Chris Santos Is In His Whimsical Element At Stanton Social Prime - Exclusive Interview

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On TV, chef and longtime "Chopped" judge Chris Santos is known for his fiery critiques and high expectations when it comes to culinary excellence. When he's in the kitchen, Santos embodies that ethos while also letting his more eclectic side take the lead. It's this approach that led him to restaurant stardom with the opening of Stanton Social in New York City's Lower East Side in 2005. Here, Santos turned the dining experience on its head, transforming the joy of eating into a more convivial experience with a high-energy atmosphere and a menu full of shared plates that beg diners to have more fun with their food together.

Now, five years after the NYC institution closed its doors, it's getting new life in perhaps an even more appropriate setting. The Stanton Social Prime, a steak-centered revival of Santos' flagship restaurant, is now delighting guests inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Enter through a velvet curtain into a glamorous, jewel-toned dining room buzzing with a stylish crowd that's likely preparing for a night at OMNIA nightclub next door — after filling up on artful plates like black truffle wagyu ribeye cheesesteak sliders, a smoked butter board, Santos' famous French onion soup dumplings, and a selection of prime steaks that will impress your appetite and your Instagram followers alike.

We couldn't be more excited for the return of Stanton Social, but no one has been waiting for this moment more than Santos. In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, he opened up about what it means to bring this concept back in Las Vegas, the influences behind the new steak-filled menu, and how things have changed this time around, all while remaining refined, joyful, and — as Santos put it — whimsical.

Reviving the Stanton Social legacy

How does it feel to be bringing an iteration of the Stanton Social back to life in Las Vegas five years after the New York City location closed?

It's incredible. Stanton Social was my first real successful restaurant. It's what put me on the map. We had a long run on the Lower East Side; we were open for 15 years. We were going to give it a spruce-up and move to a different neighborhood, but then the pandemic came and went, so that blew the plan ...

To be able to bring it back here in Las Vegas ... it's fun. It's such a great restaurant town. It's underrated in that sense because people think of everything else that Vegas brings to the table, but there's so many incredible restaurants here and at Caesars. It's also exciting because it gives [me] and Tao Group Hospitality an opportunity to bring this brand now to other cities, including — hopefully one day — back to New York City in the Lower East Side.

You saw an outpouring of enthusiasm and support at the grand opening last week. How was that?

Bella Hadid was here hosting the party for us, and she's so lovely and sweet and amazing. While the grand opening party was going on all around her, she had a private room where we did a whole tasting menu for her with cocktails that we paired using her line of drinks. That was a fun experience for me, and she turned out to be such a peach. She's great. We had more local celebrities than tabloid celebrities, but Bella was certainly the belle of the ball.

Stanton Social Prime sets itself apart from its high-profile neighbors

Stanton Social Prime has some very distinguished neighbors — Bobby Flay, Martha Stewart, Gordon Ramsay, Lisa Vanderpump. Do you know any of these chefs or restaurant owners personally? 

I know Bobby, whose restaurant Amalfi is fantastic. It's literally right across the hall from us. We're neighbors. Martha, I also know very well from our time spent together on Food Network ... She's great.

There's so many great restaurants under the Caesars umbrella, but Stanton Social Prime is totally different than anything else that they offer. We're a complement to their portfolio ... Our restaurants tend to be more high-energy. Amalfi, Bobby's place, is delicious, but it's more of a low-key, chill experience. We have great food and great hospitality, but we're throwing a party every night. That's a niche that needed to be filled here, and I think we're going to do a good job of filling it.

Plus, our proximity to OMNIA Nightclub, which is also a Tao Group Hospitality property ... We're going to be hosting a lot of OMNIA clubgoers. They can come and have a great dinner for a couple of hours in a high-energy environment that's a little dark and moody. Then all you've got to do is get up, walk 10 feet, and you're inside OMNIA.

The inspiration behind Santos' most famous dish

People are excited to see the return of your famous French onion soup dumplings. Can you talk about what inspired this dish and how you developed this recipe?

