STEELE INTERVIEWS: chefs Benjamin Knack and Jason Santos [Hell’s Kitchen]

On Friday, I spoke with the two Hell’s Kitchen contestants from Boston– Executive Chef Jason Santos [Gargoyles on the Square] and Executive Chef Benjamin Knack [Sel de la Terre]. Both guys shared candid, refreshing thoughts on Hell’s Kitchen [and more]. And bonus for a reporter: both guys are verbose. Ben gets a few more bonus points because he described many vegetarian dishes for me that made my mouth water. I learned so much about the restaurant business, kitchens, staffing, cooking styles, flavors and of course being on Hell’s Kitchen.

Amy Steele [AS]: Why did you decide to take part in Hell’s Kitchen?

Chef Jason Santos

Jason Santos [JS]: I don’t really have a phenomenal answer except that I’ve always worked in small restaurants that don’t really have a lot of money for PR. So I figured if I could get on the show, I could get to that national level that I feel like I should be at. I also did it because I’ve admired Gordon Ramsay for a really long time. I was really psyched to work next to him. I got to cook with him every day.

Chef Benjamin Knack

Benjamin Knack [BK]: It started about five or six years ago. I’ve always been a big fan of Gordon Ramsay. I wanted to get the chance with Gordon. I worked in really physical kitchens with a bunch of French chefs and Italian chefs, who were very very physical — scream, yell, throw stuff, grab you, kind of push you around the kitchen. So when I heard about Hell’s Kitchen, I said “I can handle that as long as I don’t get kicked out of the kitchen.” I love Gordon Ramsay and I wanted the challenge of him trying to throw me out of the kitchen.

AS: What did you know about Gordon Ramsay before and what did you learn from him on the show?

JS: I have ten of his books. I feel that we have very similar personalities. The one thing I love about Chef Gordon Ramsay is that he is the most charismatic and witty person I have ever met. And I sort of pride myself on my wit. His standards are unbelievable. He’s got 14 Michelin stars. Just to be at that level. How do you even get to that level? I’ve always admired that about him. I love his personality on television. I know he can be abrasive but I love it.

BK: Gordon worked in restaurants that I wish I could’ve worked at, that are in books that I’ve read. When Gordon came out with his own restaurants it was about flavors, amazing sauces, amazing purees, perfect vegetables and things cooked perfectly. I’m a very technical chef. I don’t do things that are floating on your plate. I don’t have an apple that tastes like a chicken. I do basic French techniques and I think Gordon does a great job. He’s always been an idol of mine.

AS: What did you expect when you arrived on the show/ during the competition?

JS: Andy Husbands from Tremont 647 was on the show last year and I worked for him for seven years. We tried out together and we made the show different seasons. I told him I didn’t make the show because I didn’t want him to come back and tell me this is how it’s done. I wanted to go in with zero expectations. I didn’t want to know anything. If I prepare, I normally don’t do as well. It’s a TV show first and foremost. It’s about the editing. I never even cooked to make the show. There are eight million people watching each episode. You can only get edited to a certain point. It is what it is. I saw it as sort of a game.

BK: I want to be in the moment. So I decided not to watch the show, not to study for it, not to have a strategy going into it– go there, live the moment, experience it. If you live life like that, for the most part you usually win. You get the most out of it if you are living life and not going through the motions. My expectations of Hell’s Kitchen: I thought it would be like a regular kitchen, prep and cook and work all night and Gordon’s going to yell and scream at you. But it’s ‘tomorrow’s a challenge:’ get ready for egg cooking. I was in for a rude surprise for what it was like. I thought it would be more like cooking school or cooking camp. So my expectations were thrown out the window after the first few days. You are always in a loop. You never know what’s going on.

AS: How is it working with people from all different backgrounds? Or are you used to it having worked in the business so long?

JS: A little bit of both. You have some people who are really good cooks and some people who are really bad cooks and when you put in all these alphas and when they’re all competing for $250K, interesting things happen. When I hire people, I usually get to choose the level of culinary knowledge. So if I have room for someone more entry level and I can train them, that’s great. Or if I only want to hire someone with a lot of experience I can do that as well. Whereas in Hell’s Kitchen, you have some people who have never cooked on a line before. But that makes for good TV. If you bring together a bunch of people from different ethnic backgrounds, life experience backgrounds, culinary backgrounds and throw them together and say, “Go!,” it makes for great TV.

BK: Top top-end restaurants, they call it competitive kitchens. We want to be better than the kitchen next to us. Legal Seafoods just wants to make money. We want to cook for 300 people like we’re cooking for 120 people [the quality]. We have people in culinary school, people who’ve never cooked before and are in bands, people who work at Sel [de la Terre] during the day and Sonsie at night. We have people at all different levels and experience so it’s very realistic for me. I’m very used to it. We might be the same age but where I am in my life is my life. Where you are in your life is your life. My job as a chef is to make you as successful as possible and share all my knowledge. I like diversity. I grew up in Queens. And that’s all experience, monetary backgrounds and race. Everyone has their different tricks and you can really absorb that and grow together.

AS: What did you learn on the show?

JS: I learned a lot. The cool thing about Hell’s Kitchen is when you’re in the kitchen, you’re IN the kitchen. It was like a job. You’d wake up in the morning, go prep all day and do dinner service at night. My cooking style is not known for being simple. Hell’s Kitchen has really simple food: really fresh ingredients, just a few items per plate. That’s what I tell people: you have the Gordon side, which is extremely real and then you have the TV side. You cooked it good, you cooked it good. If he calls you out, he was right. I thought that was really cool. And just to cook next to him and watch him. He’s definitely a teacher. He’d show you how to do it his way.

