The New York City restaurant industry can be crushing: Rents and stakes are high, and the scene is saturated. It takes a lot of talent and even more work to make it, which means that chefs put in obscenely long days making sure their restaurants break even, a cycle that causes many of them to burn out. Louro (142 West 10th Street) chef and partner David Santos knows the stakes and he’s embraced the cycle, sleeping, on average, just three hours per night. But amid those circumstances, he still manages to have a lot of fun.
The chef’s parents are Portuguese immigrants who landed in New Jersey, and they instilled in their son a love of food rooted in the farms they’d left behind: Santos grew up gardening and raising rabbits for food. His father made wine and his mother was, by his account, “an amazing cook” who often enlisted his help in the kitchen. Academics never took — “I’m dyslexic, so it was difficult,” he explains — so when he started looking at colleges, he knew he wanted to go to culinary school. His love for baseball was the only thing that could rival his love for cooking, so he landed at Johnson & Wales, where he played division three NCAA baseball for four years while he earned his degree.
Once he graduated, he spent time at Restaurant Nicholas, then the best restaurant in New Jersey, before making the leap to the city, where he clocked long hours at Bouley and Per Se. A year in Chicago led him back to Restaurant Nicholas for two and a half years, and then he took a job at Harlem spot Five and Diamond, a move he describes as “a fuckin’ disaster” from which he eventually walked away — mid-shift. After another well-paid but unfulfilling job at Hotel Griffou, Santos worried his reputation was at stake, and he decided he wasn’t going to take another job unless it was the right one.
Around that time, the chef’s friend Evan Rich launched a pop-up supper club with his wife Sarah in San Francisco as a way to keep the media momentum going for their forthcoming restaurant. Recognizing the move as a good way to gain a following — the one element Santos thought he was missing for an investor to trust him to helm a spot — he decided to launch his own party at his house on Roosevelt Island. Um Segredo (Portuguese for “a secret”) went live a week before Thanksgiving with a 10-person dinner party, and it garnered a mention from the New York Times. Before long, Santos was selling out three dinners a week, and then he moved to a larger venue in Gowanus, which he continued to book solid.
A year later, he met Kiwon Standen and Didier Palange, who wanted to revamp their West Village spot Bar Blanc into something entirely new. Hurricane Sandy gave them cause to flip their restaurant, and they brought Santos on as a partner, who helped them raise $25,000 in nine days via Kickstarter to make the change. The trio gave the space a quick upgrade (though not much changed, since the building is a protected historic structure), and they flipped the lights on at Louro in December of 2012.
Here, Santos talks about creating tasting menus, the road from supper club to restaurant, and what he hopes to do in his career.
We’re seeing a few supper clubs give way to restaurants. Could you rap on that a bit? What’s it doing to the industry?
The first supper club that I did, someone attended and said afterwards, “This is great. I want to do a supper club, too.” I looked at him in the face and asked, “Are you a cook or chef?” “No, I just love to cook.” So I said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you can’t do what I do — I went to school, I have all this training and background. You might be able to cook a couple of things, but they may not go together. The symphony of food — that’s what I do. That’s what I learned during 120-hour weeks at Bouley and sleeping on the floor at the Danube. That’s what I sacrificed to do this. For me, cooking in my apartment is easy.” I worried then that the supper club would catch on but for the wrong reasons — and it kind of did. There are a lot of shitty ones out there. At the time, I was the only chef doing a supper club — since then, there are other chefs that do it. So I think it’s great if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, I think it’s pretty dangerous.
So not a viable road to restaurant?
No, and it’s not like you’re going to make enough money to build a restaurant either. Maybe you can do what I did and get people to back you. But cooking one or two dishes and creating an experience are two different things. And you have to be careful — your reputation is at stake.
Talk to me about the vision for Louro. Do you feel like you lost something when you transitioned away from the supper club?
The end game of the supper club was always this, but the thing I miss the most is interacting with the guests. I like to watch people enjoying what I do. It’s very fulfilling — that was something I didn’t know I was going to get from the supper club. Usually you only hear from the guest when they’re upset. One of the biggest plans for this restaurant is to catapult it into a couple different restaurants. I’ve always wanted to have three restaurants: First, the flagship. Then the moneymaker — this is the turn-and-burn joint. I think about a ceveceria, which is sort of a beer house, but very seafood-focused. You get quick eats and have a couple of beers and a glass of wine. Last is my ideal project: a chef’s counter with a few seats where I can cook for people and bring that supper club back. But again, the end game was always this — I liked doing that, but I wanted this.
You’re famous for your tasting menus — how do you put those together?
You gotta love what you do, and you gotta find the fun. We do the supper club on Monday nights and create an entirely new menu, and it’s about trying to find an angle — and you can find that in just about anything. Food is everywhere, whether it’s a TV show, movie, theme of liquors, whatever. I always do Elvis’ birthday based on a list of food he had to have in his fridge. Last week was halfway to summer. It was so fucking cold. Three weeks ago, I was like, I’ve got all this canned stuff, and people have got to be tired of the cold right now — so let’s take a mental break and concentrate on the things people love in the summer.
What are your thoughts about the industry at large?
I love this industry, but I would never want my kids to be in it. It’s thankless more often than not. It’s a lot of work — I probably sleep three hours a night, and the rest of the time, I’m dealing with stuff for work. There has to be something that you can take away that makes you love it.
It’s getting harder, too; saturation is making financial success harder. And the economy, too: Summer was slow for everyone — that’s usually a good sign, because people are going away because they have money — so we thought we were going to come to the end of the season and go gangbusters. The fall started that way: Things were speeding up. Then the government shutdown happened. It was like someone turned off the light switch. People cut off entertainment first. That’s why you see a lot of chefs open a lot of places — gone are the days when chefs can be financially successful from one restaurant. And you also see a lot of chefs going home and opening restaurants in small cities or towns. It’s a little easier. That’s why there’s a big influx into Brooklyn — it’s easier. The Louro space in Brooklyn would cost $5,000 or $6,000. It’s $18,000 here.
