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.