My whole culinary viewpoint is I want everything to be shareable. I like to bring food to a table where everyone is interactive and enjoying it. Sharing dining experiences makes for more convivial fun. It's the way I like to eat — I have a cookbook called "Share." I might as well get it tattooed on me.

When we opened Stanton Social, I wanted to do a sharable riff on all the classics, a taco and pizza and burger ... But when it came to soup, it was like, "How do you share soup?" We decided that we would make soup dumplings, and the French onion soup dumplings came about because for those who like French onion soup, [you] really only want the first few bites ... Once you get through the cheese and the crouton, you're stuck with a bowl of onions, basically.

[I tried to] create a one-bite thing where you get the best of [everything] — the crispy crouton, the super melty gruyère cheese, and then inside a case is a delicious French onion soup dumpling. It became so larger than life. I didn't even know if people would be into it. Next thing, we're selling literally thousands of these every week. We did the numbers one day — we're in the millions of pieces sold at this point.

The Stanton Social Prime menu is trendy without trying to be

There are also newer things on this menu that lean into Stanton Social's reputation for being at the forefront of trends. How did this smoked butter board make it onto the menu?

I'll be totally honest with you — I did not know what a butter board was ... Our culinary producer [on "Chopped"] showed me the Pinterest page for butter boards, and I was like, "This is insane. How did I not know about this?" One thing led to another ... We're smoking the butter before it gets to the table. There's this fun tableside interaction. We're topping the butter with micro root vegetables and lemon ... Maybe if people don't like it, we'll do something more traditional, but people are loving it.

Another dish that caught my eye was the al pastor yellowtail crudo. What makes this dish so good?

I've done a lot of travel in my adult life; I spent a lot of time in Mexico and Mexico City, specifically. The real al pastor pork is ... the type of thing that last meals are made of. I fell in love with that, and I like to reinterpret it. At Beauty & Essex here at the Cosmopolitan, a couple of years ago, we did an al pastor-style double-bone pork chop that was well received.

Here, we're borrowing from the flavors of al pastor. We do a pineapple ponzu — we have grilled pineapple in there, some lime, some cilantro. It's mimicking the flavors that you would get from a traditional al pastor and utilizing a dish that's unexpected with [it], because yellowtail is so delicate and al pastor is a heavy-duty thing. We are able to balance it and keep it as a light but super flavorful dish that reminds you of the classic al pastor.

Steak is the star of the show

Steaks are a huge part of this menu. Was this new iteration always meant to be more of a steakhouse?

We knew we wanted to do something high-energy and fun, but it's not the biggest room. With Tao restaurants, we're big, 350-seat restaurants. This is 196 seats, which feels intimate to us. We were thinking of ideas, and I said, "How about we do a steakhouse? ... Let me reinvent a steakhouse through the lens of how I've always cooked," which is modern and fun and whimsical and lighthearted, but also with a very serious approach to the food.

We've got to talk about the 64-ounce tomahawk steak. What do guests get when they order this?

It is a prime 64-ounce tomahawk. There's only three of these per cow — it's their middle rib bones. The entire short rib is attached, so you're getting a pound of short rib and about 48 ounces of tomahawk. Plus, we're serving it with bone marrow [and] these amazing pan drippings that eventually we flambé with cognac on the steaks ... The short rib we cook separately because it takes much longer — we do a sake braise for about 10 to 12 hours. It's super tender [and] flavorful.

How do you ensure that a steak that big gets cooked perfectly every time?

It's all about the care that we take in the kitchen — nothing's done ahead of time. It's probably going to take 35 or 40 minutes to get to you because we're doing it from the order. It's cooked primarily in a 700-degree boiler ... We baste it with a secret steak salt blend and a secret steak butter that has roasted garlic and other things in it. We're basting it constantly while it's cooking with this beautiful, unctuous butter. Then it's rested for a good five to eight minutes in warm pan drippings that have French cultured butter and roasted black garlic. It's not just resting on a board somewhere; it's actually in a bath while it rests.

What is the benefit of using this fancy French butter [and] the roasted black garlic?

