David Santos Aims to Open New Restaurant Space

David Santos is working his magic again, only this time, the Portuguese chef is putting energy into opening his own restaurant in the West Village. “The right opportunity finally popped up and I was offered a stake in the restaurant with people I used to work with at Bouley,” said Santos.

The concept is called Louro, the Portuguese word for bay leaf and a plant Santos’s uncle grew for him in France, which he then transported back to his family. At this new venture, Santos, who trained at Per Se, plans to serve affordable food that’s quality driven. The only catch—he is still raising funds for the venture via Kickstarter, which goes more into detail on his vision. There he wrote:

“With a variety of menu options ranging from small bites and pastas to large format dinners, tastings and guest chef collaborations, there will be a little something for everyone. Each day will start as a blank canvas, laying the foundation for seasonal inspirations and whatever sparks my creativity at the time. My dishes stay true to what drives me.” 

Many gourmands are familiar with Santos’s cooking via Um Segredo, the supper club her ran out of his home on Roosevelt Island.  There you could sit down to an eight to twelve course meal full of tasty, themed bites with a feisty Portuguese bent to them. It was small and a pain to get to, but he food proved top notch.

“I love the supper club, but this [Louro] was always the end game,” Santos told me. This doesn’t mean the supper club is ending, in fact, Santos said it’s far from dead. “It will be even easier to do them now since I have a location with a large family style table in the back of the restaurant,” he said. “I’m going to be closed Mondays so that I can do guest chef stuff, tastings, the supper club, and a whole lot more.”

David Santos’s Not-So-Secret Supper Club

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.

Hotel Griffou’s David Santos Can Taste Summer

David Santos is excited about the heat. One afternoon last week, the Executive Chef at New York’s Hotel Griffou impatiently awaited the arrival of late spring cherries, “jet black and loaded with sugar,” and later strawberries, peaches, and nectarines, which will flavor the many menus he’s planning for the restaurant’s summer season. Santos has a compulsive need to change at least a quarter of his menu every month, especially the most popular dishes, which he sees over and over again while expediting a busy dinner service. “I have menu ADD,” says the 32-year-old. “I’m always very much into a menu when I create it, but soon I start to get bored with it and can’t wait to change it.”

Less than a year ago, Santos left an executive chef position at Harlem’s The 5&Diamond to take control of the kitchen at the decadent, cleverly-designed 1920s-era Hotel Griffou. The restaurant occupies the entire basement floor of the building that was once Madame Griffou’s boarding house, with later incarnations as the infamous Penguin Club and Mary Lou’s.

Nowadays, Santos is focusing on a series of monthly tasting dinners at the restaurant, which allow him to break the bonds of the regular menu and offer his guests a less conventional dining experience. He sees these ever-changing meals as the true vessel for his creative needs. “The tasting dinners are really about me expressing myself,” he admits, “An opportunity to do what I want.”

For an upcoming dinner on June 20th, Chef Santos is planning a “signs of summer” menu with a wine-pairing theme yet to be announced. In the meantime, here he is taking a breather from a busy afternoon of butchering to answer a few questions.

You aspire, like many other New York chefs, to create a seasonal menu. Is it more than a trend? Growing up, my family was very seasonal. When my parents emigrated here from Portugal, they brought with them a part of their lives and culinary traditions. We had a garden with rabbits and pigeons, and we ate what grew there. In the summer we pickled vegetables from the garden. My Mother was a very picky produce shopper and would never buy peaches and nectarines in the winter. The mentality of farm-to-table was installed in me since. That is why the idea of a ‘signature dish’ always seems odd to me because ingredients change. I’m glad to see that restaurants are serving more seasonal things. Food is better when you buy it exactly when it tastes good, and not have it shipped from miles away. I’m also concerned with the whole issue of the carbon footprint on the environment. I drive a Prius

It is hot out today. What are you looking forward to cooking this summer? Summer is my favorite season. Spring is fun because you get tired of braising meats all winter and you finally see something green instead of all those roots, but there’s still not much available in the markets. Summer into fall is really the best time to be a chef, since it’s most versatile. You have sweet corn from Jersey, Peaches and nectarines – its like shooting fish in a barrel.

