SPOILER ALERT: If you have not watched “Top Chef: World All-Stars” through episode nine, you may want to wait to read this until you have. This story contains spoilers.
Attending events is par for the course when restaurant writing. Receiving an invite to feast on a trio of dishes made by “Top Chef” season 20 contender Amar Santana “and” have him speak (mostly) freely about life behind-the-scenes is something I rearranged my work schedule for. Who wouldn’t want to try three “Top Chef”-worthy dishes?
When Santana first appeared on season 13 of “Top Chef” in 2015, the California-centric episodes coincided with the opening of his second restaurant, Vaca. I remember doing episode recaps for OC Weekly at the time, taking photos of my TV screen to document his dishes. Despite finishing runner-up, his reality show stint translated into foolproof marketing that kept diners wanting a table well beyond the first six months of Vaca’s launch. I recall sipping its slushy, vermouth-based Vaca Tonic at the bar on a semi-regular basis that first year. The establishment is still going strong and will celebrate eight years in December.
Bravo is currently airing season 20, dubbed “Top Chef: World All-Stars”, where 16 chefs from 11 different “Top Chef” franchises go head-to-head in London (and eventually Paris for the finale) for bragging rights and $250,000. To be a contender, Santana knew his caliber of cooking had to be at the top of its game and he said his goal was to make it to Restaurant Wars, the show’s marquee challenge in episode nine where the remaining eight chefs form two teams and open pop-up restaurants in a limited amount of time.
Santand did, indeed, make it to Restaurant Wars and his team survived. He has survived it yet another week.
The Road to the World All-Stars
Santana recalls the time he was away to compete in his initial season and how people noticed his disappearance. He and business partner Ahmed Labbate were not allowed to say anything. Customers were coming into Broadway in Laguna Beach (Santana’s first restaurant) and asking about him. “My brother, a manager, decided to tell people I went to rehab,” said Santana. When he returned home from filming he had put on 30 pounds, mostly because producers told him he could order anything from room service, so Santana would order steak and eggs – the most expensive things. Diners kept asking him how he was doing, confusing Santana. That’s when Santana’s brother finally told him about the ruse.
During his appearance on season 13 he purchased a fancy car halfway through the season, sparking rumors that he had won. “I’ve been trying to hold myself from buying anything expensive, from doing anything outside of the box,” he said.
For season 18 Santana was invited to participate as a judge alongside existing judge Gail Simmons, host Padma Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio in Portland, Oregon. Seeing the competition from their perspective was a revelation for him. “At the end of the day with ‘Top Chef,’ if you create a great dish, that’s all they are looking for. They don’t give a (explicative) about anything else. They judge what’s in front of them; they don’t take favorites.”
He respected how Lakshmi commanded the camera, knowing what to say and when. As a fellow chef and owner, Santana also appreciated how Colicchio had the chef’s best interests in mind when an idea was presented, being the voice of reason when something didn’t logistically make sense.
Presented with the opportunity to represent Orange County again for the World All-Stars, Santana, 41, now a father who oversees multiple restaurants (plus one in the works), had even more to consider. It took the encouragement of both his fiancée and Labbate to convince him to accept. “I would have never gone on the show if I knew the restaurant was going to suffer. They both gave me the peace of mind that I didn’t have to worry.”
Why else did Santana return? Because “Top Chef” takes him out of his comfort zone. He likes how the show removes cheftestants from what they already know how to do in their respective kitchens, away from their ingredients and all the resources needed to succeed. The show takes chefs somewhere unfamiliar and sees how well they can swim in those waters. “It’s the smartest chef (who wins), not the most talented,” he said.
Below I discuss the three dishes recreated by Santana from this season which got him to this point.
Moroccan Braised Lamb Shank: Episode 5, Holiday Vacation
Going into episode five, Santana was performing in the middle of the pack. In the first elimination challenge, he executed a vegetable-forward dish with seared scallop that placed excess emphasis on the protein. For a team challenge, his attempt at seaweed battered fish and malt vinegar chips with Ali Ghzawi (from “Top Chef Middle East/North Africa”) had an unforgiving coating, resulting in mushy seafood.
Despite this, some of his peers were still commenting that the competition wasn’t fair because he was previously a judge. The producers would explain to them that if anything, judges were going to be even harder on Santana because of his experience as a judge. This seemed apparent at the beginning of Holiday Vacation when Santana served a chicken and overly sweet pancake dish inspired by his son that would place him at the bottom three.
For the next challenge the chefs had to coordinate efforts in order to succeed. The group was tasked with creating family-style dishes inspired by their favorite holidays. Each chef would be judged separately, but they were all contributing dishes for the same meal.
Instead of fighting for a burner on the stove, Santana smartly opted for a braise that simmered overnight. His style of cooking for this elimination challenge meant leaving fancy serving tweezers at home. His competitors didn’t understand why his portion sizes were larger than theirs. He tried to explain that tasting portions don’t work for a family meal. “I cook from the heart,” Santana said.
Santana’s Moroccan braised lamb shank featuring prunes, sweet onions, cinnamon and toasted almond was a hit with the judges; it possessed great balance in flavor, plus a tang that earned Santana his first high score of the season. I remarked to colleagues that the braise would’ve tasted even better if the weather outside was another 10 degrees cooler. It was definitely a hearty, comforting meal.
Included with his win was a Verbo stay good for anywhere in the world for up to $10,000. He’s contemplated visiting Thailand, but thinks he could locate a more expensive locale to utilize his Verbo credit on.
Santana enjoyed how the dish turned out so much that he added it to the menu at Broadway. “I put it on three months ago because I knew that it was gonna be popular,” he said.
