By 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon in Stanton Social’s kitchen on New York City’s Lower East Side, there’s a muted roar of polyglot jabber punctuated with the staccato clang of pots and pans. The restaurant’s team of chefs and line cooks are readying themselves for the onslaught ahead: 3,000 plates will be passed through the service window before quitting time.
Executive chef Chris Santos is at the helm of this focused frenzy. He knows it’s a work day foreign to nine-to-fivers; for cooks, late afternoon is mid-morning.It’s an alternative lifestyle, and Santos cultivates an atmosphere of convivial profanity, serious work ethic, and after-hours debauchery among his staff. “These guys need to blow off some steam at the end of the night,” he says. “We’re like a dysfunctional crew of bad asses that takes over the city every night when we get off work.”
This unorthodox formula has proven successful for Santos, whose broad frame, tattooed forearm, and bald pate are more suggestive of the boxing ring, his other passion, than an upscale Manhattan restaurant. And when he isn’t cooking, you’re likely to find him at Gleason’s boxing gym, in Brooklyn. “I get my nose bloodied,” says the chef of his precious hours in the ring. In fact, he has a tattoo planned, a huge back piece, to honor that part of his life and family history. “My grandfather was a prize fighter,” he explains.
Artist Michelle Myles will create the tattoo, but her collaboration with Santos won’t end there. The pair is also developing a new line of chef wear called Daredevil Chef & Street Wear. The rock and roll-inspired line will include bandanas, wristbands, chef pants, and knife rolls. “Every apparel catalog has one page of designs that are supposed to be edgy. It’s like barbed wire or skulls, and it probably seems edgy to whatever Martha Stewart type is running the company. But Daredevil will have a real tattoo aesthetic,” says Santos.His zeal for that aesthetic has been evolving since he got his first tattoo more than a decade ago, in the fog of young love. “It’s now obscured under a lot of dark black ink,” Santos says. In fact, it would be impossible to find any trace of it under the sleeve that pays tribute to his work in the kitchen with a collage of flames and stars. The fire refers to his cooking, “and the star is from when I first came to New York, a young chef who wanted to be a rising star in the city,” says Santos.
With a restaurant that’s garnered critical acclaim, consulting credits on Hollywood movies like Hitch and No Reservations, and a TV project of his own in the works, Santos has realized much of the vision he had when he got that first star on his arm. Though it now seems that knocking out the dining public may not be enough of an accomplishment for the chef. “If I could change one thing, I might go back 20 years and take boxing even more seriously,” he says. “I could have been a contender.” And with his drive, Santos still might be.