There are some chefs that would much prefer to hole up in the kitchen with their sauces than interact with their customers. And that’s cool… it’s just not David Santos. On the contrary, the gregarious, heart on his sleeve chef is the kind of guy who invites patrons (and strangers at that!) into his Roosevelt Island apartment for a supper club series he ran, dubbed Um Segredo. When asked why he did it, he answered, “After turning down about 14 jobs that weren’t me, I just really wanted to cook for people again. I got such great support, and it was awesome to have such a direct connection with my guests.”
Thankfully, diners don’t have to pile into Santos’ apartment any longer. He’s just debuted a restaurant of his own in the West Village, called Louro, which embodies his playful, restless energy, and pays homage to his Portugese roots. Can you think of another menu in the city where Dourade with Saffron Potatoes and Pickled Banana sits deliciously beside a Gnocchi Romana with Truffle Cream and Cipollini and Crispy Onions? “I call it true New American,” said Santos. “Instead of trying to say I’m this one thing, I embrace my drive of exploring for new things. Maybe I’m a reincarnated Portuguese explorer. That’s why my menus are the way they are.”
And he hasn’t abandoned his supper club idea entirely, hosting a series of intimate dinner parties at the restaurant each Monday. Called Nossa Mesa (“Our Table”), each five-course menu centers around themes as disparate as “The Sopranos,” “Elvis” and “Black History Month.” We even challenged him to design a custom menu on the fly, inspired by Restaurant Girl.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Baseball has always been a love of mine. Being immersed in competition is really what gets my engine going. My only other interest growing up was food and cooking.
What was your first job in food?
Just being part of the Santos family. Helping my dad feed rabbits and pigeons that we later killed to eat, baking bread with my aunt in Portugal when I was only four or five, playing in the garden with my mom and learning about growing vegetables, and even crushing grapes with my older brother to help make the family wine.
What job would you say really kickstarted your career?
My first job out of culinary school was working with Craig Shelton and Raj Dixit at the Ryland Inn. That’s when I knew I was gonna take this seriously.
What led to the decision to start Um Segredo, your underground supper club?
Like a lot of other chefs, cooking encompasses so much of who I am. When you don’t have that outlet, you get very depressed. When my last two jobs fell through, I decided I wasn’t going to take just any job again. I needed to either work for myself, or with people who were on the same page as me. I used to do all these parties at people’s houses when I was at Bouley and Per Se, so I thought, why can’t I do them in my apartment, on my own?
What was the most difficult part of running a supper club, and what was the most rewarding?
The hardest part was getting ingredients that I stand by. It took some serious convincing for my purveyors to sell to me directly. Most rewarding was being interactive with the guests and having that direct connection to their feedback. Chefs are always stuck in the kitchen behind closed doors, so we don’t get to experience our guests’ happiness. What we see is if someone sends something back, and that’s never a good feeling!
It’s kind of a leap of faith to invite a whole bunch of strangers into your apartment. Any horror stories?
Nothing bad at all. Everyone that came was sort of on the same journey, so most everyone got along great.
You just opened your first brick and mortar restaurant, Louro, where you serve everything from Plantains, Piri Piri Shrimp and Fry Bread, to Mushroom Risotto, Sausage Spaetzle, and Salmon Tartare. How does the restaurant (and menu) express your culinary point of view?
It’s a wonderful melting pot of different origins that meld together to make this amazing thing. I embrace all my interests and inspirations and try to make them great with solid technique. There is a drive in me to constantly change, make things better, and push myself as much as I can.
Where do you draw inspiration for your Nossa Mesa supper club themes, and how do you go about conceptualizing a menu based on those themes?
Like I said, I love change. So having to create a new menu for the supper club four or five times a month, on top of my constantly evolving menu at Louro, is awesome for me. I think food is fun, so sometimes I do funny things like the Fat Elvis dinner. But other times, I try to celebrate important things like Black History Month, where I take inspirational people, like Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, and President Obama, and look at them through a food lense. Create a menu based on what they loved to eat. Food has a connective power and if I can help people connect even a little with these great people, then mission accomplished.
Humor me for a second. The theme is “Restaurant Girl.” What would you make?
First: Hamachi with Bergamot Puree, Purple Carrots, and Crispy Chervil. Got to put this on because she loved it so much.
Second: Parsnip Soup with Spiced Macadamia Nuts, and Coconut Pudding. It’s cold outside and there should be a soup. Combining tropical flavors with this simple root vegetable is amazing. It’s a whirlwind of texture and flavor, with a spot of spice to wake you up.
Third: Octopus Bolognese with House Cured Goose Pancetta, and Shaved Parmesan. This is a secret dish that I now have on hand. You have to be VIP to get it.
Fourth: Duck and Saffron Rice with Sofrito, Pickled Banana Puree, and Honey. This is based on a classic Portuguese dish and something my aunt made because we had ducks at our farm in Portugal. I usually try to have one fun Portuguese dish on the menu.
Fifth: Almond Creme Bruleé with Fig Biscotti. I picked this because it’s my favorite dessert, but mostly because Restaurant Girl doesn’t use an alias when she comes in. She is in plain site and forward like the Bruleé itself. And under that shell is a lovely, sexy, beautiful thing, that when pleased, is like a huge reward. Just like impressing a critic. Crack that shell and do things right and good things will come. I respect that a lot.
You’ve started to invite in guest chefs for special, collaborative dinners at Nossa Mesa. Who can we expect to see?
The days of the French mentality are gone. A think tank among good chefs is a must, and I plan on bringing in as many of them as possible. We just had Justin Severino from Cure, and on February 4th, we had an awesome lineup of Sean Brock, George Mendes and myself. I would love to have chef René Redzipi here. That would be sick. But there are so many people, and my door is open to everyone.
What is your go-to meal after a long night of service?
I will be judged for this, I know. More often then not, a slice of 99 cent Pizza right outside the subway stop with a diet Ginger Ale. Yeah, I said diet! But if I go somewhere, I love Great NY Noodle Town. Can’t ever get enough of the Ginger Scallion Sauce at 2 am!
On a rare day off, what can we find you doing (and eating)?
I like to relax on my day off. Probably do some laundry.
Where do you see yourself in five years? What about ten?
My answer to both is hopefully happy, surrounded by many new chef friends and family. Cooking great food that makes people smile, and remembering that food is meant to be fun.