You mentioned your Portuguese heritage. What are some staples of your childhood kitchen? The one thing we always had in the house was piri piri oil. It went on everything, giving food real character. Grilling is a very prominent cooking technique in Portugal, and my dad was always grilling outside, even in the winter. My mother is one of the best cooks I know. She could make just about anything. She made meatloaf like it was nobody’s business.

The Portuguese mark is evident on the menu, but so are influences from the Middle East and Asia. Where are these flavors coming from? When I create a menu, it is as much about the places I’ve been as it is about where I want to go. I love Middle Eastern food. My favorite place to eat in New York is the Hallal cart on 53rd and 6th avenue, which I visit at least once a week. The idea for the tuna dish (with Middle Eastern kebe spice, jasmine rice, and cucumber yogurt) came from watching an episode of Andrew Zimmerman’s Bizarre Foods filmed in Egypt. Every year brings with it new trends in food that seem to take over menus all over town. What’s your take on this year’s hot culinary trends? I think that food trends are brought up by a need or interest. Take a hamburger, for example. They are great, but do they need to be on everybody’s menu? I wish they didn’t have to be. But given the state of the economy, I think they are still a necessity. I accept it but try not to follow too much, and do what I think is right. But listen, there are many people out there right now making ton of money selling lobster rolls…

You worked in some of New York’s most prominent restaurants. Who are the chefs that most inspired you? Thomas Keller [with whom he worked at Per Se] taught me about everything that is beautiful about food. He taught me how meticulous and exacting food can be – the way he sourced the best ingredients, the many influences he drew on to create his food. It was always based on perfect technique. David Bouley, with whom I worked for over a year, is probably one of the most talented chefs I ever met. He taught me cooking under pressure. Working at Bouley was emotionally and physically intense. We worked 100-hour weeks and someone was always quitting. In that chaotic kitchen, I learned how to be good and how to survive. He was always there, always watching. At Bouley you had 250 people dining and you were beat, and the worst thing you can do is make a mistake. I was always a very composed person, but after I finished at Bouley it seemed that there was nothing that could be thrown at me that would rattle me. To last a year at Bouley was a feat that only about 4-5% do. I was there for a year and 2 months. So as much as I learned form Per se and the beauty there, I learned from Bouley and its craziness.

And your own kitchen – is it managed like Bouley’s or Keller’s? I like to sit right in the middle. I embrace a little bit of awkwardness and difficulty in the kitchen because it’s important for a cook to learn to deal with it. But I always want my food to be beautiful, to be sound in technique, and to taste great. I love the craziness and I live the order.

How often do you get to dine out in the city? Just about never. Accidentally, last night I dined at Brushstroke [David Bouley’s newest restaurant]. It was the first time I’ve gone out to eat in about a year. Taking up a kitchen in a new restaurant, you work so much just to make it work. There is a pressure of getting your name out there and proving yourself, so I find it necessary to be here all the time. But with summer coming up I’m hoping to find the time to dine out more. I want to check out The Dutch, eat at Daniel for the first time, and go to Le Bernardin again.

You are trying to establish yourself in a city chuck-full of celebrity chefs. Have you ever considered taking the reality TV path? I was asked to go on the Food Network’s Chopped a few times, but I rather stay away. I actually believe that my experience working at the kitchen at Bouley would have made me a good competitor, but I am so involved right now with my work that I’m not into becoming a celebrity chef. I see myself as very out going, easy to talk to, camera ready. But it is not my focus. My focus is making people happy. I think that is how you make a name for yourself. So you may not see me on Chopped any time soon, but you might catch me on Food Network’s Best thing I Ever Ate. Chef Ann Thornton nominated my venison tartar.