2007_12_santos2.jpgOn any given night, visitors to The Stanton Social may encounter Executive Chef-Owner Chris Santos making his post-rush rounds through the dining room, or they might not: Problem is that the rush at the restaurant, which can feed (between its bar, lounge, and dining room) up to 200 people at a clip, sometimes just doesn’t let up. The 36 year-old Santos, who says he “feels 39,” is known for food that ditches ornate, mother-sauce heavy presentations for quirky, tasty reinvention. The Stanton Social’s French Onion Soup Dumplings ($11), are a good example of this: Broiled Gruyère and caramelized onions meet xiaolongbao on the same plate. While the chef is also known for his tattoos and blasting metal at prep time, during our interview he seemed to be slightly ambivalent about the title of “rock-and-roll chef,” and more preoccupied with getting diners to the table, and feeding them good food. We spoke to Chris Santos a few Friday mornings ago about The Stanton Social, his Rhode Island roots, and where the M train really goes.

How often does your menu at The Stanton Social change?
It’s a constantly evolving menu; no huge section changes. I think it’s better when you change one dish at a time, instead of dumping 8 or 10 new dishes on your line cooks. We don’t have the luxury of slow nights here to try out a whole new menu. We’re busy 7 nights a week, and we’ve got to get it right the first time out, so we do it one dish at a time.

Is there anything you’re particularly excited about on the menu right now?
We have the standards, like our Crab Cake Corn Dogs and French Onion Soup Dumplings- we’re kind of known for both those things now. For late fall/early winter, we’ve been doing some simple things, like these goat cheese and pumpkin croquettes with honey. We also do a sweet potato and butternut squash ravioli with vanilla brown butter and spiced pecans. It’s another thing we do this time of year. It’s simple, and very popular. We’re always busy, but October through New Year’s is when everyone is busiest. It’s like the sweet potato ravioli goes on the menu and you know that it’s time to go- no sleep until January. We’re doing an Asian inspired lobster stew for the New Year, and a surf and turf of sorts. I haven’t figured out how I want to do it yet, but I’ve always wanted those words on a menu, “surf & turf.” It's so old school.

Is there another restaurant in the works?
We’ve got a lot of different irons in the fire at any given time, and eventually one of them is going to get hot. It’s more difficult than ever in the city to find the right space at the right lease point, and then to get the liquor license from the State Liquor Authority. I think most restaurateurs would agree. It’s never been harder to get those three components together. We’ve seen places that we loved, but it would be impossible to get a liquor license there. We saw other places still, and they want 60 thousand a month in rent, and that’s just ridiculous. So it’s hard to get everything together, but we keep looking. We’re working on it every day.

You had an experience with a user who posted a negative review on Yelp about The Stanton Social, so you invited the her back for an all-out, intense meal. How much do you feel the Internet has changed the game of being a chef?
She came in. Did you see that? And now we’re really good friends. It’s actually a great story of how we became friends- Basically, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and by now, I’ve got a pretty thick skin. It’s a very competitive marketplace, and I’m not pretending to be a groundbreaking chef. I’m a guy who just knows how to cook a little bit, and I think I make good, approachable food. I’ve been trying to carve out a space for myself for a while and trying to make a living doing this, and it’s not easy. So I keep an eye on what’s being written out there, not because I want to know about how great we are, but because I want to know what doesn’t work for people. When people aren’t happy and it’s a legitimate critique, I’m going to try to do something about it. If I’m reading sporadically that a certain dish is coming across as salty or bland- not that it happens that often- I’m going to want to change that.

This particular post crossed the line, it was challenging me in a way I’m not usually challenged. It wasn’t about the food so much, x, y, and z that. It was like “I think the owners sat around one day and tried to figure out how to make the most amount of money from the customers.” Up until the Stanton Social I lived from paycheck to paycheck as a chef- that was my whole career. So I was a little bit annoyed, especially because this [Yelp] review was written about an experience the user had two years ago, and she was writing something like “Well, I don’t understand all these positive reviews. I was there two years ago, and it was horrible, and these are the dishes I didn’t like.” They were items that hadn’t even been on the menu for a year and a half! She was basically posting her experiences at the restaurant from May of 2005 in August of 2007, so I wrote her a note telling her to come in to visit to see what we’ve become. So she came in and had a great time, and now we’re talking, texting each other, and we’re buddies. Happy ending.

Did that create an influx of fake negative reviews, people looking for a comped meal?
No, but that would be interesting to look out for.

I read that you’re working on a cookbook.
I am. I am slowly drafting a cookbook. I have a lot of things going on. I just started working with William Morris and signed a production deal to create a television show, and we’ll probably develop the cookbook at the same time. Part of me wants to write a very irreverent kind of pop culture, rock-and-roll food book, but part of me also wants to make a book more tuned into the restaurant, like a cookbook for dinner parties, dinners for 8 or so guests. Great food is definitely our main objective, but the goal of this restaurant and the cookbook is bringing people to the table, and having people and friends sit down together who might not normally do so. Approachable, whimsical food that you might not need a whole lot of intense skills, or intimate knowledge of molecular gastronomy to pull off.

