“Learn to embrace failure — it will make you a better chef.”
Chris Santos '93 is known as one of the toughest judges on the Food Network show “Chopped.” But he showed a very different side during his recent Distinguished Visiting Chef (DVC) demo at JWU’s Providence Campus.
How to Fail Your Way to Success
In his talk, he focused on the ways adversity can lead to success — and why learning how to take hard knocks is a crucial foundation for any chef.
“My first restaurant failed. I was 30 and in debt. But I picked myself up and said, ‘I can fail — I DID fail — but I can also start over.’”
That first failure taught him crucial lessons about the value of trial and error; of setting aside ego and learning to delegate; and of only cooking food that feels like your own.
Fast-forward to 2014: Santos divides his time between “Chopped,” running two popular New York City restaurants (Beauty & Essex and the Stanton Social), working on a cookbook and prepping a new space in Las Vegas.
“I have 300 employees I’m responsible for,” he noted. “You have to be comfortable handing off work to people you trust — I couldn’t do that if I insisted on being ‘the guy in the kitchen.’”
The Sharing Economy & the Evolution of Eating
Santos and his chef de cuisine, Jonathan Kavourakis, demoed two of Beauty & Essex’s most popular small bites, tomato tartare and the grilled cheese dumpling with tomato soup.
Before talking through the dishes, Santos took a quick audience poll: “How many of you always order an app, an entrée and dessert?” (Small show of hands.) “Now, how many of you order lots of small dishes so you can share?” (Big show of hands.)
“You’ve answered my question,” he laughed. “My point is that the way people are eating is evolving — we’re sharing a lot more, trying lots of new things.”
Santos’ menus are designed to maximize sharing: “We do something that few other restaurants do: If you’ve got 8 people at the table, we send you 8 dumplings. 3 people, we send you 3 dumplings. A lot of restaurants say that causes problems with expediting, but it shouldn’t. For us, it’s almost easier, because we send dishes out in little bursts as they come out of the kitchen.”
“We have what we call ‘the two bite principle’ — the first bite should be the discovery, the 2nd bite gets you amped for a third, and by then the next dish is coming around.”
JWU Students Are Pros
At this point, Santos ceded the spotlight to DVC scholarship winner Brooke Jamrozik, who deftly demonstrated how to make the cheese dumplings. She used egg wash to seal them, then rolled them so they’d puff up like little cheese soufflés during cooking.
As she worked, Santos complimented her focus: “Brooke just learned how to do this yesterday and she’s already a pro.”
He added: “I’m pleased Brooke won this [scholarship] award, because every time I asked her for something she was ON IT. She showed I could trust her 100% – she’s 21 and has a lot to learn, but I would hire her in a second.”
How to Stay Motivated and Stay Consistent
As cheese dumpling samples were passed around, Santos took questions from the audience.
“How do you stay motivated?”
“I always think back to my experience at JWU. We all have bad days. Sometimes you get yelled at, or you get thrown off the line and you cry. But you go back the next day and try again!”
He noted how much the industry has broadened in the last few years: “All my friends have thriving careers doing something they picked up here [at JWU]. And there are so many different career options open to you now — research and development, culinary nutrition, the list goes on.”
Another piece of advice: “Write everything down. You need to be able to pass it along, and with perfect consistency. Think about how difficult it is to make a dish the same way for 500 people on a Friday night, when you’re teaching it to the 18th sauté chef… Consistency is crucial.”
Last question: A student pointed to her empty soup spoon and asked, “Can I have 7 more of these?”
Santos didn’t miss a beat: “You’re hired!”
About the DVC Program
At JWU, you learn from experts. Three times a year, world-renowned chefs come to JWU to share their experiences, lessons and techniques with the next generation of culinary leaders.
More than 170 of the world’s leading chefs have visited campus through our Distinguished Visiting Chef (DVC) program since it was first established in 1979. Past DVCs include: Julia Child, Barbara Lynch, Marcus Samuelsson and Scott Liebfried '93 (Hell’s Kitchen).