"One minute I'm rocking a Judas Priest tee and eating a pot cookie and sitting in the front seats of these outrageous coasters, the next I'm in a suit and tie eating some of the highest quality food on the planet."
Despite never fulfilling his dreams to become a rock star, at least in the traditional sense, Chris Santos certainly feels like one as executive chef and co-owner of Stanton Social. At his Lower East Side hot spot, Santos cooks for ordinary folks and celebs alike, all who seek out his creative twist on foods they know and love.
In his limited spare time, Santos has been appearing on the Food Network's show Chopped--he took some time to tell us why he's happy to be a judge rather than a contestant, and how pork can be a tattoo inspiration.
Name: Chris Santos
Location: Lower East Side
Occupation: Executive chef and partner, Stanton Social
At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to be a chef? Well, I started cooking in my mid teens, but that's a hard question to answer. I guess I'd say even though I've been working in a kitchen for 25 years--since I was 13--I just recently, within the last 10 years, like "accepted" it for what I'm always going to be.
I think into my late 20s, even as I was making my bones in this industry and starting to make a name for myself as a chef, a small part of me was still holding onto my other two passions--drumming and boxing. But eventually I realized not only how much people were responding in such a positive way to what I was doing, but that I was also enjoying it.
During my teenage years as a cook and then through culinary school and even into my mid-twenties as a sous chef (and then executive chef), I think I wasn't sure if I was "enjoying" it. Those 80- to 90-hour weeks getting slammed on the line every night are grueling! Exhilarating but also grueling! And they can lead you down some unhealthy paths. I mean what else is there to do at 1 a.m. after a 12-hour shift but to go get wasted with your fellow cooks? So in my twenties I kind of had a love/hate relationship with being a chef.
But I realized in my early teens how cool being a chef could be while watching this rock star chef, who I was washing dishes for, in a tiny restaurant in my hometown. He was getting all the girls, partying every night til 4 a.m., and every night--EVERY night--customers were throwing themselves at him, complimenting his cooking and his artistry.
As an impressionable teenager who was passionate about boxing and rock from a very young age, it occurred to me while watching him that cooking, or more accurately, being a chef, was like offspring of the two. It's artistic and creative, but also, like manly or macho or something, what with all the hard work ethic and the knives and the fire and the crazy pace of a busy night--and it also seemed to attract the ladies. Hah! So yeah, that's the short answer, haha!
Where would you say you've gotten your culinary influences? Really through eating! I never had the fortune to work for one of the esteemed masters (like Jean Georges, Bouloud, Batali, or Ripert), and I am basically self-taught. I mean I did go to culinary school but that's a total blur to be honest. I took an executive chef job at 23 (was way over my head) but since then have grown comfortably into that role and slowly but surely developed my cooking style, which really is just taking street and comfort foods, even junk foods. from around the world and transforming them into something a little more modern and refined but still fun and accessible.
My food is whimsical, irreverent, fun. Nothing too complicated! And I think I learned this through international and U.S. travel and by just following my palette and my instincts--and then putting my little thumbprint on them at my restaurant.
Any travel to specific destinations or inspiration from other chefs? I spent the good part of a year traveling through Europe--14 countries and over 40 cities. That was an amazing, formative experience. And I really just love going off the beaten path across America and checking out little local specialties and then bringing them home and adapting them a bit. I love discovering a local treat that is really true to the state or county like Frito Pie in Santa Fe or even something as well known as a crabcake or lobster roll and making them something new, even if it's in a subtle way.
We have to ask , how did you come up with the brilliant idea of onion soup dumplings? Really that was specific to Stanton Social in that I knew I wanted the entire menu, all 50 items, to be shareable, or served in that modern family style way that we serve large tables, but the idea of putting a bowl of soup with a ladle in the center of the table just did nothing for me.
I was really just trying to solve the problem of "I know I want to serve a soup of some kind and it needs to be user-friendly and shareable, now what." Aand then I thought of French onion soup and how everyone loves the first bites--the gooey cheese, the crunchy crouton, the hot brothy soup, but once the crouton is eaten--or worse, soggy--the soup just isn't so much fun anymore.
So I took the "muffin-top" approach and created the one-bite dumpling with the garlic crouton, the melty Gruyere and the burst of soup. The funny thing is I thought they were gonna bomb. I'm like, nobody is gonna want these.
But of course they are our signature item now, and restaurants everywhere are duplicating them. It's the one item I've served where I can say, that's mine. It's not my rendition on what someone else has done before me for decades (like steak frites or Beef Wellington). It's not my riff on a pop culture item like a burger or a crabcake.
It's my dish. So it's cool to see it popping up on menus coast to coast. I'm waiting for Applebee's or Cheesecake Factory to call any day now with an offer.
What dishes are the biggest crowd pleasers? We have 40 to 50 items and they are all rooted in pop culture, street foods, and comfort foods, so we really do have an entire menu that sells well. But the very top sellers would be the French onion soup dumplings, all of our "sliders"--we rotate about 10 or 12 little sandwiches that go in a "slider box" on the menu--the blue corn crabcake corndogs and we sell a lot of tacos! Red snapper, braised short rib, lamb shank, beer-battered mahi-mahi. All of our tacos fly out the door. And people love the thin-crust grilled pizzettes, especially the butter poached lobster, smoked bacon, and truffle pizzette.
We know you're a tattoo aficionado. Have you ever thought of getting a food-inspired tattoo? I actually have two. I have an old-school heart with dagger tattoo that has the script of a girl's name across the heart, except instead of a girl's name it says "Bacon" and the heart is marbled like bacon too. And I took an illustration of a curvy girl drinking a deep red wine from the Au Pied de Cochon cookbook and incorporated it into a lucky-13 type sailor jerry style tattoo as my "lady luck." It's my favorite tattoo actually.
We hear you're collaborating with tattoo artist Michelle Myles on a line of chefwear. Tell us a little bit about that. Ahh, the clothing line. We have been talking about this, it's been a start-stop project for like five years now. If we keep talking about it, it will happen!
But really we just both keep getting so tied up in other projects so it's perpetually on the back burner. But it would be a high quality alternative line of chefwear (pants, wristbands, bandannas, shoes, knife/tool bags) inspired by the designs of Michelle Myles, who is the owner of Daredevil Tattoo and Fun City Tattoo here in New York City. She is recognized as one of the best tattoo artists in the world. And she's a total foodie. She's one of my best friends. Someday Daredevil Chefwear will be on culinary students from New York to California and beyond. Someday!
You've been making appearances on the Food Network's show Chopped lately. What's that like? It's really, really just so much fun. I did three episodes for the first season, and they asked me back for ten more. I love it.
The show is interesting and the cooks really have a serious challenge on their hands. And I know some of the food that ends up on our plates is, uh, not the most attractive presentations, but I challenge anyone to take fruit punch, crackers, sea urchin and preserved lemons and make something delicious and attractive in 20 minutes in front of a camera crew of 15 all up in your space and with three accomplished chefs looking on and commenting on your every move. Go. Show me.
But it's a great show and these young chefs work really hard. It's also great to spend an entire day talking about food with the other chefs--Alex Guarnaschelli, Geoffrey Zaccharian, Aaron Sanchez, Marc Murphy, Scott Conant, Amanda Freitag. It re-energizes you just chatting about what to do with sea urchin. And Ted Allen is like, the nicest guy I ever met. Just such a cool guy.
Do you ever watch the contestants and think, "man, I'm glad that's not me right now." Just yesterday in fact. Gin, feta, grapefruit, and butter crackers; 20 minutes; make a dessert, to be judged with $10,000 on the line. Go! Uh, no thanks.
