Chef Chris Cosentino’s Jackrabbit does business at a clip. Now more than a year in business, the anchor spot of the gilded Duniway Hotel in downtown Portland bustles from morning to night with hotel guests and locals alike. The menu at the restaurant features Cosentino’s meaty style, executed by city favorite, Executive Chef Chris DiMinno, formerly of Clyde Common and Gourmet Century fame.
“Each of my locations has its own style and vibe that is conducive to its location,” Chris Cosentino explained when I sat down with him in Louisville last fall between cooking demos at Bourbon & Beyond. “Portland is about the history of Portland – Jackrabbit. It’s about the lumberjack history. Why is it called Portland? Because there was a coin toss and it was either going to be called Boston after Boston, Massachusetts, or Portland after Portland, Maine. We really tried to focus on that at Jackrabbit.”
Cosentino and DiMinno have both the love of cooking and cycling in common, though Cosentino initially had thoughts about pursuing a career with smaller wheels.
Q: I read in a Men’s Journal article that you once wanted to be a pro skateboarder.
A: I have a skateboard, yeah.
Q: The article said you had pursued it more professionally…
A: Yeah, I attempted. Didn’t work. I was cooking. I became a professional cyclist for about eight years. I’ve done all sorts of stuff.
Q: How’d you end up in cooking?
A: I was always in cooking. When I was a kid, I wanted to skate and it just didn’t work out. I went to culinary school. And when I was in culinary school, my senior year, I blew out my knee. Slipped in the kitchen and destroyed my knee, so I got on a bike. And that was the next transition for me. Every day, mountain biking, riding. It was low impact, 100% rehab. I was living in DC, so that’s where I started racing. When I moved to California, I started racing more and more, and it just happened.
Q: Do you still bike when you can? Skateboard?
A: No, no. I don’t skateboard. I’m still good friends with Tommy Guerrero and Mickey Reyes, who opened bar I like to go to in Portland called Cat’s Paw Saloon. They’re a part of Antihero Skateboards. Tony Hawk’s in my new cookbook.
Part of the things for me, you know, I would love just to carve around in a pool, but Tommy was adamant about it. He made a really good point of it the other day. He said, “You make a living with your hands. You break your wrists and you’re done.” So I can carve around the neighborhood, and ride down the street or whatever with my son, but I’m on the bike almost every day. I’m on the Board of Directors for Chefs Cycle and No Kid Hungry. I’m riding a ton. It’s good.
Q: Quite a few people know you from your television appearances, but you discussed at the Mad Symposium in 2014 your struggles with health issues during episode tapings.
A: The real big thing is that I made a decision that I thought would benefit my career, and it backfired. It actually hurt my career. And it also made me sick, very sick. And I was honest enough to speak out. There’s no real fast road to get where you want to be and I think, you know, all I ever did was put my head down and work. I thought by being on television, it would drive business and bring people in the door, and what it ended up doing was backfiring on me. In more ways than one. More the health issues, but yeah, the business got slower. People though I was never in the restaurant anymore. It really made it hard. And it was. I would literally get done with service [at Incanto], fly some place, shoot through the day, fly back the next morning and do dinner service the next day. It wasn’t like I was working less – I was actually working more. Twice as much. So I quit. I felt like it wasn’t the right fit for me, didn’t fit what my goals were, who I was as a person. And I had a slew of medical issues from it, but now I’m in a better place. It’s taken a while, but it’s good.
The West Coast is the Best Coast
With the doors to Incanto now closed, Cosentino balances his time between the kitchens of Jackrabbit and San Francisco’s Cockscomb, when he’s not on tour promoting his cookbook, “Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart, with Guts.”
Q: How is Cockscomb coming along?
A: Cockscomb is really good. I’m really happy with it. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s the style in which I wanted it to feel like. The room feels like me. I have a lot of people who come to me and say, Wow. This this what the inside of your head looks like.” There’s great skateboard art in there. Only local artists, people I know well like Jeremy Fish and Sam Flores. Nate Van Dyke did my logo work. It’s just really fun.
The whole thing is about creating the vibe. At Cockscomb my focus is on what made San Francisco unique, which is gold, which brought tons of cultures together, all their food and all their history. You know, what makes the city so unique? So many dishes were brought to San Francisco, and we forget about those things. Everybody wants the new, but you can’t create the new without understanding the history. Just because you ran around the block a few times doesn’t mean you can run the marathon. And that’s what I try to do at every place. Focus on time and place.
Some things are similar, but a lot of them have big differences.
Q: Were you personally doing the research for your Portland launch?
A: Yeah. I’ve been going to Portland for eight years. It’s not like I just decided to go one day. I’ve been to Feast Portland all six years, and I was going there prior to that. I’ve seen prolific growth there. I’ve known Chris DiMinno for fifteen years. I’ve known Vitaly forever. I’ve done Wild About Game. I’ve been a part of that community for a while now. Andy Ricker is a good friend of mine. Naomi, Gabe Rucker. Those people I have a lot of respect for, and I don’t want to be the guy who just blows into town. That’s not what it’s about. I just really love the vibe of the city. The craftsmanship, whether it’s the leather belts or the beautiful produce. You have this whole spectrum. All the tables in the restaurant were made locally. Everything we did at Jackrabbit was based in Portland, made in Portland, and physically sourced in Portland.
Q: How has business been so far?
A: It’s been going really well. I’m really happy with it.
Q: Do you find it difficult being in a hotel property?
A: You know, being in a hotel, you have three meals a day plus room service and banquets and it really creates a really crazy, unique environment, but for the guest, it’s great. I love the room. I love the feel. I love everything about it.
Q: And the cookbook…
A: It is a culmination of ten years of work. It’s really the how-to guide – how to work with innards. The first half of the book is all about the organs of the animal and how to handle them. And then the second half of the book is divided by animals, and it’s in the same fashion as the organ chapter – starts with the head and ends with the tail. There are a lot of jokes, levity. Jeremy Fish did a lot of the artwork there – the organ overlays. It’s really fun, but it has longevity. The goal was to create a book that has a long term effect so that cuts of meat like this aren’t disposed of any longer. It’s been a way of life forever in other countries.
Q: Any new projects on the horizon?
A: (laugh) Unable to disclose at this time.
Photo credits: Chris Cosentino – The Duniway Hotel; Jackrabbit – Jennifer Matthewson