At the same time, the quality of employee has gone down. I think it happened when they stopped keeping score in kids’ games. We’re not all that special — we have to work hard to be special. So if you tell someone you’re special, you’re special, you’re special, they don’t want to work hard. The generation coming up is atrocious. Just getting people to show up to trails is a problem.
Where is the industry going?
I hope people concentrate more on sustainability — I’m a huge seafood guy, and they’re talking about cutting the 70 percent of the quotas on quota-ed seafood. Scallops were the first to suffer, and I won’t put them on my menu anymore. I think the focus should be toward vegetables. I do sustainable dinners on Monday to focus on things we should be eating– sardines, herring. I’m for the cutback — I won’t put tuna on my menu. I won’t put cod on my menu and I’m fucking Portuguese. Cod is basically on the endangered species list. I can’t believe the state of cod right now. There are a lot of alternatives: pollack, hake. I don’t know why people continue to do these things. The focus needs to be on vegetables, rabbit, horse — why we don’t eat horse in America is weird. We live a little too large here. Sixty percent of the world are vegetarians. We have to be smarter.
What do you think about the role of the media?
It can be dangerous. I don’t think some of the reviewers understand the power that they have. If you get a bad review from the Times or Adam Platt, that can be a death sentence.
What are your goals?
Live long enough to watch everything succeed? Hopefully in the end I can take some vacations. We don’t all want to be on the line for the rest of our lives. I think most chefs’ dreams are to open a successful restaurant and then put people on the line to run things for you. But if I had that third restaurant where I was cooking for people, a big part of me would be fulfilled.
Best place for a coffee or tea:
I don’t drink coffee, but I’ll give you Jack’s. The guys all go to Jack’s.
Best place for a drink or a beer:
For an old school beer place, we always go to Blind Tiger. The Dead Rabbit has great cocktails; Death and Company has great cocktails. Those places are high on the list.
Best Portuguese restaurant in the city:
There’s no real Portuguese restaurant in New York City. That said, I’d give a shout to Aldea with George Mendes — he’s an unbelievably talented chef. He’s like me: His name’s Portuguese, and he takes his roots seriously. And then City Sandwich — that’s a great sandwich shop. The owner’s not Portuguese, but he lived in Lisbon, and he owned a restaurant in Lisbon. He has this cool, Portuguese-Italian thing going — those are two countries that don’t get along. His bread is based on a Portuguese bread. It’s really good.
Best special occasion restaurant:
Per Se. I still think they do service better than everyone else. Whether you love that refined food, that’s neither here nor there. Le Bernardin is a close second. Bouley is good, too, but it’s a little more casual.
Quintessential New York restaurant:
One is closing soon: Pastis. One that’s feels like it’s in danger of closing: Stage. I love that place. Great pierogies, great borscht. Fat guy behind the counter — I don’t even know how he fits back there. But the building just got a new owner about a year ago. No word that they’re going to kick them out, but that would be a sad loss.
Best restaurant for when you have no occasion:
Uncle Boons has been really great, and I think it’s casual enough to just walk in and have a great meal without worrying about things. They’re friends, and they’re great people. And I’ve had two really great meals there.
Dish you could eat forever:
Pizza. I’m a fuckin’ pizza guy. Doesn’t even matter what kind of pizza. You can put anything on it. It’s really versatile. I think Jersey pizza’s better than New York pizza as a whole — New York has better specialty pizza, but you can walk into any Jersey pizzeria and get a good slice. You can’t say that in New York. But not Chicago pizza. That’s not pizza. It’s just terrible. Northside anyway. Southside is thin crust and normal. Also, why are you cutting your circle pizza into squares? So terrible. I’m probably the worst eater on the planet. Pizza, hot wings, nachos.
Someone you’d like to cook for (living or dead):
Sportswise, Jackie Robinson. Barack Obama would be pretty cool. I’ve cooked for a lot of famous people. Daniel — I’ve never cooked for Daniel. I dig Daniel. I’ve cooked for Bocuse. He was on the list.
Someone you’d like to have cook for you:
Probably my aunt. I haven’t eaten my aunt’s food in Portugal for a long time. Her and my mom are really amazing cooks. And I miss cooking with her — she’s very talented. She’s cooked for me a million times, but not in well over ten years.
Something you love about the New York restaurant industry:
How hard it is. Not everyone can make it. That’s probably the best and worst thing about it. But if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Something you wish you could change in the industry:
The willingness of the guests to try new things. It’s awesome to cook for foodie — they want to try something new. But that’s only about 5 percent of the dining public. There’s a reason why people like Ferran [Adria] or Grant Achatz don’t open a restaurant here. Not because they can’t but because he’d have a harder time here. People aren’t as accepting of new things. We eat a little plainer.
One thing you wish you could tell diners:
Trust me. One guy who comes in here all the time didn’t eat fish before I started cooking for him. Now he comes in and orders a piece of fish he’s never had before.
Anything you think the media has missed?
I think were a two-star restaurant, and that Pete Wells only gave us one, it hurt my feelings. I think he missed it — how quality-driven this restaurant is, how affordable it is, how interesting it is. I think he missed it, and that’s what we’ve been concentrating on. We do almost everything in house. Cultured creams. Cured products. Vinegars. Because of my relationships, I get first picks from the same purveyors that Per Se uses. We don’t throw it in people’s faces, but how many restaurants in New York are doing that sort of thing? I just think that somehow that review happened and the media wrote us off, which I find sad, because I think what we do here is really special. That review was a game-changer.