A reminder for students about where meat comes from and how to use it responsibly
As 50 culinary arts students in crisp white chef jackets jostle for seats in a NAIT food lab, Chris Cosentino strides to the front of the room. With all of his duties as 2013 Hokanson Chef in Residence – master classes like this one, public appearances, and dinners and luncheons he has yet to prepare – there’s not a moment to spare.
As far as famous chefs go, Cosentino is highly recognizable. It’s not just for the Buddy Holly glasses and the culinary-themed tattoos (there’s a butcher’s diagram of a pig on one arm and a fork-knife-and-spoon set on the other). Nor is it necessarily for the appearances on Iron Chef America and Next Iron Chef, or for winning Top Chef Masters in 2012. Cosentino is one of North America’s top advocates for nose-to-tail cuisine, making use of virtually everything, including offal – those innards and extremities once dismissively referred to as “variety meats.”
As if to prove it, Cosentino starts by showing his class a video in which he transforms an enormous pig’s head into porchetta di testa salumi, an Italian slow-cooked meat roll involving the head, tongue and ears.
At first, gasps and “eeeuuwws” ricochet around the room.
At first, gasps and “eeeuuwws” ricochet around the room but soon an enthusiastic round of questions takes over. These chefs-to-be ask about cooking time, seasoning and other technical aspects of making porchetta di testa and other salumi.
No doubt, Cosentino appreciates this. The executive chef of San Francisco’s award-winning Incanto restaurant is determined to change how our disposable society thinks about the whole animal, beyond the rib-eye and tenderloin. And while he wants these up-and-coming Alberta chefs to confront the reality of the origin of a steak, chicken breast or pork chop, he also wants them to take that as an opportunity to push themselves creatively. If he’s successful, it could be a triple win: for our livestock and the environment, for these future chefs’ food budgets and for adventurous diners.
Sensing that he’s got the class past the first hurdle, Cosentino tells the students that he tries to take his kitchen staff to harvest a pig on a California farm at least once a year. It’s an extremely emotional experience, he explains, and it changes you. He sees that in his staff and has seen it in himself.
“The day I first harvested an animal was the day I put more offal on the menu,” he says. “You become very humbled.”
Offal in Edmonton
Daniel Westgeest (Retail Meatcutting '05, Culinary Arts '07), chair of NAIT’s Professional Meatcutting and Merchandising program, applauds Cosentino’s philosophy. “Cosentino’s attitude is that we have to be nice to the earth that is being nice to us. Doing things in a humane manner and being more responsible, that’s the new generation of chefs coming up.”
North American meat production is hugely resource intensive. It can take up to 15,000 litres of water and seven to 10 kilograms of grain to produce the one-kilo package of beef in the grocery store.
“It’s time to put liver and onions back on the menu, to use the bones to make stock again,” Westgeest urges.
Several Edmonton chefs have already started to revive comfort foods based on nose-to-tail ethics, with homemade salumi and offal recipes reimagined in a modern way.
Creativity drives Daniel Costa (Culinary Arts ’05), chef and owner of Corso 32, Bar Bricco and Uccellino to feature non-primary cuts and offal on his menu. Clearly, it’s been good for business, as reservations at this downtown Edmonton restaurant are among the toughest to get in the city.
Costa draws a direct line from his Italian roots to nose-to-tail cooking. He grew up eating oxtail (the tough bone-in cut of beef tail that requires long stewing or braising), and chicken or turkey hearts and neck stuffed with sausage. This was cuisine of the quinto quarto, literally an animal’s “fifth quarter,” or what remains after butchering the outer fore and hind quarters. He reminds us that many familiar favourites were born of resourcefulness.
“Look at how ravioli was created,” he says. “You take the off-cuts and stuff them in a starch. You become creative with the ingredients you have available.”
At Corso 32, Costa thrills at the depth of flavours and the variety of textures he can coax from these meats. He explains that while these dishes involve more cooking skill, like his braised tripe with tomato and chili, the reward is more flavour per pound, which keeps food costs down and customer satisfaction high. And apparently, Edmontonians are more open-minded than ever.
"We’ll sell 14 orders of chicken liver per night.”
“In our 34-seat restaurant, we’ll sell 14 orders of chicken liver per night.”
Rosario Caputo (Culinary Arts ’05, pictured), Cibo Bistro’s owner and chef, also loves the creative challenges of offal. For his older customers’ pleasure, he’s resurrecting “taste memories” of their youth. And younger diners love the novelty of untasted territory. When he can, Caputo features guanciale (aged, cured pork jowl), bresaola (air-dried, aged salted beef) and lardo (salt-brined and cured pork fat). Last summer, he ordered a whole pig’s head for porchetta di testa, which he thought he’d end up throwing out. But his customers, quite literally, ate it up.
“I’m now on my 26th head,” he says.
Interest is spreading beyond the city’s restaurants. Corey Meyer (Retail Meatcutting ’96), third-generation meat-cutter and owner of Acme Meat Market, has become a de facto supplier to those who have dined out on nose-to-tail menus and want to try it at home. Demand for pork belly at his south-side shop, Meyer says, is “off the charts.” He also gets requests for brain, skin, kidneys and heart. Handling full and half carcasses and cutting to order gives him a business advantage.
“It’s not like a supermarket can handle these types of requests,” says Meyer.
Creating taste memories
To close out the master class, Cosentino prepares a green chili-spiked steak tartare served on a round of baguette. Today, he uses raw beef chuck, a tougher, shoulder cut usually reserved for long braising or ground beef, rather than the raw beef heart served at Incanto. Every student, even the vegetarians in the room, is encouraged to try it. It’s part of their culinary education, he tells them.
Ericka Degner, 18, a shy, second-semester student, hesitates before biting into the ruby-red meat. “This is all new,” she says, surprised that she likes it. “I’m happy he inspired me to try it. I would have regretted it if I hadn’t.”
"Your job is to get better every day."
“Your job is to get better every day,” Cosentino tells them. Getting better, he says, is about opening up to new experiences and setting goals of “creating taste memories, every day.”
What’s more, he argues that they are uniquely positioned as chefs to create demand and interest in offal and off-cuts. In this sense, he sees their roles as both culinary artists and activists. His own food suggests that you can put the best interests of animals and environment, your business and your customers, together in one dish.
After all, says Cosentino as a final thought to the next generation of chefs, “You can only change the world one plate at a time."