Chef Hector Santiago
Pura Vida |Atlanta
Hector Santiago is a bundle of ideas, and energy –
at Pura Vida, the Atlanta restaurant he opened in 2001,
he regularly experiments with chiles, indigenous Latin ingredients,
and the latest tools from Spain. Santiago began cooking in 1988
at the El San Suan Hotel in his native Puerto Rico, where his mentor,
Giovanna Heyke, taught him about food and encouraged him to attend
culinary school. After earning a college degree from the University
of Puerto Rico, Santiago went on to the Culinary Institute of America,
where he spent weekends staging at Aureole and The
River Room in New York. Post-graduation, Santiago took a position
at the Manhattan Ocean Club until recruited by a former
instructor, Chef Sam Hazen, to work at the Stony Hill Inn
in New Jersey. Later, he went as Hazen’s sous chef to open
the original Heartland Brewery in Union Square.
Santiago then moved to Atlanta, where he spent five years working
for Peasant Restaurants. His next position, at Duex Plex,
was French-focused, but the Latin night club downstairs inspired
him to finally begin cooking the Latin cuisine on which he was raised.
He opened Pura Vida, where the tapas-style menu is inspired
by traditional Latin American dishes and products. Since opening
in 2001, Santiago has traveled to Central and South America whenever
possible, and has staged with Jose Andres at Café Atlantico,
Zaytinya, and Jaleo, Andoni Luis Aduriz at Mugaritz,
and Wylie Dufresne at wd~50.
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HNS: Where have you
worked as a chef?
HS: I spent weekends at Aureole
while in culinary school – it was a small packed kitchen that
was all about precision. I also staged at the River Room,
which had an amazing pasta room. After graduating I worked at the
Manhattan Ocean Club in NYC as a line cook, then I worked
for two years at the Stony Hill Inn as Banquet Chef, and
Heartland Brewery as sous chef under Chef Sam Hazen. Back
then we made pasta, bread and even the ketchup in-house, and we
did beer pairings. Then I came to Atlanta to work for Peasant Restaurants.
At this point in my career, I had worked in Italian, French &
American Restaurants, and while in Atlanta, mostly Southern-American.
Since my heart was with Latino food, I decided it was time to open
my own restaurant, and I created Pura Vida.
Since then I’ve staged at Café Atlantico’s Minibar
for José Andres, as well as Zaytinya and Jaleo.
My stage was so organized. They gave me a schedule! I staged at
wd~50 for two weeks, and at Mugaritz. Andoni’s
food inspired me before I even met him.
HNS: Do you consider Pura
Vida to be traditional Latin?
HS: No… Tapas are not
a traditional form in Latin America – they’re trendy
now, but they never came over from Spain. But we always eat a lot
of snacks, so this was a perfect way to put those flavors into context.
In the beginning we did very Puerto Rican style flavors. I went
on to food that reminded me of our Spanish influences for a few
years. Now we’ve been trying to show more Latin American.
HNS: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you're interviewing them?
HS: I always look to see if they're really passionate about food, detail-oriented, and willing to learn. It doesn't matter if you're a seasoned cook or not – when you walk in the door, you're in Latin America. And that's not a cuisine that many people know. A lot of my employees started as my dishwashers. They start from the bottom up, doing dishes and prep that involves detailed knifework – it builds them into neat, clean, detail-oriented cooks.
HNS: You travel a ton –
where would you like to go that you haven’t gone?
HS: El Salvador – I've
never been. My goal is to hit every Latin American country. There
are 27 of them... I need to embrace Central America. I was in Costa
Rica 15 years ago and the cuisine was surprising – very mezzo
American: tortillas, an interesting pico de gallo ceviche. I’ve
been eating in Salvadorian restaurants and getting my hands on a
lot of products – the ingredients are amazing. Little flowers
and buds from the jungle, and lots of seeds and nuts. Morro
is a seed that tastes like black walnut – kind of spicy, earthy
and nasal. We make an ice cream of it. Loroco is a flower
from a climbing plant; you eat the tips and it tastes like asparagus
and truffles. Quajada is unflavored cheese curd made with
rennet and set in big blocks; I fake it – I set it with gelatin
and flavor it with dried mushrooms or aji amarillo.
HNS: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
HS: Sweet, salty, sour and spicy. Spicy should be the next flavor. As soon as you put it in your mouth you can feel the flavor all over your mouth, not just the spice – it’s the flavor that you can taste and feel. That's why I want to be able to tame the heat of chiles: because I want you to be able to taste it.
HNS: Tell me about your technique
and approach with chiles.
HS: Well, we're trying to
control the capsaicin and balance it, or tame it completely. Right
now we're blanching the chiles to remove the heat, in salt water
with ice, or hot water with salt; to tame habaneros we blanch 4-5
times in salty, cold water, then we cook it another 5 times or more
– it depends on the heat of the chile. We get most of the
capsaicin out that way. Casein is a product in milk that acts almost
like soap for capsaicin – I want to be able to take pure casein
and use it to wash the capsaicin out of chiles. I haven't tried
it yet, but in theory the chiles will lose the spiciness and keep
the flavor. Harold Magee told me to try alcohol – that’s
next on the list.
HNS: So beyond On Food
and Cooking, what are your favorite cookbooks?
HS: I love La Methode
and La Technique by Jacques Pepin. A lot of my classical
training comes from those. I enjoy Rick Bayless’s work - sometimes
I think that the guy is Mexican! He has an amazing anthropological
mind. From Spain: Cocina con Logica by Jordi Cruz –
it has new techniques, gums, and emulsifiers, but explained in a
plain, logical way. I also love any book Andoni puts out. They are
full of passion, culture, and techniques.
HNS: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
HS: The Super Bag. I use it more as a strainer. I'm a freak about straining stuff. A chinois, the super bag, and the drum sieve are indispensable. I love the idea of a vacuum fryer, but I can't spend the money on the machine. The other day I found a pressure cooker that's semi-computerized, so I'm thinking of trying to experiment with that. Can I put oil in that? I probably shouldn't try it at home...
HNS: What are your favorite restaurants – off-the-beaten-path – in your city?
HS: Kool Korners
is my favorite place to have Cuban sandwiches. Taqueria Los
Rayas on Clairemont, and Hong Kong Harbor
on Cheshire Bridge has great Hunan style food. Salsa con Sabor
for Puerto Rican and Peruvian.
HNS: Is there one person in
history whose food you wish you could try?
HS: Umberto Sato in Peru –
his restaurant Cosanera 700. He's Japanese-born,
and his food is what they call that cuisine Cuisine Nikei: Peruvian
food with a Japanese feel. I would love for him to cook for me,
especially his Octopus Triadito.
HNS: If you weren't a chef, what would you be doing?
HS: Something with my hands. I work with wood at home. I love to make things out of nothing. I love architecture – when I was a kid I thought I was going to be an architect.
HNS: Where do you want to
be in 5 years?
HS: Right here, with other
restaurants. I want to do something more upscale. We had plans for
another concept – Bodega Gastronomica – for
downstairs but it fell through with the landlord. It will showcase
the Latin American foods, wines, and spirits, will have a tasting
menu, and a slower pace than Pura Vida. In the meantime,
I'm looking to do a closed-door restaurant called Mesa Latina,
inspired by the chef dinners that we used to do. It's intimate,
small, only for the people that know about it. It will be very interactive
in certain ways, bringing the culture as well as the food. All the
food with be Puerto Rican.
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