Chris Cosentino on Asian Cooking

Chris Cosentino - LUCKYRICE SF.
The celebrity chef dishes on Asian-influenced cooking, umami, and his favorite fish sauce.

Chris Cosentino, chef at Porcellino and founder of salumeria Boccalone, shares his views, a little history, and inside tips on Asian-influenced cooking. Cosentino is the winner of Top Chef Masters Season 4 and is opening the upcoming Cockscomb restaurant in San Francisco. We caught up with Cosentino at LUCKYRICE San Francisco just before he did a demonstration and food lecture on Asian cooking influences. The dish he made was a grilled squid, watermelon and tomato salad (recipe below).

Scenes from LUCKYRICE: San Francisco and Scenes from LUCKYRICE: Chris Cosentino are short videos available on Comcast on Demand throughout November.

—Momo Chang

How do you think your cooking is similar to Asian cooking?
Asian-style cooking in particular, one, it’s heavily umami-based. Italian food is extremely heavy umami-based. Italian restaurants are the number one growing restaurants throughout Japan, due to the fact of umami-based foods such as parmesan, tomato, cured meats. Within the way I cook, I was always taught acid and herbs before salt.

And a lot of what I find as I travel to Asia and diff parts of Asia, whether it be going to Hong Kong or going to Japan or Vietnam or Thailand—all these countries really focus on acids and herbs before salt and building and layering on that. Salt is a finishing ingredient at the end, whether it be use of fish sauce or whether it’s used as a salted piece of meat. Those techniques are really a lot of same techniques I use everyday. It just comes naturally for me. A lot of it has to do with my previous employer [Mark Miller] who taught me acid and herbs before salt. He started working on a noodle concept back in ‘96 and nobody understood it. So I was really introduced to Asian cooking many, many years ago.

Can you tell me about “I Heart Offal?”
Offal Good is my brand. Offal Good came from me really wanting to educating people about how to cook with off-cuts and really just embrace these cuts of meat, which are prized everywhere else in the world—but the United States. You go to any restaurant in any of the Asias and offal is everywhere. Whether it’s pigfeet, or if you have a bowl of pho with tendon and bible tripe. It’s just everywhere. Larb for example, traditional larb is chopped liver and heart and all different meat. We’ve come to in the U.S. not really understand those cuts, but everywhere else, everybody comes to love them at a very early age.

What’s your demonstration about today?
One of things for me that’s become a really important part about cooking is understanding the history of food. And there’s a real debate out of where fish sauce came from. It’s a pretty heated debate right now. I started poking this fire a couple years ago. Pre-Etruscans had garum—garum, also known as Roman fish sauce. You can look at dishes by the Romans, and pre-Romans, that were using such things as asafetida and garum, to season what would be a haggis of sorts. So instead of adding salt they would use garum, which was their version of fish sauce. So where did fish sauce come from? It’s a pretty good question, right? Did it come from the spice trade, or was it introduced to somebody through the spice trade, and how did this practice come to be?

So I use a lot of fish sauce, Red Boat in particular, in the restaurants for vinaigrettes, dressings, I add drops of it to pasta dishes. It really gives it a lot of depth and umami without having to really go heavy handed with salt. It has a natural salt content, but a really, really deep base. So, in this particular dish, we have two seasonal fruits that are growing together right now, which are watermelons and tomatoes. With grilled squid, by adding a fish sauce and lime vinaigrette with tons of herbs and black pepper, which you would commonly find as a dipping, it just makes it a much more round, full, acid and fruit forward based salad, with that lovely umami coming from the fish. It’s a really fun way to play on food. Over the years, I’ve really learned more and more of how to pull salt out and use such things as fish sauce, or preserved fish, or preserved fruits, or preserved vegetables to really add that depth and character. A lot of that comes from, you know, proper Asian techniques.

Is there anything else you want to add about Asian food?
I think the LUCKYRICE is really bringing to the forefront, opening up a great opportunity for everybody to see what real Asian food is, and how it has inspired and changed different foods all throughout the U.S. Perfect example, Danny Bowien. He’s a great friend, a really good guy, and you know, came from Kansas City and he’s doing some really cool foods. You have all these people that have taken these traditional Asian technique and incorporated them. Whether it be fish butchery or balance of sweet—like sweet and sour, which is known as agridulce in Venice, is a very common thing that you find in Chinese cooking. You have these balances that are really cross-cultural, but it’s how you bring those balances together. And sometimes, you know, maybe the Venetian style doesn’t work for me, but the Chinese style does and it brings a different element to it. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Do you have a favorite Asian dish?
Favorite Asian dish? It’s definitely not balut, for sure. That is on the low end of my totem pole right there. Natto’s right there with that, we’ll put those two together at the bottom of the totem pole.

Um…favorite. It’s really hard to just pick one. I’m mean, I’ve had so many amazing dishes. Beef tendon in red chile oil. When I was in Japan, I had tons of raw offals which was absolutely amazing. Raw pork liver, I had chicken sashimi. There’s just so many different cuts that you can really learn to appreciate. There’s a great restaurant in Manhattan called Takashi and the chef there specialize in beef offal. And I love eating there because he really opens my eyes every time. It’s so hard to say one is better than the other but I really do like really crisp and fresh. Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok, I think his larb is the best I’ve ever had. Hands down.

Grilled Squid, Watermelon & Tomato Salad

Photo courtesy of LUCKYRICE.
Photo courtesy of LUCKYRICE.

1 lb heirloom tomatoes, assorted colors

¼ lb mixed cherry tomatoes

1 watermelon

1lb fresh local squid, tubes & tentacles cleaned

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp aleppo chile

¼ cup fresh Thai basil leaves, torn

¼ cup cilantro sprigs

¼ cup mint leaves, torn

1 serrano chile, cut into paper-thin rings

Jacobson sea salt

Black pepper

2 limes, juice and zest

Lime & Red Boat vinaigrette (see attached recipe)

Heat a grill pan or a grill (with a grate on), where you will cook the squid. Meanwhile, prepare the tomatoes and watermelon.

Cut the tomatoes into different shapes and sizes (wedges and thick slices) and halve the cherry tomatoes. Peel the watermelon and cut it into 1.5-inch squares, being sure to remove the seeds.

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes and watermelon, drizzle with the vinaigrette and toss to coat evenly. Season with Jacobson sea salt and black pepper and taste to adjust seasonings. Add the mint, Thai basil, cilantro, and serrano chile – toss to evenly coat.

Season the squid with salt, black pepper, fresh lime zest and extra virgin olive oil. Quick grill the squid for 2 minutes (be sure not to over cook or you will end up with a rubbery consistency). Toss the squid and the herbs with melon and tomatoes and serve on a large platter.

Lime & Red Boat vinagrette

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp red boat fish sauce

2 tbsp black pepper, coarse ground

1 tsp alleppo chile flake

Mix well and adjust the vinaigrette according to your taste.

This is crossposted at Comcast XFinity TV.

Correction: An earlier version misspelled the name of Chef Danny Bowien.