Chris Cosentino – Executive Chef, Incanto, San Francicso

We had an opportunity recently to sit down with Chef Chris Cosentino to discuss his culinary background, how he got into offal cookery and his favorite spots to eat in San Francisco and beyond.

How did you get into cooking initially and what is your food background?
My first job was as a dishwasher at an IHOP.  Growing up in New England, I also worked on local fishing boats, lobstering and repairing fishing nets with a neighbor who was a fishing captain.  Later, I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales and after graduation I moved to Washingon D.C. to work with Mark Miller at the Red Sage and later at restaurants including Rubicon, Chez Panisse, Belon, and Redwood Park in the Bay Area. I became Executive Chef at Incanto in 2002 and have been here ever since.

Who have some of your mentors been both in and out of the kitchen?
Mark Miller taught me to look at history to understand the culture and techniques of cooking.  Jean-Louis Palladin had so much passion and love of the craft; he was a true chefs’ chef.  Fergus Henderson helped open my eyes to the deliciousness of offal cookery and is just an all around fun guy to be around.  Really, there are so many chefs that inspire and amaze me that I could go on forever.

In the U.S., you’ve been a pioneer in nose to tail eating. What inspired you to cook this way and how have diners’ perceptions changed over the years?
I helped out at an animal harvest and saw how much was being thrown away and I swore that I wouldn’t do that anymore.  But, the thing about it is that I am not doing anything new.  I am just bringing back old recipes that have been put to rest.  These are viable cuts of meat that are eaten around the world.  Why did we stop eating them?  My goal was, and still is, to get people to give these cuts of meat a try.  Now, I see more and more diners that seek me out specifically to experience offal for the first time or in a new way.

What’s the creative process for you in creating new dishes at Incanto?
It all starts with the product and then it is just a flow of flavors in my head.  I taste the ingredients together before I even start to cook.  I want to make sure they are going to work well together.  Sometimes, it’s about a texture combination or adding umami to a dish or just using enough acid and herbs to get a balanced dish. Each time is a bit different but the end goal is to make it delicious.  If it’s not, it doesn’t make the menu.

Are there any ingredients or cooking techniques you are particularly inspired by at the moment?
I am inspired by so many different techniques and right now I am reading a lot of old cookbooks and getting re-inspired by the classics.  It’s amazing what could be done back in the day without all the fancy equipment we have now, like in the days of Escoffier.

Since Incanto opened in 2002, how has the restaurant evolved? How has the San Francisco dining scene evolved?
The city is forever evolving and at the restaurant I am trying everyday to improve the guests’ experience, with both the food and the service. We did a small remodel a few years ago and continually look for ways to enhance the experience.

What are your thoughts on culinary school? Do you feel it’s necessary?
I think culinary school depends on the person. Some need the direction and thrive in that environment.  But, I do find it to be very expensive and can be misleading if grads think it will surely lead them to a future of fame, fortune and grandeur.  At the end of the day, the most important trait you bring to the table is a strong work ethic.

As a chef who has had great success with food television, what are your thoughts on how Food Network and others are affecting food culture in the U.S?
Food television has been positive in many ways, but with every positive comes negatives.  There are many people around the country now who are eating better and cooking at home because of food TV.  There are also a lot of young cooks who only want to be on TV but don’t want to put in the time to really know what they are doing.

What are some of your favorite places to eat in San Francisco or elsewhere?
There are so many incredible places to eat that it’s hard to just pick one.  In Chicago, it’s Blackbird and Publican. In New York, it’s Takashi, Empellon, and Hearth and in San Francisco, it’s State Bird Provisions.

Any words of advice to young cooks starting out?
Eat out at great restaurants where you think you might want to work.  Read cookbooks and work your ass off.  Listen and learn.  It’s not personal, it’s business.  Make sure that every dish is so perfect you would serve it to your grandmother.  Listen, take notes, come prepared, keep your knives sharp and never be late.

Shosui Takeda – Master Blacksmith and Owner of Takeda Knives

We had the honor of sitting down with Shosui Takeda, the owner of Takeda Knives. Takedas’ blue steel knives are highly regarded for their craftsmanship, long lasting sharpness and overall superior performance.

How long have you been making knives and how did you start?

Because my father was also a blacksmith, I started helping out around the workshop when I was an elementary school student. At that time, my goal was to earn some allowance money to go bowling. Honestly though, it was never my intention to follow in my father’s footsteps and I didn’t start truly working as a blacksmith until I was 28.

How has your knife making progressed over the years?

