Chris Cosentino, the Executive Chef at Incanto in San Francisco, wasn’t sure he wanted to talk to me. And I could understand his reticence. He may be a chef on the verge of mainstream fame, with frequent appearances on Food Network shows like The Next Iron Chef, Chefs vs. City and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. But he’s also a chef who cooks almost primarily with offal. If you’re not familiar with offal, it’s a word derived from the slaughterhouse phrase “off fall”, or the pieces that “fall off” a carcass when it’s being butchered. Things like brain and pancreas and lungs and spleen and other organs that aren’t, at least in the U.S., generally considered food. “It’s something that already has a bad rap,” Cosentino told me in a pre-interview phone call. “It’s a very touchy subject. So I don’t know if joking about it is the best plan.” I might normally agree with him. He’s had to contend with some unfair controversy in recent years, from threatening phone calls by anti-foie gras protesters to publishers unwilling to touch his landmark book on offal, Odd Cuts and Guts: Rediscovering the Rest of the Animal. But there is evidence that Cosentino has a sense of humor about his culinary reputation. Last summer, he designed his very own fashion line called Gluttony Pants, with ever-expanding buttons labeled “Piglet,” “Sow” and “Boar.” And his personal website — which features graphic photo galleries of his kitchen staff’s adventures with goose intestines, turkey lungs, and an 85 pound pig’s head — is called “Offal Good,” which is nothing if not sublime food punnery. (What was his second choice, I wonder. “Happy Entrails To You?”)
Cosentino eventually consented to an interview, and he proved to be as laugh-out-loud funny as I’d hoped. But more surprisingly, he also made a pretty convincing case for offal. Probably the highest compliment I can give the man is that after listening to him talk about brains and haggis and tripe for almost an hour, I’m about 80% convinced. For Cosentino, I might eat a brain. But only if he cooked it. And then he’d need to be at the table with me, coaxing the fork towards my mouth, reminding me yet again that life doesn’t always imitate a Steven Spielberg movie.
Eric Spitznagel: Which genre of offal has the worst culinary reputation? Is it lungs? Brains? Tripe? Any animal head with the eyes staring back at you?
Chris Cosentino: It depends on the person. I think for a lot of people, texture is a big issue. We’re a culture of texture. Every country has its preferred food texture. What do you think our texture is?
I don’t know. McNuggety?
Our texture is crunchy. We like our potato chips, our tortilla chips, our french fries, our fried chicken. We’re not a culture of jiggly and soft. And a lot of offal is jiggly.
That’s very true with me. I’ll eat the hell out of some nachos. But there’s not enough hot sauce in the world to make me try cod milt.
I bet you fifty bucks I could make it for you and you’d never know the difference.
You’re going to lose that fifty bucks, friend. There’s no way in hell I’m eating fish sperm, no matter how you fancy it up.
It’s about perception versus reality. If you come into a restaurant and you have this perception that it’s going to be horrible and disgusting, you’ve already set the tone for what your experience is going to be. But if you shut your goddamn pie hole when you come in the door and you’re willing to try something different, you’ll have a better experience.
So your cooking aesthetic is “Stop asking questions and just eat it, you whining pussy?”
Exactly. Put away your perception and follow through on reality. The reality is, I spend all day getting things ready for dinner service. I’m not going to serve you something that tastes bad. My job is to create a lovely dinner experience for you.
How would you make cod milt seem appetizing, besides never mentioning what it is?
Cod milt is shirako, which is a very classical Japanese dish. It’s only available in the fall and winter, so it’s got a very short season. At Incanto, we call it Soft Roes on Toast.
Soft Roes on Toast? That’s linguistic trickery! So you just give it a name that sounds delicious?
Well, no, it’s not that simple.
I have the opposite problem with haggis. The name alone freaks me out.
What’s wrong with the name?
It’s weird. Haaaggis. It sounds like an infected skin flap. “The doctor wants to have my haggis biopsied.”
