The restauranteur, Chopped judge and founder of Blacklight Media details his next venture at Louder Than Life Festival, shares the ten albums that changed his life and explains the balance of running a record label and killing it in the kitchen.
For more than 25 years, Chef Chris Santos has thrived among the most intense of working environments. Cultivating a reputation as a craftsman in the kitchen, Santos has earned acclaim as one of America’s most creative, consistent chefs – establishing his unmistakable brand with the likes of celebrated culinary destinations like The Stanton Social in New York City and both an East and West coast location of his lauded, Beauty & Essex.
Though classically trained and rooted in tradition, Santos’ stylistic signature has been hailed for it’s willingness to color outside the lines of the conventional. Taking a much more communal approach to sophisticated cuisine, Chef’s knack for executing timeless dishes with his own inventive flair, flouts the pomp and circumstance that often make fine dining so formally rigid and sometimes, soulless. Excelling in the heat and relentless pace of the kitchen, Santos combines his education and his passion to create the kind of shared experience at the table that makes a meal something memorable.
Among Santos’ passions outside of the kitchen, heavy music and culture have also been a formative component to his creative DNA. While cutting his teeth at famed dining locations like Wyanoka, Time Café, and SUBA, Chef spent long hours perfecting his craft fueled by a soundtrack that matched the intensity of his office in some of the country’s most fast-paced, unforgiving kitchens. In lock-step with bands like Pantera, Slayer, and Mercyful Fate, Chef’s passion for heavy music certainly helped set the pace while cranking out dishes for dinner service, but the idea of the two worlds ever intersecting seemed unlikely at best.
Asserting his range and his unwavering commitment to his constant creative itch, Santos took his acumen as a restauranteur and in 2017, launched Blacklight Media as a boutique metal label under the umbrella of the legendary Metal Blade Records. Forging a creative kinship with metal ambassador Brian Slagel, the pair sought out to nurture young, emerging talent – drawing parallels to Santos’ professional rise from aspiring young chef to respected culinary authority and the no-BS judge of The Food Network’s long-running success, Chopped.
Backing artists like Louisiana metallic hardcore outfit Capra and Australian aggressors Nicolas Cage Fighter, the label, much like Santos’ restaurants, has established an identity that prioritizes authenticity. Requisite skills aside, Blacklight Media roots out the creators that pursue their craft with passion as the criteria for consideration. Backing that talent with hustle is the common denominator that works in both the kitchen and on the stage, allowing Santos to share his professional expertise in navigating artists on their own path to fulfillment and success.
Further exploring ways merge his passion for music and his passion in the kitchen, Chef Santos will be an integral part of this year’s Louder Than Life Festival. Developing the menu within the Headbanger’s Ball footprint of the four-day congregation, Santos’ culinary career will notch a full circle moment later this month in Louisville, KY – merging Santos’ love for good food with his love for good music.
Ahead of the festival, Chef Santos spoke about his love for the heavy, the rewarding challenges of running a record label, and how being a metalhead in the world of fine dining may not be as much of a culture clash as you might think.
Aligning quality concessions with a memorable concert experience seems long overdue. Excited to see your involvement with Headbangers Ball at Louder Than Life this year. How did the effort come about?
Santos – This has actually been a long time coming. I’ve been talking with Danny Wimmer for many years about getting involved in the festivals. I think I actually met Danny at a Louder Than Life festival around 2014-2015. I’ve been bothering him ever since (laughs). My two greatest passions are metal music and great food, and I have had prior experience marrying the two together at other festivals, and not only did I have a blast doing it, but so did the bands and fans who were able to experience my activations.
What are some of the challenges that come along with executing a menu up to your standards in a festival environment?
Santos – Festival cooking can be tricky as oftentimes work space is limited and if you run low on an ingredient, or several, it’s not as if there is a supermarket anywhere near the festival grounds. Having said that, it all comes down to preparation that takes place literally weeks before the doors open. Writing recipes and creating accurate ordering lists are paramount to success. And you have to go into it, expecting not everything will be smooth all weekend long, and so you take with you a Plan B for certain scenarios.
Seems like an abstract kind of question but for you, is there any creative correlation between your work in the kitchen and your passion for heavy music?
Santos – 100% ! I’ve been playing heavy music off and on since I was a teenager and see a very clear connection when it comes to creating and writing recipes to creating and writing songs. I have always worked in a very collaborative way with my team of chefs; I may be the main “songwriter” but all the chefs contribute little tweaks or suggest we add or take away certain parts of the dish much like a band constructs a song.