The reason I started to make knives with a very thin blade was because of some comments from a long time customer. He told me “your knives hold a great edge, but the blade is too thick for cutting thick root vegetables like daikon without breaking the vegetable. Can you make your blades thinner?”. These comments twenty years ago changed my approach to knife making. Even after twenty six years of knife making, I still don’t know what the perfect knife is and all I can do is my absolute best every time. I still haven’t produced a knife that I’m one hundred percent happy with.

What are the traits of a good knife to you?

There are so many factors that make a great knife. To name a few: great cutting feel which lasts over time, easy to use, doesn’t chip or get damaged easily, can use for many years, difficult to rust, easy to sharpen. Also, I want our knives to cost the same as what you’d invest in a special pair of shoes. I could go on and on, but these are the basic things I think about every day when I’m in the workshop making knives.



Why do you choose to use Aogami Super Blue Steel? What makes it so special?

As far as the Aogami Super, all of our customers would only choose Aogami Super after using that knife. They say that they just can’t go back to other types of steel. About twenty years ago when we first started using Aogami Super, our main material was Blue Steel #1. Even though those knives held a great edge and were half the price, customers were choosing the Aogami Super. It’s that simple. From a craftsmanship perspective, when I first forged with Aogami Super, it was obvious that is a very very difficult material to work with. Even at this point, it is much harder than using a steel which is just one rank down. I do end up with a higher percentage of failed blades than I would working with other types of steel, but I feel it’s worth it for the end result.

You use a rosewood handle on your knives instead of magnolia. What are the benefits?

Rosewood is much tougher than magnolia. Repairing knives is an important part of what we do and we get knives back that have been used for twenty years. We can see that the rosewood lasts well over time even in professional kitchens. Shapewise, I do feel that the octagonal shape is the most comfortable and can be used by anyone. There are all kinds of different designs out there, but I believe the octagonal handles are the best.

Which of your knives are popular (overseas and Japan) and do you have any plans for new models in the future?

We’ve never once had our own idea of ‘producing a new model’. The reason our knife collection grows over time is all based on customer requests and feedback. We make changes to our knives little by little over time based on these comments.

What is your philosophy towards craftsmanship?

Something that I’ve discovered recently is a true craftsman is a person who doesn’t think in a sales related way. For example, if you think of all the different processes available for knife making, you see there are many ways to make knives that are profitable and easy to sell. You can make knives with press cutters or lasers, use layered steel or have a polished blade. These processes don’t require as much work. But when you have to make a decision on which process to use, a true craftsman chooses the method which creates the best knife for the user. Even if this process means more work to make and sell the knife, this is the path I will always choose. My goal is to pursue the best quality no matter what.

What is the process of forging a knife?

We start out by ordering a type of Aogami Super Blue steel called ‘fukugokouzai’. This combines carbon steel and a soft carbon blend. I feel this is the best quality material to start with.

Next, we cut the materials into the shape of each knife and weld the ‘nakago’ (tang) to each blade. We use a stain resistant steel for the nakago, so there won’t be any corrosion inside the handle of the knife. After welding these two pieces together, I use a hand grinder to smooth the joint between the nakago and body of the knife. Each knife then goes through a multiple-step forging and heat treatment process.

We then reshape each knife with a grinder and use a belt sander to smooth the edges step by step. At this point, we double check the joint between the nakago and the body of the knife. If there is even a slight imperfection, we re-weld and regrind the joint until it’s perfect.

We put a starter edge on to each knife and clean the surface of each blade with a wire brush. The knife is now ready for ‘yaki-ire’, a very important three day heating and cooling process.

To prep each knife for yaki-ire, we coat the blade with a powder made of natural sharpening stones and pine charcoal.  In my furnace, I heat lead to 820 degrees Celsius and put each knife one by one into the furnace until it glows the appropriate ‘red’. Once the color is just right, I plunge the knife into an oil bath to cool it and clean it with a wire brush to remove any powder residue.

I have a tub with hot oil, set to 150 degrees Celsius, which each knife goes into after the ‘yaki-ire’ process. At the end of the day, the tub holds all of the knives I’ve worked on. I then heat the oil to 170 degrees Celsius and keep it at that temperature for forty minutes. I let the knives cool and sit in the tub overnight.

The next morning I heat the oil to 170 degrees again and keep it at that temperature for forty minutes. The knives sit in the tub for another twenty four hours. Lastly, I heat the oil to 150 degrees, take out each knife one by one and clean it with wood shavings.

After ‘yaki-ire’, I make sure each knife blade is completely straight.

