Meatpaper zero

Chris Cosentino doesn’t want to eat penis,
but if he has to, he will.

by Amy Standen
MARCH, 2007

COSENTINO, the head chef at San Francisco’s Incanto and the man behind the blog “Offal Good,” would like to change the way you eat meat. Porterhouses, chicken breasts, and pork chops—all wrapped in cellophane on clean white Styrofoam—are, to Cosentino, edible symbols of how far Americans have come from our food. Echoing Michael Pollan and other environmental writers, Cosentino says that responsible carnivorism must widen its focus, respecting the life of the animal enough to waste no part of it. Plus, he says, those “nasty bits,” as Anthony Bourdain calls them, bring with them a whole new palate of tastes and textures and will, perhaps sooner than you think, start giving T-bones a run for their money.

One of your signature meals is Incanto’s Fifth Quarter menu. Can you describe what that is?
The fifth quarter is the butcher’s term for offal. Originally, the word applied principally to the entrails, but as time went on, skin, head, tail, and feet became part of the term as well. The term for offal comes from, literally, to “off fall,” so when the carcass is hoisted up and split, it’s the stuff that falls out. Skeletal muscle, what most people are accustomed to eating, just stays there.

What kinds of offal do you serve and how do you serve it?
What I first put on the menu here was lamb brains agnolotti and lamb brodo; then I did grilled beef heart, and then tripe, and things started to go from there. That was three years ago. Tonight I’m doing nervetti—that’s beef tendon in Italian. It’s very flavorful and a lot more tender than you would think. You boil it once, skim, take it out, and put in a nice aromatic braise. You braise it for hours, then get it super cold and put it on the meat slicer and slice it really thin—and then you can do whatever. I’m going to serve it warm with white beans and sage and some breadcrumbs. So you get the texture of the breadcrumbs, and the rest is creamy and melty.

We do not mask what anything is. If you order kidneys, I’m not gonna chop it up into a million pieces so you can’t see what it is. Right now on the menu I do a Sicilian bruschetta of lamb spleen with caciocavallo cheese and salsa picante. It’s an adaptation of what would be traditionally a sandwich in Italy. It’s lamb spleen sliced thin and seared.

For a lot of people, this is really pushing the envelope, but you call it traditional food.
Everyone says “you’re pushing the limits,” but I’m not reinventing the wheel here. I’m reverting back 200 years to what grandmas would do. I call it nonna food, old world style. This is true peasant food. Here’s how these techniques came to be: You were my landowner. I passed up the meat to you and you gave me the fifth quarter and said “good luck! Make it work!” All the techniques that came out of that—braising, curing, all the charcuterie, sausages—that’s stuff you do with the leftovers. You can go to every single culture and find them.

“We tend to have a disconnect between meat and animals, but with offal, there’s a direct connection. People say, “oh a tongue, I have one.” Or, “a heart, I can’t eat that...” Putting a face on what you’re eating sometimes opens your eyes a lot.”

Think about what used to happen. You would slaughter a hog; you’d make the incision, and the blood would leak out. There would be an old abuela or a nonna stirring it with her arm to stop it from coagulating, and as soon as the hog was bled out, she would go make blood sausage. The carcass would be eviscerated, and for lunch, you’d have some of that eviscera. You would be cleaning the intestines right out of that hog to put the blood sausage in. So there was an instant use of the whole animal: curing the hind legs, making sausage, making salami, cooking the livers, using everything. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten away from that and now we have to produce T-bones and pork chops.

Well, when we think about “meat,” that’s what we think about: steaks, pork chops, chicken breasts. Why is it so hard to look at a pig’s ear—which you serve tossed in semolina and deep fried—and call it meat?
We tend to have a disconnect between meat and animals, but with offal, there’s a direct connection. People say, “oh a tongue, I have one.” Or, “a heart, I can’t eat that.” What I try to do is make people understand a whole-animal ethic. When people realize that this is a whole animal, that there is more than just the skeletal meats, sometimes that makes people step back, and they might not order any meat. They might have a vegetable entrée.

Putting a face on what you’re eating sometimes opens your eyes a lot.

You may hate this, but you really sound equal parts meat eater and animal rights activist. Do you feel compassionate towards the animals you serve?
About two years ago I took my entire kitchen crew, three cooks and [food writer] Harold McGee, and we went down and did a goat slaughter, which would later go into an Easter supper at my house. We bought the goats and slaughtered them on the farm. And I’ll tell you, from that day on, there were never any mistakes with meat in this restaurant. Because the cooks that watched the slaughter, they realized that there’s an animal that’s dying. There needs to be that consciousness in this industry. I felt like a hypocrite; I can go and serve meat all the time and talk about the whole-animal ethic, and yet I hadn’t done a slaughter. And it was hard. It was really hard. I don’t think people realize what it does to you emotionally. It makes you really think about what you’re doing at the restaurant every day.

What’s extreme, even to you?
Balut eggs are pretty gnarly. Do you know what Balut eggs are? Balut eggs are a Philippine delicacy. It’s a fetal duck with feathers and the whole nine yards, and you’re supposed to crack the eggs and chow down. And you chase it with a beer. And so right there, if you chase it with a beer, that already makes me a little nervous. The bones are really crunchy, you can feel the feathers in your mouth. It’s very traditional; they crack it into noodle dishes. My friend’s son brought me a Balut egg, so I tried it. It was difficult, but I tried it.

As for other things, I’m definitely not going to rush out and buy an order of penis. I know that’s a huge thing in Asia, they’re selling Siberian Husky penis and elephant penis. It’s huge. I say that now, but I could go there and somebody could serve it to me and it would taste great.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Zero.

Photo by Lisa M. Hamilton