San Francisco-based chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto restaurant is the newly-crowned winner of Top Chef Masters Season 4. We predicted as much before the first episode even aired, but Cosentino tells SFoodie that he never felt like he had the competition in the bag as he discusses winning $282,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and learning more about what makes himself tick as a chef.
Let's talk about your win for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. With the help of a matching donor, you're responsible for bringing them $282,000. How does that feel to be able to make that kind of contribution?
The whole reason I did Top Chef Masters was for the charity. If you're going to stick your neck out that far, you have to do it for something that really means something to you. When my uncle died from Parkinson's two years ago, he donated his brain for research, and I really wanted to make sure that it was going to be used in the right way, that it was actually going to be used for research into that disability. He was exposed to multiple tests and experimental drugs; he had Parkinson's for over 30 years.
I have a friend who is close to me who has Parkinson's -- not only a great friend, but a great mentor to me. He just found out last week that I was competing on behalf of Parkinson's research and it was really great to see the look on his face. It affects a lot of people and there's no better reason for me to stick my neck out pretty far, to help people.
So if your uncle had it for 30 years, you've been familiar with this disease for the majority of your life.
Yeah, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's when I was seven-years-old.
Have you had much dialogue with the foundation to learn how the money gets put to use?
I had a really lovely conversation with Michael J. Fox himself the other day. Their work is really amazing, they have a collective of folks who discuss what direction they want to go with their research and they focus their funds toward that. And then I was on the plane coming back from New York last week and sat next to a gentleman who works for Genentech who works on Parkinson's research. So it's really cool to know there are so many people who are in there really trying to make sure how to deal with Parkinson's and how to make it go away.
Win or lose, ultimately it's just about bringing recognition to the charity. No one's charity was bad. It was about showing that the charities are there and they need help. That, to me, is what it's all about.
From what we know about you and your food, you seemed very true to yourself in this competition. You didn't do anything that seemed out of character, even when it could have been to your detriment in the game and you went with your gut always.
I didn't come here to cook for a bunch of reviewers, that's not what I came here to do. I came to cook my food and represent myself because that's what was asked of me in the finale. Throughout the whole show, I never veered from what I do because it was a true representation of myself. If I went home cooking my own food, I could come home looking myself in the mirror knowing that I did it my way. But if I won cooking something that wasn't me, then people are going to come to me at my restaurant or even out in public and have expectations that I do some things that I don't really do.
I don't want to be that. I want people to say, "Hey, you know what, that's pretty bold!" It's not bold, though; it's what I've been doing at my restaurant for 10 years. I want to be who I am. I don't want to be who people want me to be.
That's smart foresight on your part to avoid a trap that you could have easily fallen into.
I learned something a long time ago. This isn't my first rodeo with a competition, you know? I lost on Iron Chef, I lost on Next Iron Chef, and then I lost on Iron Chef again. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that it's okay to be who you are, as long as you're honest. And many, many years ago, someone said to me, "The minute you start cooking for just a reviewer, that's the minute you've lost your soul." Cook for yourself; cook from your heart. And I try to live by that. Maybe that's to my detriment, but I don't even care. I don't look for Michelin stars, I don't look for awards; I look for people smiling when they leave the restaurant.
You performed so well in the competition, but how did you feel as you were moving through it? Did you feel like there were points where you were going to go home, or did you feel like you had it?
I never felt like I had it. Every day was a new battle, just a new day. And everything could go wrong. It wasn't a situation where you did really well yesterday and did poorly today, they aren't gonna keep you around because you did really well yesterday. That's not how it works. The pressure is on constantly. I never thought I had it in the bag, ever.
When you're uncomfortable, you're usually learning something. I don't mean when you're walking down a dark alley and it's creepy and you're uncomfortable. I'm talking in your job. When you're uncomfortable, you're learning something. When you're writing and you are uncomfortable and struggling and frustrated, you're learning something, not only about what you're writing about, but about yourself, right?
Absolutely, it's a daily frustration.
Being in an uncomfortable environment, you learn about yourself and you learn how to adapt. A measure of success is learning how you deal with problems. That, to me, is a really good way to look at things. Everything being thrown at us was kind of a problem: "Hey, here's seven minutes. Do something."
That's life. We deal with things every day in our businesses. Things go wrong. Refrigeration breaks, somebody gets cut, the product doesn't show up on time. How do you adapt? How do you change? Because I live that every single day, every waking moment, at the restaurant, I think that made me a little bit more comfortable with the adaptation. And, like I said, this wasn't my first rodeo. This wasn't the first time I was put in this kind of situation, so I just rolled with it. Were there times when I called home just bugging out? Sure.
So they allowed you communication with the outside world?
I mean, I could talk to my wife at night. But I think the big change is learning to be the boss. Roll with it, enjoy it. Don't hate the moment, enjoy it. I think for me, that was a big, big process. And if you can do that, you can do anything.