Next is the edge crafting process. I start out using a ‘san-shaku’ rough grit sharpening wheel and then move onto a flat rotation medium grit sharpening wheel. The final process is to sharpen each knife by hand on a series of sharpening stones and coat with an anti-rusting material.

Lastly, we need to attach the handle. We insert epoxy into each handle and insert the blade, adjusting to the correct angle. The knife is now ready to be boxed up and leave our workshop!

Viet Pham – Co-owner of Forage and Executive Chef of upcoming Ember and Ash, Salt Lake City

Tell us a bit about where you grew up and early food memories.
I was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia – my parents were boat people, which means they fled Vietnam during the war.  We came to the US when I was about 5 months old. We lived in Illinois and then my parents moved us out to California when I was eight years old.When we came to the US we were extremely poor and in our case there were three families, two of my uncles and their children, so there were 14 or 16 of us living in the same household.  At dinner time and lunch time, I remember all the kids would get together at a table and pick herbs.  Everyone had a duty, a job.

I would love to say that I have fond memories of my mom slaving away and making traditional dishes, but growing up in an Asian family, you’re always eating Asian food, and it would get really boring, so I craved for American food and given the choice between a hamburger or a bowl of pho, I would have chosen the hamburger. My parents had a business with catering trucks, so I get asked a lot if this is where I got my inspiration from, but you know, they were never really happy because they worked long hours and used that as an example to my brother and I, to go to school to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.

I spent a lot of time going food shopping with my parents and seeing a variety of different produce.  That instilled curiosity in me.  And, because my parents worked a lot, they taught us how to take care of ourselves.  From kindergarten on, we would boil water and make our own ramen.  We would add leftovers and bits and pieces.  My fascination and curiosity came from adding and exploring different ingredients and ultimately seeing how they translated.
How did you first get into a professional kitchen?
I was going to college at San Jose State University and I took a break my senior year and I attended culinary school.  I didn’t learn anything really, I think everything they taught I already knew from watching Jacque Pepin and Martin Yan on PBS, or cooking at home.  I do credit culinary school for requiring an internship to graduate.

I had applied for an internship at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Australia.  I wrote a long letter and put together this beautiful packet, but I sent it and never heard back.  And it wound down to a week before I had to submit my internship info and my counselor told me there was a restaurant down the street looking for interns, and the Chef, Laurent Gras had just been awarded FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef.  I went to the 5th Floor that same day.  One of the first things Laurent emphasized was that culinary school does not provide a foundation. Everything I would learn, the foundation I would build in the kitchen would be with him from here on out.
What was it like working for Laurent Gras?
Working with him changed my life.   I literally got beaten physically and emotionally to the point where there were many times that I wanted to give up.  But, Laurent’s philosophy resonated with me.  I learned that practicing makes you not only a better cook but also a better person.

I had a long commute everyday, but it gave me an opportunity to clear my mind and really focus on what I needed to do to not be yelled at, I’d ask myself, ‘What do I have to do today to not get in trouble and to do something that would make Laurent proud?”.  Over time things started to change.  I remember Laurent telling me  “Oh – you’re finally using your brain.”    It was a huge compliment and I felt really good.
Now you’re based in Salt Lake City, which must have been a departure from San Francisco.  What is the food scene like and how was Forage received?
It’s up and coming.  I’ve been here six years now and I never anticipated so much to happen in such a short time.  When we opened Forage, we received a lot of accolades early on and that reinforced how I felt about our dining community.

When we first opened, we didn’t know what to expect, but for myself and Bowman (Brown) it was the only thing we could imagine ourselves doing, and if it didn’t work out at least we tried.  In the beginning it was very difficult, especially because the format was so different and new to Utah.  For tasting menus across the country it’s nothing new or special.

We had a fixed tasting menu (for $72) and an optional 3 course menu for $29.  In other cities it might seem cheap, but according to Utah standards it was really high.  We got a lot of complaints early on, but once we got food reviewers and writers in and got glowing reviews the restaurant was packed.  After we were jointly awarded Best New Chef by FOOD & WINE Magazine, we decided to get away from the three course menu and just do one menu of 14-17 courses, focusing on execution, quality of ingredients and the progression of the meal.

