THE NEW ICONS
Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino is king when it comes to two things – pork and honesty. His new show on Youtube’s Hungry Channel, Pork You, explores the way different cultures use different parts of pork. It’s hard to tell what’s more entertaining – Cosentino’s personality or the information he’s dishing out. We like the new move to a web series; according to Cosentino, it doesn’t have the boundaries network television has. And in a Bourdain-esque age where chefs are the new – and sometimes controversial – rock stars, who needs boundaries? We sat down with Cosentino for a “no rules” interview on raw kidney, zombies and why food TV is fucked up. You may want to keep this one away from the kids…
What would be your ideal food day?
I would love to start the day at 4:30 in the morning at Tsukiji Market, watch the auction and go have sushi in the market. Then I would go to the Pacific Northwest and just power oysters. From there, I’d probably go to Spain and go to the Boqueria in Barcelona and ham out. Eat ibérico from every age and have a ham lunch – ham up the wazoo with a big plate of padrons. And then what? Maybe from there I’d go to have dim sum at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong – the best dim sum I’ve ever had in my life. Forty-eight pieces of dim sum for under thirty bucks. I’d have pineapple pork buns, then I’d go and finish with a New England classic clam boil with steamers and lobster. I’d love a traditional New England clam boil with chorizo and corn like in my childhood. This would bring it full circle. The last thing I would do is go and have a negroni and get late-night Korean food with all of my chef buddies.
We’ve heard you say there’s a “fucked-up-ness” with food TV. What do you mean by that?
It’s a pretty straightforward thing if you look at food TV now; everything’s really candy coated. There are two shows out there that are honest and genuine – Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (which just transferred to CNN) and Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. Those shows delve into culture, a place and a way of life. I think other food shows we are seeing now have become really dumbed down and treat people like they’re stupid. I think it’s really unfair.
I think part of that is the assumption that people don’t have skills, but some of the best chefs in the world just cook in their homes. That’s because maybe they don’t want to put up with the bullshit of working at a restaurant. On TV you have Gordon Ramsay belittling people beyond what’s necessary and that’s not what it’s like in the restaurant world. Nobody does that. I’m sure I’ll get a nasty gram from him for saying that, but it’s true. It causes a negative stereotype about the restaurant kitchen.
Then you have the people on TV who make things easy with processed foods – a segment on how you can doctor up a processed food. That is ridiculous; what is happening? What happened to Julia Child? Teach people how to cook! Don’t treat them like they’re stupid. Give them the skills to excel. It’s like the saying ‘If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.’ That’s how I feel about food TV. And yes, a lot comes down to channels dictating what the show should be like, but there’s a way to do it without treating people like they’re stupid. It’s not honest anymore. Am I just as much to blame? Yeah. I ran around like a jackass competing with local chefs [on Chef Vs. City]. Was that appropriate? No it wasn’t. Should I have done it? No probably not. Yes I’ve been on Top Chef Masters; I’ve been on Iron Chef. But with those – even though they’re reality shows – they’re still cooking shows. They’re not belittling people. They’re not talking to them like they’re ingrates. You see the same thing with cookbooks. People say, ‘Don’t take the plastic handled pan and put it in oven – it will melt.’ Really? Like we didn’t know that? Plastic melts when it goes in the oven. Over ninety-nine percent of country knows that.
Also, people will watch zombies eat people on television but can’t watch an animal be harvested to be served as food. They’ll watch a gang movie where people are murdering each other but they cant watch someone slaughter a turkey for thanksgiving. Is that fucked up? Am I wrong? Where’s the disconnect here? Why is this happening? Isn’t Walking Dead the number one show right now? People keep telling me about it. And they say I’m fucked up because I serve organ meat? People are watching zombies eat people, gangs murder one another and rape women, but they won’t watch the food process. That’s what’s fucked up about television. People don’t want to know where their food comes from and that is sad to me. Everyone wants things sugar coated and I don’t agree with that. Killing, eating human flesh, beating each other to death is natural on television but yet the food process is not. That’s why food TV is fucked up.
What does a web series allow you to do, that you can’t do on television?
The web series gives me complete freedom and complete control. It ended up actually being what I had wanted it to be originally. I can wear what I want to wear, say what I want to say and do what I want to do and not be held back by sponsors. I’m not worried if I say Carvel is a horrible company or Smithfield Pork is garbage. I wont be edited by the overlord – which happens all the time. Smithfield Pork is the number one sponsor of The Food Network. The web series has allowed me to do what I want and talk to people that are really great people. There are a lot of cool little spots out there and a lot of cool things to see and do. It’s exciting to have that freedom.
Can you talk a bit about the series Pork You and your passion for pork?
For me pork is essential. Pig is a pretty magical animal, from which you can literally use everything. I just bought a great book in Japan that showed me new cuts that I hadn’t seen yet. Pork comes from an amazing creature. It has the ability to survive on its own in wooded areas; there are a ton of different breeds. Each one has a different marbling, different fat content, is raised in different areas around the world and has a different use. They’re all pretty spectacular in their own way and that’s what’s amazing about them. Also, pig transcends all cultures. There are only two religions that don’t accept pig in their diet [Muslim and Jewish religion] – other than that, pork exists in every culture. There’s something to be said for that.
Do you want to be the chef that makes even the most religious into pork converts?
I never want to be the person that forces something on someone else. If someone chooses not to eat pork for religious reasons, by all means that’s cool by me. But hopefully, they wouldn’t lecture me on my choice to eat that meat.
I did a segment with Mourad Lahlou [of Aziza restaurant]. He’s Muslim and we sat down and had a full conversation about that. Why doesn’t he eat pork? What is it about pork he doesn’t like? I have a great deal of respect for him; he’s one of my great friends. He is just an amazing guy. To hear it from that person’s voice and understand from a religious standpoint why he doesn’t eat it is powerful thing. People have opinions and that’s okay. Do I have to agree? No. Am I going to disrespect anyone for his or her opinion? No.