No, no, no. It’s a Scottish delicacy. Oh my god. Do you eat McDonald’s?
Not anymore, but I did when I was younger.
There are much worse things in McDonald’s than there is in haggis. We have a bizarre perception in this country of what’s good food and what’s bad food. For some reason, we think McDonald’s is good food, even though we all know what’s in a chicken nugget nowadays, don’t we?
What they do is, when a chicken gives birth-
Okay, okay, okay! I don’t want to know!
They take these little baby chickens and they gas them, and then they put them through a fucking extruder.
Oh Jesus Christ! You’re going to make me pass out, Chris.
Here’s a question for you. What does a beef tenderloin do?
Besides be delicious and go into my tummy? What do you mean?
Before it ends up on your plate. Where’s a tenderloin found on the animal? It’s on the underside of the spine, near the back end.
Are you telling me it’s ass?
It’s not ass. But it’s what helps pushed the turd out.
It’s a sphincter?!
No, no. The sphincter is the actual hole. This is the muscle above the colon. It’s one of those contracting muscles. People love their beef tenderloin. They think it’s the best cut in the world. But nobody asks what it does.
How exactly is haggis any better?
Haggis is oats and the sheep’s pluck. The pluck is the heart, the liver and the lung. It’s all ground, mixed in with oatmeal, and then popped into a stomach and cooked. It’s very classic, very beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with it when it’s made well. Unfortunately in this country, everyone has become horrified by it. But that’s because we don’t like what we don’t understand.
I’ll admit I don’t understand haggis. I don’t even understand how to eat it. Is it like a Scottish piñata?
No, no. Think about this: If you went to Africa and offered them a piece of cheese, they’d say you’re disgusting. Because you’re rotting milk. They work so hard to keep their animals healthy and safe for fresh milk, and what do we do? We take it and we rot it. Who’s wrong here? Nobody’s wrong. It’s perception. They feel that what we’re doing is gross, but we think it’s normal.
At least we’re not the world’s only culinary bigot. That’s saying something, right?
Yeah, but we’re the biggest wimps in the world when it comes to our food likes and dislikes. “Oh my god, somebody’s going to eat a dog, somebody’s going to eat a cat! That’s gross! You’re disgusting!” In some countries, those are the only protein options.
Have you ever eaten a dog?
I haven’t, but that’s just because I’ve never been put in that situation. If I was invited to dinner in another country and that’s what was presented to me, I’m not going to refuse it. Because that would disrespectful to the culture. You see what I’m saying?
I do. But if it gets me out of eating a Labrador meatloaf or Pug nuggets, I think I’m okay with being disrespectful.
If you didn’t know what you were eating, you might be surprised.
Your hypothetical dinner party scenario makes me think of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where they get served chilled monkey brains. What do you do in a situation like that?
That doesn’t really exist! That’s a Hollywood fallacy! People don’t do that! Christ, you’d have the military at your front door if you tried to serve raw monkey brains.
Don’t you serve brains at your restaurant?
Calf’s brains and pig’s brain and lamb’s brain, yes.
Not monkey brains? I’m feeling really disillusioned and confused right now. You’re telling me Steven Spielberg was lying?
Of course he was! It was Indiana Jones! It’s a movie! That’s like saying, “Is Jabba the Hut real?” Of course he’s not real! He’s a giant fucking alien with a gelatinous exoskeleton that oozes snot!
As a kid, you never wondered what Tauntaun guts taste like?
Maybe as a kid, sure.
But not an adult offal chef?
Oh my god! I bet you have a Tauntaun sleeping bag at your house.
I do. Let’s get back to non-fictional food. When somebody’s trying to coax me into trying a new or exotic dish, they’ll usually say it “tastes like chicken.” That can’t always be accurate, can it?
