The Chef That Was Almost Killed by Reality TV

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Joshua Telles

On an August day in 2014, Chris Cosentino stood before some 600 of the world’s most celebrated chefs and offered advice: “For those of you who think food TV is going to make you wealthy,” he said, “you are high.”

This was not what the crowd — gathered in Copenhagen for the prestigious MAD Symposium conference — expected to hear. Cosentino, head chef at the San Francisco restaurant Incanto, had an international reputation for innovative use of organ meats, extremities, and whole animals. Brash and charismatic, he was a ubiquitous presence on reality TV and seemed to be having the time of his life.

In Copenhagen, Cosentino told them otherwise. He’d always thought reality-TV stardom would fill his restaurant and make him enough money to expand, he said. In fact, reality TV had killed his restaurant and ruined his health. “Fame was my goal,” he said. “But fame hurt.”

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Cosentino’s tale hit home, even among cooks who shun the media circus. “It was an extraordinary talk,” says Daniel Patterson, a fellow San Francisco chef. “I saw him when he was done, and I was like, ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ ”

A working-class kid from Rhode Island, Cosentino first tried to become a pro skateboarder. When that fell through, he enrolled in cooking school. He moved west in 1996, taking a year off in 2001 to compete professionally in 24-hour mountain-bike races. By 2003 he was at Incanto.

In 2004, the Japanese television show Iron Chef announced it would produce an American version. Cosentino could not resist. “I’m a competitor,” he said. “I love to compete. I love to win. So I thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ ”

In his debut, Cosentino lost to superstar chef Mario Batali. But the following year he made it to the final three. Next came a gig co-hosting a Food Network show called Chefs vs. City. The idea was for Cosentino and co-host Aarón Sánchez to travel to a new town every week to cook with and often humiliate local chefs in culinary challenges. There were also gross-out eating events — who could eat the most hot dogs with the works, bull testicles, and entire ghost chilies, the world’s hottest pepper. Most difficult was an episode in San Francisco, in which Cosentino consumed a dish with dozens of different chili peppers.

Throughout the hectic production schedule, Cosentino also worked full shifts at Incanto while helping to raise his young son. The schedule wore him down so badly that in 2009, after flying home from New York and heading straight to work, he collapsed in the kitchen. Doctors suspected appendicitis and cirrhosis of the liver before diagnosing Cosentino with stomach cancer. “Nobody can take that away, that fucking moment in my life,” he told his peers in Copenhagen. “My wife and son were on vacation in Virginia. I didn’t have life insurance. I was alone in that hospital room with cameras up both ends.”

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A biopsy came back negative for cancer. Further tests found that Cosentino’s stomach lining was covered in third-degree alkaline burns, possibly caused by all those hot peppers. Telling this story in Copenhagen, Cosentino showed a slide of his damaged stomach lining — bloody pink and raw — that had been taken while he was in the hospital. “They said it looked like I’d swallowed a wolverine that tried to scratch itself out,” Cosentino said. Even worse, dead nerve endings, perhaps destroyed by the peppers, were preventing Cosentino’s stomach from pushing food into his intestines. As a result, half-digested meals were just sitting there, fermenting and releasing stomach gas that accumulated to cause obscene bloating.

One night as he convalesced, Cosentino invited friends and family to Incanto to watch Chefs vs. City’s premiere. He did not like what he saw. “I looked like a bully,” he recalled. “Who am I to go into another town and shit all over local chefs?” Cosentino considered quitting but was contractually obligated to appear in the second season. So soon he was back on the same grueling schedule that helped put him in the hospital. (The Food Network declined to comment for this story.)

This was not where Cosentino ever anticipated finding himself. He thought about the early days of his career, when he interned in London with Jamie Oliver, enjoying decadent, drunken feasts with other young, ambitious chefs. Most memorable was a night at Fergus Henderson’s acclaimed restaurant St. John, where, for the first time, Cosentino encountered unusual fare like braised squirrel and seagull eggs. “All I wanted was to be that chef’s chef,” he says, “to have that restaurant that the chefs want to come to.”

At Incanto, he seemed well on his way. He dug into the Italian peasant tradition of using every edible part of every barnyard animal, creating luscious handmade pastas with pork-shoulder ragù but also stuff like lamb’s neck and pork kidney. His peers were delighted. TV producers, meantime, loved his hypermacho persona, the flamboyantly carnivorous hero turning eating into an action sport. The History Channel cast him on Modern Marvels, for which he deboned an entire pig’s head with a disposable razor, a lighter, and a boning knife, a feat that went viral on YouTube. He was a natural in the role of the carnivore’s carnivore. When asked how he might persuade someone to eat brains, he replied: “I would tell him to harden the fuck up and try it.” He launched an artisanal cured-meats business and designed a line of chef’s shoes and pants. On his website, he sold hot-dog pink T-shirts printed with the words lips and assholes: the other, other white meat.

But there was one thing Cosentino wasn’t seeing: new customers at Incanto. He began to suspect that reality TV was actually alienating potential customers, pigeonholing him as a sellout — always out on TV shoots, never in the kitchen. In fact, he was working harder than ever. But Incanto still topped a 2013 reader’s poll of San Francisco’s most overrated restaurants. Then the city’s most powerful restaurant critic, Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a review that nudged Incanto off the cliff. “The preparations were lax,” Bauer wrote. An appetizer was “underdone and gristly.” While the service was friendly and professional, “that couldn’t compensate for the disappointment on the plates.”

Sales at Incanto eventually fell by nearly half, and the restaurant closed not long afterward. “Now I’m here,” said Cosentino in Copenhagen. “I’m 42. My restaurant’s closed. I’m starting over again, a whole new life. Going to build up what I want, my way.”

That new start is Cockscomb, in San Francisco, the first restaurant in which Cosentino has total creative control. Everything about Cockscomb’s interior suggests that Cosentino has finally found a way to be true to his own vision — bold, exuberant, hypermasculine. The space is packed with items from his past: old skateboard decks, his grandfather’s Navy-issue flashlight from World War II, mountain-bike parts, antlers from a buck he shot in Texas, giant paintings donated by artist buddies. “Chris never tried to reinvent himself,” says Derek Dammann, chef at Maison Publique, in Montreal. “He stuck to his guns.”

On a recent weekday evening, Cosentino runs the show, full of his old confidence. “All right, guys, here we go!” he yells to the cooks in the open kitchen. “I need one pig’s head! Two Hot Messes! Order fire, pin-bone!”

Plates arrive at the pass, the stainless steel chef’s counter where Cosentino adds the final touches. Hot Mess turns out to be a thick piece of toast topped with marmalade, a seared and salty slab of foie gras, seared fruit, and then a tangle of pork pulled from a braised pig’s foot. Pin-bone steak is a four-pound bone-in sirloin grilled over a wood fire, sliced thick, and served with bone-­marrow dipping sauce.

But nothing quite prepares you for the roasted half pig’s head, served cut-side down with a bowl of “brain-aise” — which looks a bit like mayonnaise but is warm and delicious because brains are the best-tasting of organ meats.

Staring up from the plate, that pig’s face seems to smile and say what Cosentino has been saying to adventurous meat lovers for years: Congratulations on not being a pussy.

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