What do you think about the people that hate pork and act against it?
I let them speak their mind and I move on. Why bother arguing? They’re mind is set, right? If someone is that vehemently angry against something, you’re not going to change his or her mind so why bother? Its someone’s opinion. If they have it, let them have it. Pork is on my menu, but it’s a choice. A menu translates to the word choice. That’s all it is – options. If you see pork and don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. Eat the fish. I can’t change everybody’s mind. I can change one person’s mind at a time plate by plate. I’ve grown up over the years. I used to try to cram it down peoples’ throats. That just makes people mad. No one wants to be forced education. Do you like being told you’re wrong? Nobody does. I don’t like it either. I make just as many mistakes as other people. I know where my pigs come from. I know what I buy and I know what I do. That’s all that matters. If they want to meet my farmers and ranchers and tell them how horrible they are, by all means, I’ll set up an appointment. People don’t come at me about pork. They more get mad because they’ll think the cuts that I serve are gross. It’s usually not just about pork but about meat in general.
And what about Foie Gras?
There’s always a bitch about foie gras, but what do you expect? It’s a hot debate. I’ve been to the farm in Hudson Valley; I’ve been to one in Sonoma. I think there’s a lot of old misinformation out there. But you know knowledge is power; they use media imagery to really twist people and make people feel bad and horrible. I serve a product at my restaurant called vitellone. It’s a modern veal. It’s a grass-fed animal that is a teenager. It’s not milk-fed veal. Regular veal comes from tiny animals that were milk fed and never allowed to use their muscles. Vitellone is a grass-fed teenage cow that runs in the field and does it’s thing. Because I serve that, I have people call me a murderer because I’m serving veal, but they don’t know what vitellone means. Education is power. If they’d ask questions before casting stones, they may feel differently. Would you cast a stone first or would you ask a question first?
If you could define the over-arching mission behind Pork You, what would it be?
I want to show pork in as many different cultures and ways as possible. I’d like to go to a proper pork farm and show people what it’s like, and then I’d want to sneak into an inappropriate pork farm and show that too. Wouldn’t it be nice to expose the difference and make people realize what’s right and wrong? All I want people to do is make educated choices. As I said before, pork transcends all cultures. If you go to China, pork is a flavor agent and not just a hunk of meat – which is amazing. There are so many ways to use this animal in all of its glory. That’s why I love the option of the web series.
If you could pick one ideal pork dish, what would it be?
That’s really hard. It’s like picking your favorite child. You just don’t do it. Each cut lends itself to different things. It’s hard to pick one flavor profile that’s a go-to; they’re all amazing.
What was it like competing and winning on Top Chef Masters?
Competing on Top Chef Masters for the Michael J. Fox Foundation was an amazing opportunity. I had pretty much adamantly said I would never compete again on TV – that I was done with that. I had done this show called Time Machine Chefs and it was presented one way and done in another. It became to hokey for me. After that I was like ‘I’m done. If I’m going to compete, I’m going to go back to racing my bike. I’m over it.’ Then, I got a phone call from Bravo asking about Top Chef Masters. I hadn’t thought about the idea, but to be able to compete for a charity really struck a chord. I’m doing what I do every single day to raise awareness and funds for a charity that needs help. So I just tried to go there and be who I am. I found out when the show aired that the Michael J. Fox Foundation got 26,000 dollars in donations in the first week alone – that to me was huge. That made the whole thing worth it. It brought awareness to a charity. Conditions were challenging and timelines were tight, but it was a great experience.
Who’s one person you’d like to go up against, that you haven’t competed with yet?
The only way I would compete again is if I could do Iron Chef Japan. Over there is how it all started. I used to go to a bar and watch it on TV. We would get drunk watching Iron Chef in Japanese at a bar – before they started dubbing it.
Is there anything that you haven’t tried with pork that you’d still like to try?
My trip to Japan answered those questions. Two weeks ago, I saw and did those things that I hadn’t done before. I went to Japan for the first time. I had everything. I ate everything raw, cooked and made things myself, ate everything literally from snout to tail and everything in the middle. Windpipe, raw kidney, raw liver, raw intestines, raw stomach – everything. And I never got sick once. We have this fear of eating raw pork in this country.
Do you think you’re more likely to get sick eating things here?
You’re more likely to get sick from McDonald’s then from properly raised pork. You’re more likely to get sick from drinking coke every day instead of water. Everything in life can be over-indulgent. You could overdose on sugar and drown from too much water. Do it in moderation and everything’s fine.
What are your favorite cities for food? Where do you go to there?
When I come to New York, I love Takashi. It’s phenomenal – he [Takashi Inoue] is brilliant and so much fun. I like Maison Premiere a lot in Brooklyn. I’m always at The Spotted Pig or The Breslin. Alex Stupak is just killing it at Empellon Cocina. I always have breakfast at Russ and Daughters when I’m there. I can’t not.
Montreal is one of my favorite places in the world. Joe Beef is just the epitome of fun and deliciousness. There is a new place there called Maison Publique - Chef/Owner Derek Dammann is a great chef and alot of fun. I like places that are fun. I like having fun when I go out to eat. In San Francisco, I go to Aziza, State Bird Provisions and Perbacco.
Everybodys doing great things in different cities all over.
And most importantly, how do you feel about new potatoes?
I think they’re really good with a poached egg and some truffles, boiled. It’s a recipe in my book. Boiled new potatoes and a poached egg with some chives and truffles. How could you not have a recipe for new potatoes in a cookbook? You’d be an idiot.