No, it’s not. It’s just an easy thing to say to make people feel comfortable. Do offal cuts taste like chicken? Not at all. Say a child is given some black and white paint. You can do amazing things with those two colors. But then you give that child a full palette of other colors. You give them the rainbow. What happens? Their eyes open, they get excited, they start mixing the colors, they get creative. When you have a skeletal cut of meat, there are only so many things you can do with it. Roasted, grilled, braised, it’ll still taste like beef. But with offal, you have different textures, different flavor nuances. It’s an entirely different dimension of taste.
I’m sincerely curious about brain, and not just because of the Indiana Jones movie. But I’m afraid. How would you talk me into it?
I would tell you to harden the fuck up and try it. It’s not like you’re going to a restaurant and they’re putting a pile of dog shit in front of you. You see what I mean? Nobody’s saying, “Here’s a big plate of broken glass.” It’s real food. In a lot of places in the world, this is food they eat every single day. In Asia and throughout Europe, these cuts of meat are part of their everyday diet. Why should we turn up our nose to what’s considered normal by the rest of the world?
I agree with that in theory, but I need more details. If brain doesn’t taste like chicken, what does it taste like?
It’s very creamy, very delicate, very pillow-like. It’s not unctuous whatsoever. Unctuous is a pig’s foot. A brain is rich and gelatinous. If you came to my restaurant, I’d make you something delicious. For you, I’d suggest calf brain picada, dipped in egg, with butter, wine, and capers. There are many different variations. I’ve done calf’s brains ravioli, calf’s brains on toast. You just need to try it, man.
You almost have me convinced, and then I hear that word…. “brains.” All I can think about is Igor.
I’m not saying get a gigantic serving. That’s why we serve brain as an appetizer instead of an entree. And even then, it’s not the whole brain. I only serve half a brain. I know it can be daunting to people. That’s a lot of richness.
What about the old myth that eating brains makes you smarter? Any truth to that?
Oh my god!
Not so much?
I actually had a surgeon ask me that question. I looked him right in the eyes and said, “Seriously? You seriously just asked me that? You went to Harvard. You have a Harvard education and you’re asking me if calf’s brains are going to make you smarter?” There’s probably a more polite way to say it, but I was just shocked. I was like, “I do not want you performing any form of surgery on me. I would rather die.”
I’m guessing you’ve heard enough zombie brain-eating jokes to last a lifetime.
Every time with the zombie jokes. Can I jump on my knife a few more times and just end it all? Fuck me. It’s so stupid and childlike. But the worst is when it’s something like testicles. I don’t care if they’re 20 or 70, they act like 12 year old boys. [With a Beavis and Butthead voice.] “Huhuhuhuh. You’ve got balls on your plate, dude.” And then if there’s a girl at their table, she’ll say, “I dare you to eat it!” And then the guy says “Shut up! You won’t eat them!” And she glares at him with an expression that’s like, “Well…”
Wow. So it’s basically an anatomy of a relationship by way of a plate of testicles?
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of subtext happening in that conversation.
Let’s talk about Lady Gaga and meat dresses. You saw the outfit she wore at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, right?
She went with some rather conventional cuts of meat. With the Grammies coming up in February, she’s probably hoping to outdo herself. If you were designing a meat dress for her, what ingredients would you use?
The biggest error she made last year, aside from wasting all that meat, is that it didn’t look very nice. I’d have done something different. First thing, she needs some lace stockings. Which is easy. You take caul fat, the fatty membrane around organs, and stretch it out really thin. It looks exactly like lace. It’s absolutely beautiful. And then, for her dress, I’d recommend tripe. It’s all white, very elegant, and it wouldn’t drip blood everywhere. You could use the extra tripe to make a handbag. Just use some bone for the handles. It’s very sophisticated.
I think this needs to happen. If Gaga’s interested, would you make her a tripe dress for the Grammies?
Absolutely, sure, why not. [Laughs.] Put me in contact with her, I’ll have that meeting.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)