A Chef Finds his Place
CHRIS COSENTINO COMES TO NAPA
Chris Cosentino is in a good place now.
Not just geographically, even if his surroundings at the moment are quite enviable. Fresh off a 25-mile bike ride, the 45-year-old chef is bolting down an egg-white frittata on the veranda of a historic St. Helena mansion that has been refashioned into the luxurious Las Alcobas resort, home to his latest restaurant: Acacia House.
But it goes beyond that. There is also a newfound equilibrium to him—physically, emotionally and spiritually—that has been absent far too long.
In the past eight years, Cosentino’s body and psyche have been through hell and back. During that span, this take-no-prisoners chef, a bro’s bro in the heat of the kitchen, who had the audacity to serve every animal organ imaginable with pride and conviction long before it was cool, suffered not only the abandonment of diners and the closure of his first restaurant, San Francisco’s Incanto, but stomach pain so crippling that he could barely work. It was the price of success. Or so he thought.
“I had hit bottom personally,’’ he says. “When you look at a rainbow, if you don’t hit purple, the last color, you can’t see the other colors. I hit purple. But now I can see how bright things are.”
And there are lots of bright things. There is his new cookbook, Offal Good: Cooking From the Heart, With Guts (Clarkson Potter, 2017), which published this past summer, following 10 years of rejections because the subject matter was deemed too taboo. There is his new line of all-natural, gluten-free energy bars called Pave, developed from his own need for a nutritious pick-me-up during long bike rides. Moreover, in addition to his long-running Boccalone cured meat company, he now has three restaurants to his credit. Each debuted in a different region in rapid succession: Cockscomb in San Francisco in 2014, followed by Jackrabbit in Portland, Oregon, and Acacia House in St. Helena, both in 2017, just two weeks apart.
“It’s like I asked for a drink of water,” Cosentino says in disbelief, “and the fire department showed up with a hose.”
Because when it rains, it pours. But in a good way this time. As a kid, Cosentino dreamed of being a pro skateboarder, then grew up to compete professionally in marathon 24-hour mountain-biking races, before finding his calling as a chef. Afflicted with ADD, he found that cooking somehow centered him. With his magnetic machismo, it wasn’t long before the Food Network came calling, too.
From 2009 to 2010, he starred with Chef Aaron Sanchez in “Chefs vs. City,” a show that was less about cooking than concocting inane challenges against local culinarians to see who could devour the most sour pickles or ferocious chilies. All the while, Cosentino was flying back and forth from New York while still running Incanto in San Francisco.
It took its toll, severely. In the eyes of his devoted Bay Area clientele, he went from serious chef to sell-out. They stopped patronizing Incanto. Sales fell by almost half, and in 2014 the restaurant closed after 12 years. Then, after flying home one night, Cosentino wound up in the emergency room. Doctors first feared he had cancer, before diagnosing that his stomach lining was annihilated, covered in third-degree alkaline burns, possibly from the insane amount of fiery peppers he had consumed for the sake of TV.
Even now, his body can’t tolerate anything aged in oak lest he have an allergic reaction. He takes CBD—cannabidiol, derived from cannabis—for anxiety, which he was diagnosed with after Cockscomb opened. He wears brainwave-sensing glasses, developed to help athletes to better focus, that provide a meditative tool. He also makes time to get on his bike regularly. “Anxiety and depression don’t vanish. They are always there,’’ he says. “But I’ve learned to manage it. When I ride, I see the grapes all around, and I smell the astringency of the green walnuts growing. For so long, I just put my head down and did it. Now, I am enjoying the ride.’’
What a journey it has been. For this ride, Cosentino teamed up with long-time front-of-the-house colleague Oliver Wharton to form Delicious MFG & Co. Together, they opened the stand-alone Cockscomb; Jackrabbit in The Duniway, a Hilton hotel; and Acacia House in the first U.S. property by the Mexico City–based Las Alcobas group.
The St. Helena resort sits on more than three acres on Main Street. Its 68 rooms provide such an up-close view of the Beringer estate vineyards next door that guests feel as if they’re sleeping in the vines. Cosentino says that when he first beheld that heart-stopping vista, he knew immediately that he wanted to be part of the project.
It all came about when Samuel Leizorek, founder of the Las Alcobas hotel group, came to dine at Cockscomb unannounced. He had already looked at a dozen other chefs. He knew he had hit the jackpot after Cosentino prepared a special tasting dinner for him after that first unannounced visit. “There are chefs that cook from the heart, and those who make you eat heart,” Leizorek says. “He personally served me beef heart tartare and stared at me. I had no choice but to put it in my mouth. It was so delicious that I went for seconds. There are many very talented chefs, but his is a soulful personality that we knew would complement what we wanted to do.”
At Acacia House, Cosentino designed the menu to reflect the five countries where the Napa Valley’s most renowned grapes originated (Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and Germany). While diners can gorge on a brash, wood-oven-roasted pig’s head at both Cockscomb and Jackrabbit, it’s not on the menu at Acacia House. Cosentino wants to broaden the expectations of diners who wrongly surmise that if his food isn’t all about guts, there can’t be any glory.
He wants to show his way with vegetables, especially if it’s just-picked radishes dragged through creamy sea urchin butter. He wants diners to know he’s as capable with a Kobe beef rib-eye cap with bone marrow bordelaise as he is with a magnificent grilled Hamachi collar strewn with chilies, capers, mint and orange zest. Word seems to be spreading, as high-profile guests have flocked in to dine, notably including actor Bill Murray.
After going through the ringer, Cosentino has emerged reinvigorated.
“When I first moved to San Francisco in 1996, I drove through the Napa Valley with my mom and my wife,” Cosentino says. “The old buildings were reminiscent of New England, where I grew up. I said, ‘Someday, I want to be in one of those f---ing buildings!’” I have to pinch myself because I still can’t believe it’s happened.”