It's delicious. It's the fat content, and it's the perfect butter. If we're going to do it, let's go all the way and get our hands on the best butter that money can buy ...

Black garlic is polarizing to some people, but we love the depth of flavor of the umami that it has. A little bit of that added to a cut of steak [is] ethereal to me. It's a little touch we give that's a bit unexpected, and it pairs well with the minerality of the steaks.

How a Texas cattle ranch inspired the menu

While preparing for this restaurant, you spent time on a cattle ranch in Texas exploring all the ins and outs of the perfect cuts of steak. What was that experience like?

I learned so much ... I'm entering my 30th year as an executive chef, but I've never worked in a steakhouse, and it's a different animal, no pun intended. We got to see the entire lifecycle of cattle from birth to death, then slaughter and butchery. From the farm to the table, we saw the whole process ... It gave us all an incredible respect and reverence for these animals that give their lives for us for sustenance.

We got to work with the master butcher, and that's how we found the super tomahawk. We all would get a side of beef and break it down, and we'd cook every night. The steak tartare quesadilla was born late one night after a couple of whiskeys, and we needed a snack ... I went in the kitchen and started rooting through the fridge and the pantry, and I made a quick steak tartare and quesadilla. I put the tartare on top of the quesadilla, and we all looked at each other and said, "Oh my God, this has got to go on the menu."

It's delicious. It's so good because we do a French cheese quesadilla. We get it super crispy and melty, and we cut it in wedges with the tartare on top. When you pull it, you get this nice cheese pull, but when you eat it, you've got the ice-cold steak tartare and the hot, crispy, melty quesadilla. Everywhere you go with steaks, tartare is served with chips, it's served with bread, it's served with french fries — I wanted to do something different.

Chris Santos' favorite steak and sauces

Walking away from that whole experience, did your perception change in terms of what your favorite cuts of steak are or what the most underappreciated cuts are?

Skirt steak is criminally underappreciated, so it's on our menu here ... The tomahawks and New York and all these other cuts are amazing, but skirt steak is delicious. I'm a texture guy, so I love the toothsome texture of skirt steak. That's what brings me back. It's deeply flavorful; it doesn't taste like any other steak that comes from the animal. It's really different, and it's underutilized. It's not seen as a fancy cut or whatever. It is relatively inexpensive, but it's so flavorful, especially if you cook it rare or medium rare.

I'm also obsessed with the steak perfume bottle sauces at Stanton Social Prime. Do you have a favorite among them or a favorite steak sauce combo?

We like puns, so we've got the Chanterelle Number Five ... We have six different ones. I tend to like the ones that are a little less popular because I'm a weirdo. We have a black cherry whole-grain mustard sauce that is dynamite, but right now, it's not selling that much. Everyone's going for the Chanterelle Number Five; everyone's going for the Eau De Poivre.

The classic one, which has followed me in my career since the '90s ... We call it Mott Street because I had a restaurant on Mott Street in 1998, my first restaurant I ever opened, and I developed a steak sauce. It's a roasted garlic, bacon, and tomato-based steak sauce. It's so good, and it has come with me literally to every restaurant I've ever opened for the last 25 years.

Culinary excellence in the age of Instagram

Las Vegas dining is all about the show, especially now. How do you balance that with keeping the focus on the food itself?

I'm into it now, but it was a painful transition for me over the last 10 years because I started cooking when I was about 15 and went to culinary school in the '80s. For most of my career, you had to make delicious food — it had to look good, but it was really about deliciousness.

Then all of a sudden — almost overnight — if it's not Instagramable, it's not good enough for the menu. It took me a long time to buy into that ... As a chef, I don't want people to pull their phones out. I want them to focus on the meal and the conversations that they're having. Dinner should be the one place where you put your phone away. But my partners ground me down over time, and I realized that you can't be that stubborn. You got to give people what they want.

Just like at the original Stanton Social, the cocktail selection is a perfect match for all the unique offerings on this menu. Do you have a favorite cocktail?