Mama Santana Flan: Episode 6, ‘Top Chef’ is No Picnic
In the next elimination challenge, Santana would face a number of setbacks. The first involved having to split a budget (200 pounds at Fortnum and Mason; 250 pounds at Whole Foods Market) a second time for ready-to-serve picnic baskets at Highclere Castle, home to the Crawleys on “Downton Abbey.” Tom Goetter (“Top Chef: Germany”) selfishly spends 80% of the team’s luxury budget on his dish, making it difficult for the rest of the team.
The next concern was not locating a single can of evaporated milk at Whole Foods for his mother’s flan recipe. He did recall seeing coconut condensed milk, though. With only 90 minutes to cook, cool and package his dessert, Santana improvised his flan molds by using the plastic ramekins that held salt and pepper on set.
When it was time for him to remove the dessert molds, they weren’t setting correctly. He thinks it may have had something to do with the eggs. After taking flan out of the ramekins, he would flip it into the to-go container and it would disintegrate. “I’m going home. That’s it,” Santana said to himself.
With time running out (Note: The clock never stops for anything. Even if the power or generator goes out in the kitchen), his instinct kicked in. He remembered there was a blast freezer on-site. Santana would try to cool the ramekins down as much as possible in the five minutes he had left. When he transferred the desserts to the picnic basket a second time, everything looked beautiful.
At this point, he’s thinking about the three to four hours of travel the picnic basket has to endure in a truck. “And then once we packed the picnic basket we couldn’t look at them again,” he said. Would the flan hold up after so much time had passed? He knew the answer when he witnessed the judges taking their first bite. At first they were quiet because dessert was the last thing they were tasting for his team. And then Padma exclaimed “Amar!” Colicchio would praise Santana for closing strong with a flan possessing no air bubbles.
The super smooth rum raisin flan with pineapple and sage marmalade was praised by the judges. He’s considered updating Vaca’s existing Mama Santana flan recipe as a result. For me, I’m a picky dessert eater who generally leans more savory (think cheese course) than sweet. While the dessert was good, it was the only plate I didn’t finish; I was also pretty full from the lamb already.
Herb Roasted Yellow Plantain: Episode 7, Hands Off
Living out of a suitcase in a hotel far from home for an extended period of time required a certain amount of mental fortitude. “Top Chef” isn’t fun for the contestants; it’s a competition. “You’re always stressed and don’t know what you’re going to do next. You don’t know anything; it’s minute by minute,” he said. Before he went to compete in “World: All Stars,” Santana was missing a patch of facial hair (he pointed to an area near his chin). It was a culmination of 10 years of stress. The missing hair from the other side of his face was from only two months of shooting in London.
Phones were taken away from contestants, but there was a designated room where Santana and others could make calls, and he spoke to his family a couple of times a week. When the group wasn’t competing, they remained in one wing of the Kimpton property until summoned, but were able to visit each other. “From day one, you found your little group,” he said. For him, that would be Ghzawi and Charbel Hayek (“Top Chef Middle East and North Africa”) whom he referred to as his Lebanese brothers.
Across from the phone room was the gym, which he declined using. Despite not being able to roam the city, chefs were allowed to order food from anywhere. And they did. “We were near Cedric Grolet’s bakery and spent, like 800 pounds,” Santana said.
After a long day of filming, cheftestants would return to their rooms exhausted, but it wasn’t easy to relax or fall asleep. Santana would remain awake, staring at the ceiling. “You can’t shut it (your mind) off,” he said. “There was nothing to smoke so you had to go to sleep.”
I consider this episode in particular a game changer for Santana because he went away from his comfort zone during the quickfire, and by doing so he pulled away from the middle of the pack. The challenge: create a dish inspired by an emoji of their choosing. He would select a banana emoji and craft a bold, herb-roasted yellow plantain dish to honor his Dominican heritage. Made from miso butterscotch, super crispy bacon, stilton blue cheese and crispy plantains, it was an unusual combination of flavors that the judges (especially guest judge Gaggan Anand) were pleased with, ranking Santana with one of the top three dishes.
Of the many moments viewers have witnessed thus far, one of the more memorable ones according to Santana was receiving the positive feedback from Anand, who cooks on another level – especially since he didn’t think he would do so well on the challenge. It’s this constructive criticism and advice that encourages chefs to push themselves creatively. Anand would be back briefly at the start of episode 8 to hang out with the chefs in the “stew” room (where competitors waited while food was being judged) and share a beer, even offering the chefs a spot in his kitchen. “This is one of those opportunities that only happens on ‘Top Chef,’ ” Santana said.
The plantain dish was my favorite of the three prepared because of the way all the flavors unexpectedly married so well together. Chef Santana plans to keep this particular recipe “in his back pocket” to use sparingly in his restaurants.
Santana deflected questions at the luncheon about how far along he progressed this season by spilling the tea on his upcoming project: another Vaca in downtown Los Angeles off 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard, on the ground floor of a 780-unit residential property known as Beaudry. He guesstimates its completion to be Winter 2023.
He tells all of his cooks and every one of his friends that want to do the show that it’s not as easy as it looks. Santana would watch the show before his season and think, “That’s all you did in half an hour?” And then he put himself in that situation and realized that it was harder than he thought.
Chef Santana doesn’t cook because he wants to make millions of dollars. He just wants that acknowledgement from the guest leaving his restaurant saying that they ate the most amazing thing ever. “That dish, that bite. That is what satisfies us. That’s what we want,” he said.
But did he make it to the finale? I believe, with his quick thinking and star power, Amar Santana made it to at least the final four.
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