Chef Chris Cosentino Finds Balance on His Bike
The demands of being a celebrity chef forced the former professional mountain biker to abandon the sport completely, but he's back in the saddle now
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Chris Cosentino hits me with a philosophical gem right out of the gate: “There are three things you need to know how to do in life—ride a bike, shift a car, and swim.”
We’re maybe two minutes into our conversation when he drops this bit of wisdom on me, explaining how someone can save a life or get a job with those three skills. He’s probably right, but I think it’s an odd skill set for Cosentino to focus on considering his own success is in the kitchen.
The San Francisco–based owner of four restaurants ticks off all the requirements for celebrity-chef status: he has TV appearances, a cookbook, and multiple critically acclaimed restaurants culinary establishments under his belt. The man was even turned into a character in a Wolverine comic book and has his own Vans sneaker. But Cosentino also knows his way around a bicycle, having spent the better part of his twenties as a professional mountain biker who made a name for himself during the rise of the 24-hour mountain-bike-race craze in the mid-90s.
Biking and cooking have tugged Cosentino in different directions during various periods of his life, and at one point, he completely abandoned the bicycle altogether. But now, at 47, Cosentino has found a way to balance his passions. He’s opening a new restaurant in Houston and releasing a new energy bar, Pavé Bars. He’s also riding his bike like crazy, training hard and entering gravel, road, and mountain-bike races with support from a variety of sponsors, like Smith Optics and SRAM.
“There was a long period when I wasn’t riding bikes,” Cosentino says. “A decade where I hunkered down and worked nonstop, focusing on my career. I opened restaurants, I started doing TV and all that other crap. I wasn’t thinking clear, and I flushed cycling out of my life. I was constantly running, and I was coming unglued.”
Things changed several years ago when Cosentino joined Chefs Cycle, a group of kitchen pros who banded together to get healthy while raising money to feed kids in need. Chefs Cycle has grown from a couple of small events on opposite sides of the country to a massive three-day, 300-mile ride that attracts more than 200 chefs and raises $2 million every summer. On a personal level, the event gave Cosentino a goal to work toward. “It brought me back to cycling and the mental freedom that comes from being on the bike,” he says.
As a professional cyclist, Cosentino had a knack for suffering. He competed in some of the toughest 24-hour mountain-bike races in the country, racing solo through the night on a singlespeed. His first race was 24 Hours of Canaan, a West Virginia event that was so brutally technical and muddy that some racers “rode” tiny kid’s cruisers so they could just carry their bikes on their shoulders and run the race on foot. His racing career probably peaked at Montezuma’s Revenge, a particularly gnarly race in Colorado’s Summit County that included route finding and climbing a fourteener in the middle of the night. Cosentino was the first singlespeeder ever to finish that race, even though he had to spend two weeks preriding sections of the course with the race director before he was given a green light to compete without gears.
“I was racing for a living, and on a pro team, but I was basically living in my car,” Cosentino says. “I think I made a total of $500 as a mountain biker.”
But “professional mountain biker” was more of a detour for Cosentino anyway. Cooking was always his first love. He only found cycling by accident, after a fall in the kitchen during culinary school required extensive knee surgery and a rehab stint on the bike. He loved it and started riding everywhere, commuting to work on a fixed-gear singlespeed that he said was theftproof because nobody could figure out how to ride it. He liked the simplicity of those bikes because, as he puts it, “shifting sucks because of my dyslexia. I was always mis-shifting.”
During the peak of his biking career, Cosentino raced in seven different 24-hour competitions in a single season, including Montezuma’s Revenge and 24 Hours of Tahoe. He often shared a pit with adventure-bike legend Steve “Doom” Fassbinder and started working with a coach, endurance superstar Chris Eatough. He was all set to race the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska when he found out his wife was pregnant, and that was it.
“I thought, I can’t be riding my bike in Alaska in February when I’m gonna have a kid in January,” Cosentino says. “What happens if I’m stupid and get eaten? I sold all my gear and focused on my career and family.”
And that career has gone extremely well. His first restaurant, Incanto, helped pioneer the whole-animal movement that makes use of the entire creature. Today his signature restaurant, Cockscomb, in San Francisco, continues that head-to-tail obsession with meat. He also has Jackrabbit, a raw bar that features house-cured cuts, in Portland, Oregon, and Acacia House, in Saint Helena, California, which focuses on ingredients and wine culled from the surrounding Napa Valley. Along the way, Cosentino won the fourth season of Top Chef Masters. His cookbook, Offal Good, was nominated for a James Beard award in 2018. His newest restaurant, called Rosalie, will focus on “red-sauce Italian” and pull from his great-grandmother’s recipes.
Each of Cosentino’s restaurants takes a different approach to food, from grandma’s spaghetti to seafood towers harvested from Oregon’s coast, but if the chef is best known for one thing, it would probably be preparing offal, the organs of the animal that most Americans discard altogether. While Cosentino doesn’t like getting pigeonholed as the “chef who cooks with guts,” he believes offal should be a part of everyone’s menu, especially athletes.
“It’s the right way to work with animals and meat, so it should be part of an everyday kitchen,” Cosentino says. “And if you’re an athlete looking for protein or creatine or iron, why not look for it in heart meat or liver instead of a supplement?”
Just don’t get carried away eating beef hearts after every ride. “If I ate calf livers three meals a day, it wouldn’t be healthy, but too much of anything is bad for you,” Cosentino says. “If you balance your life and your choices, you’ll do OK. I’m far from a perfect dad, chef, or cyclist, but I try to grow every day.”
Cosentino survived on Swedish Fish when he was racing in the nineties, but now he has a more refined meal after a big ride: falafel with extra hot sauce and eggplant. “I found that it hits all the targets, with enough spice and acidity, and it’s filling without being a gut bomb. You put in a lot of effort during the ride, so your body isn’t digesting as well as it wants to after you’re done.”
A desire to find balance has led Cosentino back to the bicycle. He has a trio of custom bikes from titanium-frame wizard Jeremy Sycip, and he works with a coach from Carmichael Training Systems to stay strong. This year he’s already done three Grasshopper Adventure rides, the 300-mile Chef Cycle, his own road event through Napa Valley wine country called CampoVelo, and is set to ride Grinduro in September. He’s also looking forward to racing the Downieville Classic for the first time in his career, and he recently created a 105-mile ride that goes from San Francisco deep into Marin County, hitting a few of his favorite food spots along the way.
Cosentino admits he doesn’t get to ride as much as he’d like to, especially when he travels, but he says the harmony between work and cycling is there in a way that it’s never been before.
“Cooking is about being hyperfocused on the moment and making someone smile,” Cosentino says. “But cycling is like being a kid again. Remember when you got to leave your house and ride to your friend’s house down the street? Remember that freedom? That’s what cycling is for me.”