Xavier Santiago, chef at David Burke Prime and Caputo Trattoria, overcomes odd ingredient to win 'Chopped'
It's one thing when we hear a surgeon accidentally amputated the wrong foot, or a NASA Orbital Trajectory Analyzer misplaced a decimal point and sent our astronauts careening wildly into deepest space, never to return.
Those folks, as per the dozens of iconic culinary stars we worship on cooking shows across the frontiers of food and lifestyle networks, seem infallible in their culinary sorcery.
As such, it was a bit shocking — and simultaneously refreshing in a "human" fashion — to hear Xavier Santiago, chef de cuisine at David Burke Prime and Caputo Trattoria in Foxwoods Resort Casino and executive chef at Trattoria Toscana in Manchester, recently express bewilderment over something called umeboshi.
Santiago was competing as one of four chefs on the "So Sumac Me" episode of the Food Network show "Chopped." The episode premiered in August and has an encore showing at 7 p.m. Thursday. When "Chopped" host Ted Allen revealed the ingredients list for the show's entrée round, the contestants learned they were to make a main dish out of monkfish tails, sumac, asparagus — and umeboshi.
Fans know each episode of "Chopped" pits a quartet of chefs against one another as they create separate appetizer, entrée and dessert rounds based, as above, on an array of not necessarily compatible ingredients. With each round, judges "chop" one chef until two finalists are left for the desserts finale, after which a winner is selected based on the overall performance.
"I saw umeboshi and said, 'What IS this?!" Santiago says by phone a few weeks after his episode first aired. "I'd never heard of it. But it looked like a cherry and I like cherries. Then someone said it was a plum. Cool. I like plums, too. I thought, 'It's going to be sweet,' so I popped one in my mouth. That was a big mistake. It was horrible; full of vinegar and salt. I actually spat it out — though that wasn't on camera, thankfully. The taste was awful, and it just took over my whole mouth."
So, yes, Chef Santiago acknowledges he didn't recognize a Japanese plum. He's fallible just like the rest of us, no matter how many dishes of roasted Branzino or Cioppino he might oversee.
More importantly, Santiago recovered nicely, whipped up a nice monkfish stew with umeboshi toast. The creation was praised by celebrity chef judges Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter, Manhattan), Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster, Harlem) and Chris Santos (The Stanton Social, Manhattan), and Santiago went on to win the episode and a $10,000 prize.
"It's every bit the honor you'd think (to win)," says Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico whose family moved to Hartford when he was young. He cites years spent on the family farm in Puerto Rico — where daily bounty like fresh eggs and vegetables and a kitchen-versatile grandmother and a pastry chef mother all combined to impart a love and appreciation of food.
"I didn't know any better as a kid. My perspective was that we were poor and didn't have many luxuries, but now I realize how lucky my childhood was, how it was more than a privilege to have that background and experience," he says.
Santiago says that, while other children might have played sports, he and his brother and sister frequently "played restaurant. I was always the chef, and my sister was the hostess, and we had a seating chart and drew pictures of the food so we could serve something. It was super crazy, but it's what we did."
As Santiago explained during the "Chopped" episode, "I started at 19 as a line cook and kept moving through the ranks. I worked in Japanese, Spanish, Greek and India restaurants. I've paid my dues and .... in this industry, the more you know, the more you're worth."
Sebastian says he was more than familiar with "Chopped" — and not as just a casual viewer.
"As part of my routine, I'm constantly watching all the new cooking and restaurant shows and reading cookbooks and online information," he says, "You have to keep learning. I go to a lot of restaurants and wine and cooking events and get to know other chefs. That's the beauty of our business. There's always something new to learn and someone to meet. I never get bored."
Santiago says he was contacted by the "Chopped" casting director after winning a Hartford cooking competition that featured 16 regional chefs from a variety of different restaurants and representing a variety of cooking styles. As for participating in and taping the episode, it requires the sort of top secrecy one might associate with a kick-around-ideas session by the scriptwriters on a Bourne film.
"You get there at 5:30 a.m., and you don't leave till 10 p.m., and they take your wallet and phone as soon as you arrive," Santiago says, laughing. "You're pretty isolated."
His competition on the program was Chef Al McLean, an Austrailian native who heads The Verve restaurant in Natick, Mass.; Chef Yasi Sapp from the Jet Wine Bar in Philadelphia; and Kristina Preka, a culinary director for private chef company.
"I'd heard people on shows like this can be arrogant, but these were all very nice and talented people. Creative. They were all very respectful," Santiago says. "We were obviously there to compete, but the attitude was to have fun and enjoy the experience. I think it would be fun at some point to get all four of us together again and maybe do some cooking event for charity."
At one point in the show, the judges commented on and laughed about Santiago's penchant for sampling his own in-progress dishes.
Santiago explained, "The only way to know if you're doing a good job is to taste your dish."
And Samuelsson said, "My man Xavier is not tasting; he's eating everything!"
As would be expected of the winner's work, the judges were consistently impressed with all three of Santiago's dishes. At one point, Santos marvelled over a Santiago asparagus-based creation, saying, "This dish is perfect, beyond reproach. You can't do better than this. You can't."
None of Santiago's "Chopped" recipes have been introduced at any of the three restaurants he's associated with, and he says he wouldn't have expected that they would be.
"Those were in the moment with odd ingredients," he says. "For me, to have three judges of that caliber say such flattering things was more than enough. I was obviously very happy to win — it's a humbling moment and exciting and who knows what might happen? — but I would have gone home happy if I'd been the first one chopped. It was that great of an experience and that competitive."
If you watch
Who: Xavier Santiago, chef de cuisine at David Burke Prime and Caputo Trattoria in Foxwoods Resort Casino and executive chef at Trattoria Toscana in Manchester
What: Encore presentation of Santiago's winning appearance on the Food Network program "Chopped"
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Food Network