Chef Chris Santos knows the difference between art and business. When it comes to making his massive restaurants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan successful, he’s pragmatic. “We push the envelope as hard as we can push it, but at the end of the day, we have to be realistic about what we can do,” he says. “And I think that’s where a lot of restaurants that do high volume have had trouble. It’s not like there’s not talent in the kitchen, it’s that they overestimate what you can achieve when you’re serving that many people in a night.”
Santos is the chef and owner of Beauty & Essex and Stanton Social restaurants. Last week he opened another ambitious restaurant on the Lower East Side called Vandal. Later this year Santos will expand to Las Vegas and Hollywood and in 2017 he will release his first book, a home entertainment tome called Share: Delicious and Surprising Recipes to Pass Around Your Table.
Playboy talked to Santos about his top-secret new restaurant, why micromanaging is so important, and why he’ll never be pushed out of the Lower East Side.
What can people expect from Vandal? Why have you been keeping it so secret?
We’ve been keeping it under wraps because it’s so jaw-dropping. It’s such an amazing, insane, over-the-top space. We don’t want there to be this hype machine of like, wait till you see this and wait till you see that. We want it to just be like, well what’s this place about? Let’s check it out. And then they’re going to come in and lose their shit basically. At least that’s the hope.
Vandal is massive: 22,000 square feet. Beauty and Essex is one of the larger restaurants in New York City, and Vandal is twice the size of that. The whole place is kind of meant to encourage discovery throughout an entire evening. There’s a little secret entranceway that leads you to a tunnel that leads you to a series of rooms. One room’s an indoor-outdoor garden. Once the weather breaks, we’re going to open for brunch and lunch as well. We anticipate that on a Saturday, once we get up and running, we’ll easily do 600, maybe 700, people for brunch. And then turn around and do maybe 1,500 for dinner. And then who knows how many more people will filter through the lounge downstairs.
Where does the name Vandal come from?
The restaurant celebrates street food and street art from around the world. The name Vandal comes from the fact that street artists used to be considered petty criminals. We don’t really like to use the word criminals when we talk about it, but you know, in the Rudy Giuliani era of New York, vandalism was considered a misdemeanor crime. Taggers and street muralists were considered nuisances. But in the culture of today, street artists are making some of the most exciting and sought after art in the world. It’s something that me and my partner are really excited about and wanted to celebrate. We got seven of the world’s most prominent street artists to come in, they all basically got a room, and they painted huge installations.
Which artists did you get?
We worked closely with a very notable artist from England named Hush; he’s a friend of ours. He was the one who took the lead and went out there and recruited all of these super exciting artists. We got Vhils from Portugal who did these two crazy instillations. We put brick up on the walls and then plaster over the brick and then he chiseled away the plaster here and there to create an image. It’s unbelievably beautiful. Shepard Fairey did two instillations for us. Tristan Eaton did this amazing piece on books. We built a library and then he spray-painted this wall-to-wall mural onto the actual books and the bookshelves. It’s super cool stuff.
What’s happening with the food?
The food celebrates street food from around the world, but we are not a street food restaurant. We are not serving hot dogs and pretzels per se. This summer I spent nine weeks in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Mexico and all over Europe. We’re taking that street food as an inspiration and paying homage to it, but then creating whimsical dishes that are a little bit more evocative or a little bit more luxe. Using the ubiquitous New York street pretzel as an example, we’re doing a pressed pretzel topped with steak tartar, and then we’re topping that with a smoked aioli. Because when you get a pretzel from a street cart in New York, a lot of times they’re a little smokey from the charcoal.
It’s a big menu. There are over 50 items. We’re taking shawarma, and instead of serving shawarma, we’re doing a riff on a salad that has falafel croutons. The shawarma guys will ask you if you want hot sauce or white sauce, so we’re doing a hot sauce and a white sauce vinaigrette. In Italy arancini is sold street-side everywhere. It’s a little crispy rice fritter. I was there eating that and then I would go eat bowls of cacio e pepe, which is a cheese and pepper pasta that I love. But that’s not street food. So I kind of merged the two: I’m dong a cacio e pepe-flavored arancini.
