Interview with Chris Santos: Owner and Executive chef at two of NYC’s hottest restaurants, Beauty and Essex and Stanton Social and guest judge on the Food Network’s Chopped.
Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Chopped is familiar with Chris Santos. While Ted Allen’s introductions for the other judges routinely outline their choice of cuisine or expertise, Santos is always recognized as a “perennial trend setter”, on the cusp of the next big thing in food. He has been able to push the envelope by creating some of the most unique dishes in his two restaurants: Stanton Social and Beauty and Essex.
Santos who lives, works and loves the Lower East Side is a “self-taught” chef with the goal of his restaurants to “feel like a party”. Obviously, he is onto something, as both of his restaurants have been instant successes. So what can’t this man do? Learn more about his life as a chef, advice to aspiring chefs/entrepreneurs, favorite restaurant (aside from his own), and what his next venture will be.
What motivated you to start your own restaurant?
It’s every chef’s dream to have a place of your own, I think. When you own your restaurant you have more creative leeway then if you are filtering dishes and ideas through an owner’s vision. Being a Chef/Owner allows you to truly cook and create from your soul, as well as have creative input and/or control over the aesthetic of the restaurant, the music, etc….It removes boundaries to the creative process that can exist when you are working for someone else. To that end, part of my success is due to the amazing team I have around me, talented and inventive chefs who I encourage to be as creative as possible - an experience not all young chefs sometimes are allowed to have when working for others.
How is the restaurant world different in NYC?
It’s incredibly competitive. NYC is so dense, and the sheer number of restaurants available to the diner is staggering. And the concentration of truly amazing restaurants that deliver a spectacular experience, whether that be a purely culinary one, or one that delivers a certain vibe and energy or what have you, is like nowhere else in the world, in my opinion. I think food and the restaurant experience in the United States just keeps getting better and better, and there are so, so many great food cities now coast to coast, but I think NYC in large part leads the way in terms of trends and setting the bar.
What was your inspiration behind Stanton Social/Beauty and Essex?
Essentially, the inspiration for my restaurants, and for my future projects comes down creating a fun, lively atmosphere that has a high level of energy, feels like a party, but has the solid foundations of a classic restaurant: caring hospitality and humble, well executed, delicious food.
What makes your restaurants stand out?
I think what makes our spots stand out is the behind the scenes attention to detail: the endless hospitality training of our staff, the endless food trials in the kitchen so that we can present the best possible menu that can be executed consistently at such a high volume; the endless pursuit to stay ahead of the curve and anticipating our customers needs and delivering an experience that exceeds expectations. So while we aren’t perfect, I do think we strive to; and generally succeed at, throwing one hell of a party every night, with genuinely cheerful service and solid, consistent food delivered in a fun, lively environment. It’s a true NYC experience here I think.
Tell me more about your experience on Chopped?
I absolutely love it. It’s an amazing experience every single day. I get to both learn and educate at the same time and I’m surrounded by some of the brightest chefs you will ever meet. It’s an insanely rewarding experience and I’m constantly awed by what some chefs get done with those ingredients in short period of time.
Best piece of advice for aspiring chefs?
Work in a kitchen for a full year - even part time - before attending school or changing careers. It’s a grueling profession with hard work hours, time away from loved ones, and working on holidays and until late at night—ESPECIALLY when you are on the way up. You can’t be taught that.
Best piece of advice for someone hoping to do something on their own?
Make sure you are passionate enough about what you are doing, so that when things are tough, or when you are working around the clock, you don’t grow to resent it and have the positive energy to stay motivated and motivate your hard working staff. Also make sure you are properly capitalized!!!! One of the reasons so many small businesses and restaurants fail is because a common mistake is to raise just enough money to build out the space and get open. You have to have a cushion of money so that in those first 3 to 6 months or even first year, when you are slowly building momentum and earning a reputation but not exactly crushing it business wise, you can pay your bills. Often times, people fall behind early because they are undercapitalized and they just never recover. I made this mistake myself - twice. It’s an important piece of the puzzle.
Most rewarding thing on having something that is yours?
For me it’s the satisfaction that - at the end of the day - I’ve created something that not only is successful, but that I have created jobs…..that I have a venue with which to make charitable contributions, that my life revolves around showing people “a good time” through my restaurants and my food. That what I do, what my partners contribute, what my staff does day in and day out, with all those elements we have created two incredibly fun venues with great food and gracious hospitality, and that NYC has embraced what we do. It’s incredibly satisfying to see the hard work you put in and that your staff puts in 365 days a year rewarded with a healthy, incredibly busy business day in and day out, and the customer loyalty we receive. it’s humbling sometimes if I think about it too much, so on to the next question!
What do you like most about working for yourself?
The freedom to be creative without borders is what comes to mind.
What do you think will be your next venture?
I think another restaurant here on the lower east side is inevitable - it’s where I live, it’s where I work, it’s where I hang out. I love this neighborhood and am currently looking for the right space for the next venture. And then maybe take the show on the road to another city.
Mine! It’s not out yet but it’s gonna be a good one! Ha, but seriously I’m a cookbook collector with literally hundreds and hundreds, maybe a thousand books. It’s hard to pick just one. But “Seduced by Bacon” and “Bones -recipes, history & lore” are two of my favorites for sure. And the Au Pied de Cochin book is amazing and inspired a tattoo that I have.
Aside from yours, what is your favorite spot in NYC? Best restaurant, bar and spot in general?
Maison Premiere is currently my favorite bar. My favorite restaurant to hang out in would be Lure in SoHo. I like to sit at the bar and graze there. The Chef, Josh Capon, is a good friend, the food is great and the staff rocks.
Edited by: The Lazy Bulimic