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With his peroxided faux-hawk, red-and-white-checked sneakers and many tattoos—including a 19th-century British butcher’s diagram of a hog carcass—Chris Cosentino doesn’t look like a traditionalist. But the chef at San Francisco’s Incanto wants people to think about meat in a preindustrial way, to value the organs and marrow bones as much as the steaks and chops. Several years ago, while lending a hand with the slaughter at a livestock farm, he underwent a kind of conversion. “I’d worked in places where we never got whole animals; we served only beef tenderloins. But when you’ve just killed an animal, and you’re about to throw away 45 percent of it, you realize you owe it to the animal to eat as much of it as possible,” he says.

Prather Ranch

© Cedric Angeles

Today the chef has come to the foothills of California’s Mount Shasta, where the Prather (pronounced pray-ther) Ranch matches his dedication to nose-to-tail eating with its humane animal husbandry, responsible land stewardship and excellent meat. Incanto (Italian for “enchantment”) was the ranch’s first restaurant customer; Cosentino has come to serve his friends a “cowboy picnic” the likes of which few cowboys have ever experienced. Along with rustic Italian side dishes like those he serves at the restaurant, Cosentino plans a generous mixed grill of some favorite cuts, from Prather rib eyes to his own Italian sausages. (This summer he is opening Boccalone, a salumeria in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, to sell his line of cured sausages.)

To build a fire, Cosentino recruits three friends—Doug Stonebreaker, Steve McCarthy and Mark Keller, co-owners of the Prather Ranch Meat Company (and fellow purveyors at the Ferry Building). As they pile on fig branches and oak, two of the owners of Prather Ranch, 92-year-old grocery baron Walter Ralphs and his wife, Colleen, chat in the shade with Michael Recchiuti, the San Francisco chocolatier, and his wife, Jacky. Cosentino’s own wife, Tatiana, watches in amusement as their towheaded son, Easton, darts around all the long legs.

While waiting for dinner, the group sips “Cosentino Bellinis” of Prosecco mixed with white-peach nectar infused with bright lemon verbena. Cosentino passes a warm red-wine bagna cauda, creamy with pureed anchovies and fresh green olive oil, as a dip for crisp, fresh radishes and baby carrots.

Prather Ranch

© Cedric Angeles

As the light grows long, Cosentino leaps demonically back and forth over the fire, where all the meats are sizzling at once. A herd of cattle appears in the pasture just beyond the fire, led by cowboys on horseback. The younger guys have recently taken to wearing the low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat of the Californios, cowpokes of the early 19th-century Mexican colonial era. In the shadows of the ponderosa pines, the cattle raise a cloud of dust.

At Prather, animals are allowed to mature for 16 months or more—almost twice as long as typical beef cattle. In their final weeks, they’re fed a fine-tuned mixture of grains, all of them organic, none of them corn (which can play havoc with bovine digestion). In the ranch’s own spotless slaughterhouse, they die with as much dignity as they’ve lived.

“We were one of the first businesses to be certified by Humane Farm Animal Care,” says ranch manager and co-owner Jim Rickert. “We produce about a thousand head a year, and we put a lot of emphasis on their comfort. These cattle probably have the lowest stress of any herd in the world—which I think makes the meat taste better.”

Prather Ranch

© Cedric Angeles

Smoky grilled marrow bones are the first to come out of the fire pit, served with grilled toasts the chef rubs with lemon and rosemary. “Someone once told me marrow is like God’s butter,” Cosentino remarks admiringly. The beef rib eyes come off the fire pit darkly caramelized, rare in the center, with none of the flabbiness of more ordinary beef. Enormous “caveman” pork chops with a strip of pork belly still attached have the juiciness and meaty texture that so much pork no longer offers; the chops come from free-roaming, heritage-breed pigs). The bison strip loin, which Cosentino marinated in fresh-ground juniper, is medium-rare, dark red and surprisingly mild, served with a lush sauce of pureed burrata, a type of mozzarella filled with cream. Cosentino jokes, “The bison-and-burrata is kind of like an Italian version of a Philly cheesesteak.” As the dinner progresses, Incanto’s owner, Mark Pastore, keeps everyone’s glasses filled with that old cowboy favorite, cold Italian rosé.

For dessert, Cosentino transforms panzanella, traditionally a salad of stale bread, tomatoes and olive oil, into a luscious stone-fruit dessert. He tosses slices of fresh peaches, apricots and nectarines with sugared cubes of toasted bread before dolloping them with an ethereal zabaglione sweetened with Moscato d’Asti. “The stone fruits leach out their juices when you add sugar,” Cosentino points out. “You could use summer berries, but they don’t turn as juicy as stone fruits do.”

In the gathering dusk, his friend Recchiuti takes over. Undaunted by the primitive cowboy conditions, the chocolatier calmly runs a long extension cord out to the porch to finish his moist s’mores cake. Balancing a beat-up one-pan hot plate on the railing and using an old hand mixer, Recchiuti makes the chocolate cake’s marshmallow topping. After spearing the marshmallow with graham cracker shards, he drizzles the top with hot bittersweet chocolate.

Exhausted but smiling, Cosentino stretches out on the grass and looks across the wide, gold-and-green valley to the still-sunlit peak of Mount Shasta, where melting snows sustain Prather’s acres of pasture. “Think of what we owe this land,” he says.

Plus:

Thomas McNamee is the author of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse and four other books. He lives in San Francisco.

Published August 2008
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