the same place. I want diversity. Every piece of art in the restaurant is by a San Francisco artist. It’s really important for me.
I was so frustrated because I wasn’t seeing anybody celebrating San Francisco anymore. So I wanted to do that food. We embrace the techniques from each culture, the produce and fish, and celebrate them for what they are.
What are some of the most iconic San Francisco restaurants to you?
I used to go to Tonga Room all the time, and I would spend hours reading the walls in the lobby, with all the old menus from The Fairmont Hotel. That’s where tetrazzini came from; it was created for an opera singer. It was pasta with cream, chicken and mushrooms. Most people know it for when your grandmother makes it, and it’s horrible. I changed the chicken to quail, which is the California state bird, and use toasted fideos, mushrooms, crème fraîche ($35, recipe). So that’s how we celebrate this city with food. It’s important.
You’re opening a restaurant in Napa. How will your food there differ?
Napa is totally different from San Francisco. It’s two different food cultures. Everything in Napa is Cal-French, Cal-Ital, Cal-Med. For Acacia House, we dictated the menu by standing in the space and looking around at the environment. The menu is an inclusion of the wine regions of the world: Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Napa. Those wine regions give us the most wonderful opportunity to have fun. I’ve cooked in all these genres and played with them. A lot of the wines in Napa are based on those regions of the world. So let’s celebrate them by celebrating the food culture they came from.
I want people to feel like they’re dining in someone’s home. We’ll have family-style tasting menus, we’ll do rotisserie lobsters. We’ll be smoking salmon and meats with wine-barrel shavings. We’ll have Parker House rolls with butter and caviar. Acacia House is about delicious comfort. I just want to make delicious food and leave a taste memory.
How does Napa compare to San Francisco?
There are so many special things about San Francisco, you can’t compare it to anywhere else. I moved to California for San Francisco. For the cycling, the mountains, the food, the wine, the culture. Sometimes, if I’ve been away, I miss the fog. I look at the city and what it’s done and what it’s accomplished and the direction it’s taken. Think about people like Harvey Milk and Herb Caen; these were catalysts for change all over the world. San Francisco was a kick-starter for so much. That’s why I want to celebrate it for what it is.
Chandra Ram is the editor of Plate.