Top Chef kickoff: interview with Hector Santiago of Pura Vida

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For Atlantans, this season of Bravo’s Top Chef will be the most exciting yet. Not one, but three chefs from our city
are among the 17 cheftestants competing in the upcoming Las Vegas
edition. Tied with foodie mecca San Francisco for the most chef
representation, Atlanta will have Hector Santiago of Pura Vida, Kevin
Gillespie of Woodfire Grill, and Eli Kirshtein of Eno to root for.

The show has wrapped and the chefs are all home from Vegas. Before episodes kick off on August 19, Sara Levine sat down to chat with all
three hometown talents. They’re not allowed to give away much about
what happens on the show: Bravo maintains strict codes of silence, so
don’t worry about major spoilers ahead. The chefs don’t even get to see
the show before it airs—they’ll be tuning in with the rest of us on
Wednesday nights.

First up is Hector Santiago, chef/owner
of Pura Vida in Poncey Highland. [Editor's note: Interviews with Kirshtein and Gillespie will go up on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.] A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico and
a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he’s been cooking in
Atlanta for 15 years. When the finalists on Top Chef
season four got to travel to his hometown for the finale episode,
Santiago decided that the show might be worth a shot. Earlier this
year, he got a call about competing on season six and was soon enough
on a plane to Las Vegas, knives in tow.

What did you think about competing in Vegas?

I had never been there before the show. To me it’s a little over the top,
you could go to a church and there would be a slot machine in there!
Enough is enough. But I loved the weather—not the heat, but it’s nice
and dry. I can’t wait to go to try all of these amazing restaurants that we saw there, I want to go back to eat. I’m not a big gambler.

Did you originally try out for Top Chef at one of the Atlanta casting calls?

I
was actually recruited through a phone call. The casting people from
the production company called on a Friday at like 9, in the middle of
everything. My wife called me and said they were on the phone. To me,
it’s still kind of uncertain how they recruited me. I didn’t go to the
casting call this time but two years ago, in 2007, I had an interview
with them for Top Chef season 4. Maybe it goes back to that, or maybe from customers who sent emails, I don’t know.

Were you a fan of the show in previous seasons?

I
started seeing the show when Richard [Blais] was on. I’ve known him for
some years. We have a mutual respect for each other, he comes to eat
here, I go to eat at his restaurant. We have shared employees, too. I
rooted for him. It’s one of those things where, at the beginning, the
show didn’t have a big reputation, but it started getting better. When
he was there, I was like, maybe I should have gone for it. Then they
went to Puerto Rico, and I wanted to jump out of the second floor!
That’s my hometown. When they called I started thinking about it more.
When you have people like the head of the James Beard foundation as
judges … these kind of things could be good or bad.

Did you, Kevin, and Eli know each other well before the show? Was there camaraderie among the Atlanta chefs?

Eli
I know from back when he used to work with Richard at One Midtown
Kitchen. He comes to my restaurant often. Kevin I met like two weeks
before the show, at an event for the liver foundation. Yeah, from the
beginning we started hanging out together and rooting for Atlanta. We
were proud that we were there, it was pretty cool.

Did you do anything to prepare or practice for the show before going to Vegas?

I
kind of did a little quickfire action, my wife threw me some stuff.
That’s what I do, I cook here at the restaurant and then I go home and
I cook. At 1 or 2 in the morning, I’m cooking dinner. She’d throw me
some curve balls. She cooks, but not professionally. I do most of the
cooking at home, 9 out of 10 days probably. She knows me very well and
knows that timing is always my issue. I cook a lot of slow food but I’m
also a pretty slow cook, so I worked on going faster.

How do you describe your style of cooking?

Fresh,
bold, and at the same time I try to make food that seems very
uncomplicated but it is complicated to make. My food is very complex,
but very clean. To be that clean sometimes involves a lot of time and
complexity. I use as fresh ingredients as possible. It’s Latin American
food by a Latin American chef.

When did Pura Vida open? How long have you lived in Atlanta?

We
opened 2001. I was here in Atlanta in 1995. I worked about 5 years for
Peasant group, a big restaurant group in Atlanta at that time. I was
the chef at one of their restaurants, then
moved to another and opened a steakhouse with them. I was doing
American food and always wanted to do Latin American food. I looked
around and wanted to stay in Atlanta, so I decided to do something.
After a couple of years of looking at what I could do, I opened my
restaurant. I just wanted to make it. I built half of it myself.

What’s next on your plate? Your Bravo bio says that you’re
working on a project about chiles—can you tell me a little about that?

At
one point I was in Spain and over there, people and chefs are really
are curious about studying everything about their products. So I wanted
to do something here, and chiles are the thing I use most in all
of my dishes, they’re used from America down to Chile, and it ties into
my cuisine and what I do. I took this as a study point, now in the last
year or so I’ve picked it up. Now I’m growing chiles on the roof of my
restaurant. I’m coming up with new recipes and new uses, for all
parts of the pepper like the flowers of the chile plant and the leaves,
and how to tame the heat of the chiles.  Right now I’m doing a blog about all of this research, with recipes. Hopefully at some point it will become a book.

Have you seen any of the Top Chef episodes in advance?

I
see what you guys see on TV. The first time the show gets seen, on
Wednesday the 19, I get to see how I look on TV. In the picture on
Bravo’s website I look pretty scary! I won’t be here when that happens,
I’ll probably be at home or at some unknown bar. I’ll be away in a cave
or something watching.

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