They say you can’t go home again, but try telling that to Chef Chris Cosentino '94, whose whirlwind return to JWU Providence after 18 years included visits to his former South Hall room, his old kitchen-classrooms (now completely redone), and even Delaney Gym, where JWU used to hold Distinguished Visiting Chef (DVC) presentations.
Now the “Top Chef Masters” winner and restaurateur (his West Coast restaurants include Cockscomb, Acacia House and Jackrabbit PDX) is being lauded as a DVC himself — the 183rd. Speaking to a packed amphitheater filled with aspiring chefs, he can’t quite get over JWU’s evolution in those intervening years. He’s particularly enamored of the Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence, with its gleaming equipment and 360° views: “It’s like ‘Star Trek,’ it’s so different now!”
Cosentino grew up in a family where food “superseded family feuds, politics and religion.” His love of Old World Italian flavors and off-cuts was inspired by his great-grandmother, Rosalie — today, his own trippa Napoletana recipe pays homage to her deft cooking. (Ironically, he hated it as a kid.)
While a career in cooking seemed assured for the young Cosentino, his ADHD meant that concentrating on his studies was a challenge. The official JWU College of Culinary Arts textbooks at the time were crammed with dense writing, graphs and charts that were nearly impossible for his “broken brain” to translate: “75 percent of it was backwards for me,” he said.
I have high expectations of JWU grads. Remember, the only thing that’s stopping you is YOU.”
But he refused to give up. One day, he discovered Jacques Pépin’s step-by-step manuals, “La Technique” and “La Methode,” in the JWU library. (He brought the books to display as part of his demo.) The clear and precise visual directions for such essential techniques as deboning a chicken, cooking a perfect omelet and making a roux clicked for him. “It was a revelation,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. He turned to the front row, where Chef Pépin himself was sitting as an honored guest, and said, “I wouldn’t be who I am without these books.” (Today, Cosentino is a voracious cookbook reader and collector.)
Cracking the culinary code didn’t make school a breeze, but it helped the young Cosentino focus and gain confidence. He became a teaching fellow and worked on the line at J. Wales, the university’s full-service restaurant at the time, which was an education all by itself: “We had the best team. But we got pummeled. We made fresh pasta — that was ahead of its time. We had all-you-can-eat fish-and-chips nights — it was brutal!”
As Cosentino demonstrated two dishes from his extensive arsenal, the aforementioned tripe dish and his decadent signature grilled cheese, he riffed to students about his own culinary philosophy: “Learn to hem your pants. Iron your chef coat. Hold yourself accountable.”
He emphasized that restaurant work is not about the ego: “The key word is team. Help each other out. Be kind. You’re not above ANYTHING. I still sweep the floor, I do the dishes. If the dishwasher doesn’t show up one night? Guess what: I’m head plongeur. If you break something, ante up. You’ll end up being a better person for it.”
Another lesson: Take time away from your phone. “Don’t take a photo of a recipe — write it. Don’t take a photo of a plated dish — draw it. You have a brain. Use it. I have high expectations of JWU grads. Remember, the only thing that’s stopping you is YOU.”
At the end of Cosentino’s demo, student Brandy Schroth, who served as his culinary assist, was awarded the DVC Scholarship. As her parents watched proudly from the second row, Cosentino praised her hard work: “You really ran with it this week. You were all in — you have been great!” With that, he whipped out a Cockscomb SF baseball hat and fitted it over her toque.
PHOTOS BY MIKE COHEA