Sounds like you've got a lot going on in addition to Stanton Social. Anything else on the horizon? I am working on a new restaurant with my partners--it's a huge space, about 10,000 square feet or three times the size of Stanton Social. We are just at the very early beginning stages, putting the finishing touches on the lease and interviewing designers but it looks like it's going to happen and in early 2010 we should be opening a real monster that hopefully will get everyone's attention!
I am also working on the Stanton Social cookbook (which is my first book), consulting for a large restaurant group and still at Stanton Social several nights a week, so it's a busy life, which I am fortunate to be blessed with.
Any good celebrity spottings at the restaurant lately? We're fortunate that we get several celebs on a weekly basis, and many return. I think they like that it's a low-key place without any paparazzi hiding out, and we always make every effort to give them a secluded table whenever possible. Anyway, in the last week we've had Tyra Banks, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Whitney from The Hills, Josh Jackson (remember Dawson's Creek?) and the comedian Lewis Black, but we've had everyone from Cameron Diaz to Derrick Jeter to Jay-Z to Paris...
Best pizza in the city? It's hard to argue with Una Pizza Napoletana being the best, but I also love Franny's in Brooklyn and late at night after a few drinks I still like the Two Boots cornmeal crust pizza and fun slices (the Newman, the Big Maybelle, etc.) though I think they have have declined a bit over the years. Still good for a beer buzz though.
Favorite burger? I'm a burger fanatic. I eat a burger almost daily. Gross but true. Another toughie. I love the pleasantly greasy delicious fast food/In-N-Out style burgers at Dram Shop Bar and Lure Fishbar, and I also love the LaFreida burger at Delicatessen as well as the substantial and incredibly juicy burgers at Blue Smoke and Back Forty.
Favorite bagel? Doesn't matter where as long as it's thick, chewy, toasted and has crispy bacon, ripe tomato, a little cream cheese, and hot sauce sandwiched in between. Breakfast of champions!
Best late-night eats? You can never go wrong at The Smith in the East Village for a late-night pre-hangover snack. Avocado salad, braised bacon with a perfectly poached egg, crispy gnocchi with truffle cream, carbonara. It's perfect for a late-night feast. I also love Macando on the Lower East Side, great Latin small plates and good cheap Rioja until the wee hours. Grilled chorizo and silky soft polenta, yum!
Undiscovered gem? I love Cafecito in the East Village for under the radar Cuban, and although it's getting a lot of attention now I can't say enough good things about Buttermilk Channel in Brooklyn where Stanton Social alum Ryan Angulo is the chef. He's killing it over there!
Guilty pleasures? The AMAZING thick and chewy M&M cookies at Veselka in the Village. Red velvet cupcakes from Ladybird Bakery in Brooklyn. And basically any high-quality ice cream topped with melted peanut butter. I swear I'd be 20 pounds lighter if I let this habit go.
Food you won't eat? As a rule I am really turned off by vegan food--you know tofu, seitan, un-chicken wings that whole thing. Just hate it. And my best friend just opened a vegan restaurant in Williamsburg. Sorry Jeff!
Most memorable New York City meal? I had an amazing meal at Daniel once. I think it's memorable because it was my first 4-star meal and I had spent the day at Great Adventure riding coasters and then had to race back to the city to make the reservation.
There were four of us. We had this amazing tasting menu, and Daniel gave us a tour of the kitchen after service. As he's showing off the Bonnet stoves or whatever, I'm thinking about how fun and crazy it is that one minute I'm rocking a Judas Priest tee and eating a pot cookie and sitting in the front seats of these outrageous coasters, the next I'm in a suit and tie eating some of the highest quality food on the planet and getting a personal tour from one of the masters. Fun day.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? Heather Tierney, who owns Sorted, a dining/concierge service. She's also partners in the bar Apotheke. She is amazing, and always has her finger on the pulse of this city's goings on. She's been my go-to for almost a decade.