Blacklight Media has really become a champion for underground music. What have been some of the challenges of spearheading a metal label and how has the project evolved from its initial launch?
Santos – Well we launched in 2017 and we then had that damn pandemic so I would say navigating around that has been by far our biggest challenge. We are a boutique label, a subsidiary of the legendary Metal Blade Records, and Metal Blade founder Brian Slagel and the whole team really support the bands I bring in for scouting and eventually signing. We are growing the label but we are doing it in a very strategy-based, deliberate way. A band has to be great of course, but they also need to have that thing I can’t describe that makes them feel like they belong on such a diverse label. We have many styles of heavy music on the roster and I think it’s an exciting lineup of bands, and we’ll continue to grow and support these bands as much as humanly possible that trust us with their careers… and their dreams.
What is it like being the metal guy in the culinary world? Do you find there are any instances of cultures clashing or is heavy music much more prevalent in the world of gourmet cuisine than some people would think?
Santos – I think the answer is both. There certainly is a significant portion of cooks and chefs specifically who are into heavy music. I think the adrenaline rush of cooking in a very busy restaurant is for the type of person that likes adrenaline rushes in general, and heavy music sure is adrenaline-inducing! But in a fine dining establishment it’s not music for everyone! And I’m certainly not the only metal guy in the culinary world but I’d say with conviction, I am among the most passionate!
Kiss – Alive 2
Santos – I heard this at maybe the age of 7 or 8. It was my older brother’s and I don’t know, I just connected with it . The bombast of the songs combined with the live presentation just opened my eyes WIDE with anticipation for more more more! If you told me then that Paul Stanley would perform at my wedding some 40 or so years later…!
Motley Crue – Too Fast for Love
Santos – It was around 1982 or 1983 that I discovered this 1981 gem. This was the record that made me want to start a band, which I did soon after. We were terrible, but we would listen to this every rehearsal to inspire and unleash that raw almost punk rock energy. Throw in “Shout at the Devil” a year or so later and we stopped rehearsing and just drank beer and played the records! We didn’t go very far.
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
Santos – I had a crush on this girl who seemed to know everything about Metal. We were maybe 13, I will never forget the October night (1984?) I went to her house and it was dark outside, she had hand written all the lyrics, lit candles and she introduced me to King Diamond & Mercyful Fate. This was the moment I became a Metalhead forever.
Slayer – Reign in Blood
Santos – I mean it’s the greatest thrash record of all time. Fight me. At the age of 15, years before I would see this band dozens and dozens of times, it was the soundtrack to my first Prep Cook job.
Pantera – Cowboys from Hell
Santos – This record grabbed me by the throat the first time I heard it and hasn’t let go yet.
Faith No More – The Real Thing
Santos – I was working at a rock club while in culinary school, and at a packed sold out show, between bands the DJ played this record and I remember stopping in my tracks and marching up to the soundbooth asking “What is this” ?
Deftones – Adrenaline
Santos – Still a top 5 record for me all time. This record introduced me to Deftones, quite possibly my favorite band of all time.
Static-X – Wisconsin Death Trip
Santos – One of the most underrated records of all time in my opinion, so simple yet so heavy and precise. A real masterpiece.
Gojira – From Mars to Sirius
Santos – Just a record and a band that sounds like no one else. Monster Record.
Celtic Frost – Monotheist
Santos – When people think of Celtic Frost I think Into the Pandemonium comes to mind – but this 2006 reunion record is one of the heaviest slabs of metal ever created. Just So BIG.
Because I just have to 5 honorable mentions…
Avatar – Black Waltz
Santos – Which feels like it needs to be in the top 10.
Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
Santos – Which Is still like the standard wintertime soundtrack for me today.
Loudness – Thunder in the East
Santos – Because they were also my first concert and that’s just a great guitar driven record that still stands up today.
Good Tiger – We Will All be Gone
Santos – The record that launched my record label which totally changed my life! and of course
Slipknot – Self Titled
Santos – Because It’s impossible not to include this in life changing records. The first time I saw them, at Ozzfest ’99 I think. I had not heard this yet, but that was the most life changing SHOW I have ever seen. Mind, Blown.
Chef Chris Santos will be at Louder Than Life Festival September 22nd-25th in Louisville, KY. inside the Headbanger’s Ball. Tickets and information can be found – HERE