You started out as a pot washer in Rhode Island, where you’re from.
Good times.

You’ve been with restaurants and food ever since.
I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do until I moved to New York, even after I went to culinary school. It was always about saving money, for instance to be the first 16 year-old on the block to have his own car, so I could be badass with the girls, or whatever. I wanted to be a drummer, but a good kit is really expensive. I was always working to afford stuff that wasn’t really culinary career-oriented. Then I went to Johnson and Wales. I was supposed to only be there for 2 years, but ended up staying for 2 more because they gave me a scholarship. The whole time I was there I was working at a rock club in Providence, and I still wasn’t sure I wanted to do this. I was interested in music in a big way, but then I moved to New York and then traveled to Europe- I ate at something like 40 cities in 16 countries, and then I just had the epiphany that this is what I want to do with my life.

Is there anything you know now about the cooking business that you wish someone had told you then, or anything you’d say to your 16 year-old self, washing pots in Rhode Island?
I don’t have any regrets. But if I could do it “It’s a Wonderful Life” style and go back, the only thing I would wonder about is school. To say I’m self-taught is sort of an insult to cooking school; school teaches you some very important things, like how to hold a knife properly and other basic stuff, but doesn’t really teach you about the realities of the restaurant. So when I came to New York, I stepped into a chef’s job almost right away. I never worked for Jean Georges, Daniel, or Ducasse. So I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but on the other hand, I’ve wondered what I would have been exposed to or what I didn’t get to see as a chef had I gone in that direction, how I might be different as a chef. It’s not a regret, it’s something I wonder about.

You’re better off.
[laughs] Perhaps, perhaps. There’s a little bit of a thing here in New York that if you haven’t worked for one of those big guys, then you’re not anybody. That’s just the way it is.

You ever get any of the big chefs as customers here?
Sure. Mario Batali has been here, Wylie’s been in, and David Burke’s been a bunch of times. Bobby Flay was here maybe once. I haven’t had any of the old guard come in, like Jean Georges or Ducasse. Pierre Gagnaire’s never been in for dinner.

Favorite subway line? Why?
I’m on the F and I love it. It’s reliable. I don’t like the M train because I don’t understand it. I don’t know what it is or where it goes. I got on it the other day- I was trying to take the R and got on the M by accident. I wasn’t paying attention. We came to the Bowery stop and I was like Bowery? What the hell train am I on?

Let’s say none of these things are happening: You’re not being banished to a desert island, you’re not being condemned to death for some unspeakable act, and the world isn’t ending tomorrow. What kind of meal are you eating?
What about all 3? What if all 3 are happening at the same time?

Sure. You’re condemned to death on a desert island and the world is ending tomorrow. Are you hungry?
Hmm, interesting. My answer is different every day, depending on my mood. Let’s reverse engineer it: Dessert would be a red velvet cupcake from Ladybird Bakery in Park Slope. That shit is dope. Then give me a perfectly prepared foie gras terrine and a rack of lamb, med-rare. That’s pretty boring, isn’t it? We are talking last meal before death, right?

You’re on a desert island and the world is about to explode.
Let’s put some caviar on it, fuck it [laughs]. No, seriously though, I’m a pretty simple guy. Terrine, rack of lamb, and red velvet cupcake. Oh, and some goose fat fried potatoes.

Best inexpensive restaurant for an after-hours bite?
Rico’s Tacos in Sunset Park. Best tacos, chilaquiles, and best tortas I’ve had in this city. Actually, that would probably be part of that last meal. I also love Cafecito on Avenue C.

Best romantic restaurant in NY?
Depends on your take on romance, my friend. I happen to like Strip House, which isn’t necessarily very romantic. Everything is dark red, sort of bordello-like on the inside. I’m also a big, big fan of Franny’s in Brooklyn. They have that backyard garden, and it’s romantic in the sense that it’s a nice “morning after a date” kind of place, for example, on an early Sunday afternoon. It’s really simple, they’ve got great cocktails, and the food is so good without being intimidating. You can kind of sit there and contemplate your love in the backyard garden [laughs]. No really, it’s great. That’s where I go.

Do you have a strange, only in NY story?
Only in NY story? I mean it's not a story, but being from a small Rhode Island town, you hardly envision one day having up close dialogue with celebrities and athletes, the like. Everybody loves it when the chef visits the table so I have a different conversation with a different “A-lister" almost every night, and it's actually nice because they are always so super gracious and genuine and, you know, real people. When you grow up in a small town you think these people are so larger than life, and then one day you’re in the big city and Mike Myers or Cameron Diaz is telling you how delicious your food is. It's corny, but it's neat. I just realized I referenced Mr. and Mrs. Shrek without trying, too. Ogres must like chefs, right?