What do you have planned for your next project Ember and Ash?
The main influence for Ember and Ash comes from a really good buddy of mine.  Joshua Skenes who has a restaurant called Saison in San Francisco. He was named FOOD & WINE Magazine’s Best New Chef the same year I was.  We’ve worked together a few times  and it’s been life changing.   At Forage we always cooked over a fire but what Josh is able to do takes it to a whole new level. Josh has incorporated a level of finesse and skill that’s poetic. You’re using the intensity of the heat but not incorporating the smoke or the char and that intensity brings out the deepest point of flavor in a lot of different and often times humble foods such as potatoes or beets or turnips.  The flavors are unlike anything you can achieve through conventional cooking methods like sauté, baking, roasting all that.

I decided to incorporate a hearth into Ember and Ash.  We’ll have a set menu.  We’ll do 4 courses.  I wanted to create a more relaxed atmosphere with casual but really attentive service and food that really speaks for itself.  Chefs are serving you. I want people to leave feeling happy and surprised.  With a price point where they can come back and back.

Your latest project with Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, Beer Bar, just opened in downtown Salt Lake City.  How did this come about?  

I first met Ty Burell a few years ago when he dined at Forage. At that time I really didn’t know who he was, but learned through my server. Ultimately I went out and purchased season 2 of Modern Family after watching the entire season, I was hooked. Ty, along with his brother Duncan and some partners, opened Bar X, let’s just say it’s a place I frequent a lot. Through spending time there we all became good friends and established a great partnership.

When I heard they were toying with the idea of a beer bar with food, it definitely piqued my interest and I thought it would be a wonderful challenge because it would be totally casual, event though my background is in fine dining. I helped them develop their specialty brat sandwiches, their sauces, fries, kitchen layout and defining their menu. It’s been really fun and well received.  And was picked up by Food & Wine for their March issue – Tyler and did a photo shoot, where we got to cook and eat/drink, and shoot the shit together. All said and done, Tyler is an amazing and savvy business person. With the success that he has achieved, he’s still a nice and humble guy that just wants to do good things for the community.

What are your essential kitchen tools?
I love my tweezers, and a lot of people think using tweezers is ridiculous, but to me it’s a tool of finesse.  Often times we use small herbs that your fingers would bruise.  Our dishes tend to be smaller and tweezers allow for that intricacy that is required and the health department likes it. Blenders are often overlooked, but they do so much. Everything from sauces to purees to making oils and all that stuff. And I take great pride in taking care of my knives.  The craftsmanship of Japanese knives is an inspiration and extension of what we are trying to do as chefs.

You’re a spokesman for the the International Rescue Committee, tell us a little about your work there?
I come from a refugee family and we were fortunate enough to come to the US and have someone sponsor us, I know how important the IRC’s work is.  Bringing people from war torn countries and giving them a second chance while providing education and workforce services.  All that great stuff gets the people up and going.

The division that I work with is called The Roots and basically what we’ve done in Salt Lake City is purchase a huge plot of land and turned it into a farming community.  It allows different refugees to get a plot of land so they can grow their own native ingredients, like fruits and vegetables. It’s special for me because get introduced to ingredients I’d never see in supermarkets, like Sudanese Roselle Leaf, which is part of the hibiscus family, it’s really sour.  This leaf is kind of red in color as it matures and has a really lemony flavor.

PJ Calapa – Executive Chef at Ai Fiori and Costata, New York

PJ Calapa is Executive Chef at Michael White’s Ai Fiori and Costata.

Do you have an earliest food memory?

Yeah, there’s a few. I grew up on the Mexican border. My Dad’s side of the family is Italian, my Mom’s side of the family is Spanish and food was always around. Every event was surrounded by someone cooking dinner or going out to dinner. My grandfather had a fish business in Texas with commercial fishing boats and he would sell fish to customers all around the United States. I remember going there as a young child and playing with all the fish and smelling all the fish and not being allowed to go anywhere after that because I stunk. But then that fish coming home with us and my mother cooking fish for us, or my grandmother cooking fish for us. Making ceviche and my mother’s ceviche recipe is still ingrained in my head and that will be on one of my menus one day.
How did you get into professional cooking?

So I did it for a long time. I didn’t know that I loved it, I just knew that I was into it. Because of where I grew up, I never actually knew that it could be a career. I graduated from high school, I went to college at Texas A & M, had a degree in Economics and there was no other choice in the family. I remember cooking dinner for my friends in my house for 12 people and it was no big deal. And, I remember someone saying you should be a chef. And I was wondering if that was even possible. This was around the year 2000, not that long ago, but it was so far beyond in my eyes that it could be a profession. I remember calling my parents and them saying no way. I finally convinced them to let me get a job in Texas working in a restaurant and then it all happened after that. There was no turning back at that point. I went to CIA and I’ve been in New York since.
Who were your culinary mentors?

First and foremost, I always give credit to the first place I ever worked, which was called Christopher’s World Grill in Bryan, Texas. Christopher Lampo was a CIA grad and they make everything from scratch and it was the proper kind of restaurant to train at. Especially because in the market in Texas at that time there was a lot of change and people not doing things the right way.

My first job in NY was at Bouley, with David Bouley. The Chef de Cuisine was Cesar Ramirez and I knew I was somewhere special at that point but didn’t know because I was so new to New York. I knew that I did everything wrong at the beginning and I knew that I didn’t want to do it wrong. He instilled a standard in me that will never change. And, I still hold that standard in me and hold it to everyone that I work with and who works for me.
As a chef with experience with both Japanese and Italian cuisine, do you see any parallels?

When I told people I was going to work at Nobu, they were surprised because I’m not Japanese. But I told them it doesn’t really work like that there. Food is food, the ingredients change, but cooking is cooking. There’s obviously different styles in different regions and differerent countries but at the end of the day cooking is cooking. You cook a piece of meat and you cook a piece of meat. Once I immersed myself in that Nobu culture and the Nobu version of Japanese, I understood what the key ingredients were. But, his ability to expand in different directions, I sort of learned the core ingredients and rules I needed to play by and at that point I just let myself be creative.

Taking that fine dining version of Japanese now, I see immense parallels between Japanese and Italian. The emphasis on ingredients is like none other in the world. You eat at a three star Michelin in Italy and they’ll give you a piece of mozzarella on a plate. But, it’s the best mozarella from the best person from the best town and I love that. I think that simplicity in food is difficult. I think everyone can put twenty different ingredients on a plate but can you do four and do it right. So, Nobu taught me that. The Japanese style taught me that and now I’ve definitely put that into the way I cook now, which is more Western and Italian.
What ingredients inspire you right now?

Anything green. The morels right now are beautiful. I was so impressed with the quality we’re getting from the West Coast so I’m putting on everything right now. We just got our first batch of asparagus from Jersey, which is beautiful purple top asparagus. That, I look forward to because it’s only a month long season. There’s asparagus from around the world twelve months a year, but when it’s right there and in season it’s fantastic. I’ll eat it shaved raw in a salad.

What’s your favorite kitchen tool and technique?

My favorite tool is a knife and my go to is my slicer that I use for everything. If it was an electronic tool, I would say a Vita Prep. The power those blenders have is incredible. It’s funny, we were just cooking in Korea and we noticed the things they didn’t have compared to what we have. And, we were slowed down because they didn’t have these high powered blenders.

We also do a fair amount of sous vide cooking here. I like to use it the way I like to use it though, which is not for a lot of proteins. We have one lamb dish on the menu, which is lamb rack wrapped in lamb sausage and we needed to take the inside lamb to a certain temperature before the sausage did. But, that’s the only protein that goes in a circulator. We do ten different vegetable techniques in a circulator. I feel like that is the best approach for a circulator. Artichokes in the bag, perfect every time. Potato Fondant in the bag, perfect every time. We braise endive in balsamic in a bag. You literally have to add no moisture and it cooks in its own liquid. You can control the temperature, you can control the pressure. We’ve really expanded on technique in that direction.
What’s the process of creating new dishes for the menu?

The main approach comes from me but the sous chefs and I will sit down and have a menu meeting. We’ll talk about the direction we want to go with certain things. Sometimes I’ll draw a complete blank and not have an idea for a dish but at other times I’ll say I want this, this and this. They will put all the components on a plate, and we’ll replate and re-taste and build from there. I feel very strongly about empowering the young chefs as I was and it’s amazing what we can all come up with as a team.

Favorite dish to cook at home?

I love a good Sunday stew. Lately, I’ve been going in the Italian direction where I’ll braise a pork shoulder in tomato sauce. A little fresh pasta, a salad and everything hits the table at once and we can sit down and talk for hours. That’s how we do it and that’s how I was raised. I reached the point in my career where I was cooking six dishes for my family and spending the whole day in the kitchen and then realizing that was stupid. You need to spend time with them. Things that I can make ahead of time but that are still amazing and delicious.
What are your favorite places to eat in New York?

The Breslin makes me very happy. Their terrine board is flawless; we always start with that. I think their Caesar salad is fantastic and if there’s a big group we’ll do ribeye, we’ll do this or that. It’s great for groups and that’s definitely the style we like to eat these days. I always love to go eat good sushi as well. 15 East blew me away recently. The composed kitchen items were great, the sushi was out of this world.