BK: Gordon shares techniques: timing, communications, cooking. He’d pull me aside and say, “That looks great. But here’s a way to do it better.” That’s much better than him just saying something looks great. Gordon’s one of the best chefs in the world. When he works with you on something, that’s amazing. He’s sharing his knowledge. During the show he’s 100% genuine. He may scream and yell when something’s wrong and he’s really pissed. When he says something’s good, he really means it. When he shares something with you, he’s really open, really caring. He’s very passionate about the ingredients. You don’t see us break down the kitchen. You don’t see us prep. I prep really hard. I work very hard to get my station set up. A lot of places that aren’t like the kitchen ARE like the kitchen. When you lose a challenge, you do things that people do every day. Cleaning up the water—you can be there and bitch and moan or you can go with the attitude that you don’t do this every day and actually appreciate losing a challenge.

AS: What was the greatest challenge?

JS: Being away from everything. Full blown sequestering: no email, no phone, no magazines, no radio, no pens and papers. Nothing. We did a photo shoot the first day we were there and while we were waiting, I was flipping through a magazine and as a joke I ripped out a picture of Paris Hilton, smuggled it back to the dorm and put it on my nightstand. I woke up the next morning and it was gone. You go together and you leave together. So to be away for two months is challenging.

BK: Being without my family. I never spend a day away from my wife or my daughter. A lot of chefs work and then go away. Since my daughter was born, I’ve spent every day with her. It’s all about the family. We cook dinner together. Ella breads the fish, she mixes salads and she makes eggs for us. [note: Ella is two and favors using the blue heat-resistant spoon to do her cooking.] We do all the things that most people don’t appreciate. We do things together as a family and we appreciate everything we do. When I was away, I missed all those things. I’m not talking to my wife. I’m not seeing my daughter. The biggest challenge was getting over not being able to see them.

AS: Best part of HK?

JS: To win a reward. And you only see five minutes on television. The little breaks kept me sane. The first episode we did a helicopter ride. I’ve always wanted to go up in a helicopter and I got to do that—flying over L.A. sitting next to Gordon Ramsay was amazing.

Working together with everybody. Being part of the production and not just being part of the show—interacting with the sous chefs, interacting with Gordon, interacting with production. Experiencing everything, not just the TV part. The whole is more important than the means. It was definitely life changing. Gordon puts his heart and effort into it.

AS: When I was talking to people via Twitter during the last episode, we wondered why more people didn’t know how to make risotto when it’s on the menu every year.

JS: There’s 563 ½ ways to make risotto. So you can practice all day long. I’ve been making risotto for 15 years and I’ve never made it the way Gordon makes it. Some people like risotto really thick. Some people like it really thin. You certainly can’t practice something you haven’t been shown how to do. We were given a recipe book and we had to remember 12 items for the menu—not only what they were but each individual ingredient to make each item. Basically it was, “Here’s a book and a photo, go make it.”

BK: It’s more complex than it looks on TV. Making risotto for Gordon Ramsay, a Michelin-rated chef is slightly different quality. Every chef has a different technique so it is different. When you work in someone else’s kitchen and they say the wall’s blue and it’s red, the wall is blue. It’s however that chef wants it. You learn that chef’s palate and technique as you work in that kitchen.

AS: How different is it to work when every move is scrutinized, names are called, and people are undermined?

JS: I can’t believe I’ve made it this far and haven’t gotten yelled at yet. [Hell’s Kitchen] is brigade style and very few kitchens still use that. Brigade style is that if you’re doing vegetables, you’re just doing vegetables. That’s all you cook all night long. So now you have to time the fish guy who serving it, with the meat guy . . . So whatever you’re doing that’s all you need to worry about.

AS: What was your signature dish?

JS: Grilled Hangar Steak, corn & queso fresco salad, black truffle demi-glace, nasturtiums [funky flower, very peppery, similar to arugula]

[note: nasturtiums were Isabella Stewart Gardner’s favorite flowers that she hung annually in the museum courtyard]

BK: Butter poached lobster with lobster agnolloti, English peas and truffle foam.

AS: How will you apply your Hell’s Kitchen exp to your career?

JS: It’s like anything. If I read a cookbook, I apply it to my cooking. Whatever we served in Hell’s Kitchen, I took some of the things I loved and put my own tweak on them.

BK: I keep things simpler. Gordon’s about simple, quality techniques. On set they call me Gordon Jr. because I always say hello to everyone and talk to everyone. Just continuing to push for perfection. And when times are tough, pushing my staff and pushing myself.

AS: Do you think you have to be omnivorous to be a good chef?

JS: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m sort of tough on vegetarians. I always have at least one plate that’s vegetarian that’s really creative. We put a lot of effort into it. Some restaurants just serve vegetables on a plate. The more restrictions you have, the less a chef can shine.

BK: No I don’t think so. For a good chef, you have to cook to your strengths. You have to find the right venue. I’m only a chef if I’m in the position as a chef. Otherwise I’m a cook. Before service, I walk the line and taste everything.

Hell’s Kitchen airs at 8pm Tuesdays on FOX.

Both chefs have Hell’s Kitchen viewing events at their respective restaurants every Tuesday to discuss the show and answer questions.
See websites for additional information.

Info on the chefs:

Chef Jason Santos
Executive Chef at Gargoyles on the Square in Somerville, Mass.
Jason’s twitter

Chef Benjamin Knack
Executive Chef at Sel de la Terre, Longwharf, in Boston, Mass.
Sel de la Terre twitter
Ben’s twitter

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