I do. I'm a whiskey and bourbon guy, but my favorite cocktail on the menu is a riff on a margarita. It's very simple. It's tequila, mezcal, lime, coriander, and we make the cilantro, jalapeño foamy egg white thing. It's super refreshing; it's balanced; it's delicious. The mezcal is not super pronounced — it's this very mellow smokiness that balances a bit of the sweetness, and it's great.

Chris Santos reflects on 14 years on Chopped

You've been with "Chopped" 14 years at this point. Where do you see your future with "Chopped"? Do you think you'll call it quits anytime soon?

No, I hope never. I'd like to think that we're the "Jeopardy" of cooking shows and that we're never going to go away. It's great. I love it. The last couple of years, the show's been sprinkling in more and more guest chefs and younger chefs. It's totally appropriate, but it's gotten a mixed response — some people just want the old gang that's been there forever. I prefer mixing it up because it gives a different kind of chemistry to each show.

We are 700 or 800 episodes in at this point — it's wild. Yet every time we get renewed, we pinch ourselves: "Can you believe it? We're still going to do it and do this all over again." I definitely am not calling it quits. I love it. I love my fellow judges. I love learning ... As long as the show will have me, I will happily keep going back.

What comes to mind when I ask you the wildest "Chopped" memory you have?

Whole chicken in a can is amazing — there was that. I did a bunch of Halloween episodes, and we would always give them chicken feet. The chefs would not remove the talons, so you'd get this awful, horrible dish. But there's some great stories too. What I've seen some chefs pull out of their back pocket in 20 or 30 minutes is astounding, and the things that people put in a blender that ultimately turn out to be something great ...

Competing is always very nerve-racking, especially as a judge. You have to show up when you compete. I was competing and Alex Guarnaschelli was one of my opponents, and she did something [that] was so simple but f***ing cool. We had Pringles as an ingredient, and she reconstituted them in milk and made the silkiest, most delicious potato purée I ever had in my entire life. I never, ever would've thought to do that.

Moving from the East Coast to the West Coast food scene

You made the move to the West Coast last year from the East coast. What was that adjustment like for you in terms of the food scene?

It's a whole lot healthier. I've lost 20-something pounds since I moved to LA. It's wildly different in a lot of ways ... There's nothing like New York pizza. You can't find anything in LA that rivals that. But on my days off, my wife and I will drive far and wide to go to these hidden taco trucks that by word of mouth got to us. Those tacos, I don't know what they're doing, but my God — they're the best things you've ever had in your life.

I'm a big burger guy too. There's one spot ... I can't remember the name of it, but the guy is 91 years old, and he's been cooking the burgers on the same griddle since 1955 or something. They open only on the days that he feels like working. That's his story, and that's fun, and that's worth getting in the car and driving and having that experience. That's something that you didn't get in New York. [In] New York, anything you wanted was within a two-block radius. In LA, you have to go explore for it, but it's fun ...

République is probably our go-to. It's where my wife and I had our first date seven years ago. We still go there all the time. Chef Walter [Manzke] is amazing; his food is always great.

The coolest celebs Chris Santos has cooked for

You're really involved with music festivals. Have you had the chance to meet or cook for anyone particularly exciting?

The festivals that I do are basically hard rock and heavy metal. I've cooked for Metallica and Ozzy Osborne ... for me, that's incredible.

Over the course of my career, probably the one thing that comes to mind the most was cooking for Robert De Niro and having him invite me to sit and talk with him. When he was leaving, I extended my hand to shake his hand, and he pulled me in and gave me a hug and kissed me on the cheek. I was walking on air.

Is there someone on your bucket list that you'd love to cook for?

I just scratched one off the list. I've recently become friendly — I don't know if we're friends yet, but we've hung out at times — with Dave Grohl, and he had his birthday party at Beauty & Essex in Los Angeles. I got to sit with him and cook for him, and that was very cool ... Anything else bucket list or career-wise at this point is icing on the cake. I've had a good run, probably better than I deserve, and I'm super fortunate.

Click here to learn more about and make reservations at Stanton Social Prime at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.