In Singapore they eat chili crab on the streets and it’s very messy. You need a bib and you get it all over yourself. So instead of that, I’m doing Singapore chili-style crab claws that are very dainty, not messy. We’re going to be doing tacos and tostadas and ramen, basically anything that you can consider street food. But it’s all being filtered through my cooking style. The style will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever eaten at Stanton Social or Beauty & Essex: gritty pretty.
There’s been an exodus of chefs from downtown Manhattan recently. What’s keeping you there?
This is my hood. This is where I live and where I spend all of my time. I travel a lot, but when I’m in New York, it’s like a little box that I live in. I’ve got my dive bars that I go to after work and I’ve got my restaurants that I rotate around and all my friends tend to live in the area. When I opened Stanton Social 10 years ago, there were really no restaurants at all in the Lower East Side. Then I opened Beauty, and I don’t want to say we opened the doors, but in large part, we were the first one to take a chance on a big space, a big investment. And now we’re starting to see more restaurants move in. That’s great. I’m all for it. Busy creates busy. A neighborhood that’s dense with quality restaurants is great for everybody. It’s great for the city, it’s great for diners, it’s great for chefs. But in terms of me, I never say never, but I’m not interested in leaving the neighborhood.
What is the biggest challenge to chefs in New York right now?
Cost management. Everything is not just a little, but much more expensive than it was even five years ago. I’m talking about the cost of food, I’m talking about the cost to transport goods. The only way to make money in the restaurant business is to micromanage every penny. Our menus are painstakingly created. We’re very busy restaurants. This is a great dish, but can we do this for 1,500 people on a Saturday night? Because if we can’t, there’s no point. And I think that’s where a lot of restaurants that do high volume have had trouble. It’s not like there’s not talent in the kitchen, it’s that they overestimate what you can achieve when you’re serving that many people in a night. So we push the envelope as hard as we can push it, but at the end of the day, we have to be realistic about what we can do. We really micromanage it.
Does that pragmatism come from running such large restaurants?
I don’t know. I’m always very careful about what I say. I can’t say I think bigger than anybody else, but I do know that I have incredibly high payroll and overhead and costs. But I also have the resource of an enormous team. I have 600 employees now. I have a director of H.R., a payroll manager, an accounting team, a director of purchasing and obviously a battery of chefs. So I have the resources. Where in a smaller restaurant, the chef is playing all of those roles. In my first restaurant, which I opened in Little Italy in 1999, I was playing all of those roles and I was out in two years. I couldn’t do it. So having a bigger team and having a support system is definitely a big part of my success.
Stanton Social has been open for 10 years. How do you keep people coming back?
We live by hospitality karma: treat the guests who come in here the way you want to be treated when you go out. We’re throwing a party every night. My restaurants start with serious food, but they are lively restaurants with a party vibe. That’s by design. I seek to create a place where people go to have a good time and celebrate. We do a Champagne brunch party at Stanton Social on Sundays that is like crazy. It’s pitch black and bottle service. And just the fact that we’re busy, busy, busy and there’s always so many people there it just kind of naturally creates this organic kind of buzz that people feel and enjoy.
It seems like you have a ton of other stuff going on this year, too.
Yeah, it’s going to be an exciting, crazy year. I’m opening Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas at the Cosmopolitan in April, I’m opening Beauty & Essex in Hollywood in May or June, and then literally just this week I finished work on my first cookbook… I’m working like 18 hours a day. I’m partnering with the Tao Group for all of these projects, including Vandal. I can’t say for sure, but I think this partnership is going to yield lots of different projects in lots of different cities all over the world. I turn 45 this year and for the rest of my life I’ll be on a plane between New York, L.A. and Vegas. It’s taken a long time, but the ball’s certainly rolling now.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep