Interview with Chef Hector Santiago of Pura Vida - Atlanta

October, 2007

Heather N. Sperling: When did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Hector Santiago : I started as a trainee in 1988 at Don Juan in Puerto Rico – it was a fine dining restaurant in the El San Juan Hotel. The chef, Giovanna Heyke, took me on, and became my mentor. I was attending the University of Puerto Rico when I started there, and when I received my BBA, I went on to the Culinary Institute of America.

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.