What’s a chef to do when numerous, unsatisfying jobs leave him down? Open his own supper club, of course. After David Santos left his last restaurant, Hotel Griffou in 2011, he decided he wasn’t going back to that world unless the job was really worth it. Instead, he started running an 18-seat supper club called Um Segredo (which is Portuguese for “it’s a secret) in his Roosevelt Island home. Santos brings skills from his training at Per Se, Ryland Inn in New Jersey, and Bouley, and mixes it with food from his Portuguese roots and whatever theme he has decided on for that series of dinners. Past meals have centered on truffles, breakfast for dinner, and everything duck. The next series on July 5 and 6 deal with American classics, and then, for July 12 and 13 he does an ode to summer. At $55 to $95 for a five-plus course meal and a BYOB policy, it’s high-class meal for the price. After delving his spicy-themed dinner, I caught up with the chef to find out more how he got started and why.
What made you decide to leave your job at Hotel Griffou and start a supper club?
I left Griffou because I got tired of working for the wrong people. People in this business are the kind that smile to your face and stick a knife in your back. That’s what they were there. I told them at one point they were wasting their money, my time, and that it would be better if we just parted ways. They said, “No, no, it’s not like that, we love you and your food.” Then, about a month later someone left an email on my desk from one of the owners’ computer that was a correspondence between him and a couple of the investors that stated they hired another chef and were planning to fire me at the end of August.
I would have had some respect for them if they came at me like men, and I would have understood because the fit just wasn’t there anymore. So, between that fiasco and the 5 & Diamond fiasco, I told myself I wouldn’t just take another job, and, that I was either going to open my own place or get into bed with the right people. Finding that right job proved to be harder then I imagined, but, I stuck to my guns. Finally, I said, “Why the hell can’t I do that sort of thing on my own?” So, Um Segredo was born and I have never been happier.
Would, you ever go back into a commercial kitchen?
The end game for me is a restaurant called Um Segredo. I do this to fulfill my needs and keep my name on peoples’ tongues so that when it comes time to open my place, I will be known.
What are the benefits of cooking at home?
There are a lot of benefits. It’s comfortable and inspiring to be creative in your own home and to push the limit of a home stove is awesome. But the thing that’s best about it is that people have such a great time and their enjoyment is right in front of you. It’s a type of satisfaction I’ve never had before because I’m always stuck in the back working my ass off. It’s really, really nice to be able to see people enjoying my food. Plus, looking at it from a guest’s perspective, where else can you go and chat with the chef who is cooking your meal right in front of you.
How do you come up with themes?
The themes come from a lot of places. Some things are events during that month and some are requests I get. Mostly, I just let my daily life inspire me. I never wear headphones while I’m out on the subway because I’m afraid to miss something interesting and inspiring. I did a bayou menu once because I was watching one of my favorite shows called Swamp People, and the main character was cooking with his family and they were just so happy. So happy that it made me happy and I started smiling thinking about what a great family he has and how they got together around food. It inspired me to create my version of a bayou dinner based on the foods they were eating.
Also, I saw you cook, it’s like nothing happened in that kitchen yet you brought out like five gorgeous courses. How the heck do you stay so clean and cook for all those people?
It’s really about preparation, menu strategy, and leaving the complicated steps for prep. I got a lot of that mentality from Thomas [Keller] and [Jonathan] Benno at Per Se. The actual service at Per Se for me was fairly easy because all you had to do was execute correctly. The hardest part was the prep. But that’s where the battle was won. If you did all your prep right and had everything set the rest was easy.
Is it hard to get people to come to Roosevelt Island to eat?
Sometimes, but I think it’s part of the mystique as well. People get a kick coming out here, but we shall see what the summer holds in store. I might be changing things up quite a bit.
What is there to eat in Roosevelt Island?
There isn’t a ton, but there are some. My two favorite places would be Fuji East and the Riverwalk Bar and Grill. I’m actually teaming up with the guys that own River Walk to do a summer project out here with some of my favorite summer fish dishes. It’s going to be awesome and hopefully bring a lot of attention to the island and how nice it is out here.
Have you had any big name guests?
The editor of Maxim magazine loves us and come to the events; Josh Ozersky came to one of the events and he was a lot of fun to meet. A lot of food people have been out here as far as bloggers and such but nobody like a movie star or anything—yet.