Cooking is what I wanted to do: A conversation with Chef Jason Santos of Blue Inc. in Boston

It’s pretty clear that the first thing you’re likely to notice about Chef Jason Santos is his trademark dyed-blue hair, which served as the inspiration for the naming of his first restaurant in 2011, Blue Inc. The blue tinged coiffe is indeed a good indication of the fun and whimsy that Jason brings to the kitchen, but delving a little deeper you find a sincere guy who genuinely just loves to cook.

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It’s pretty clear that the first thing you’re likely to notice about Chef Jason Santos is his trademark dyed-blue hair, which served as the inspiration for the naming of his first restaurant in 2011, Blue Inc. The blue tinged coiffe is indeed a good indication of the fun and whimsy that Jason brings to the kitchen, but delving a little deeper you find a sincere guy who genuinely just loves to cook. I spoke with Chef Santos to find out a little more about how he got his start, why he dedicated himself to such a tough business, and what his favorite food memory is.

Foodie Journal: What is it about cooking that
really captured your attention and made you decide that you wanted to do this
for a living?
Jason Santos: What I love about it now and what I
loved about it when I was 13 is obviously very different.  I got into watching cooking shows when I was
very young and I truly believe that’s what got me really excited.  Honestly, I wouldn’t know what else to
do.  I would be so screwed. 

I make jokes how I came out of the womb making aioli.  I’ve always wanted to do it.  It’s in my blood.  There’s nothing else I ever wanted to
do.  I had Plan A and B, I guess, and C
and possibly even D, but cooking is always what I wanted to do. So, I started
to tinker in the kitchen.  Then when I
was in high school I started taking cooking classes like Home Economics and
stuff like that.  I applied to culinary
school.
FJ: And you went to Newbury College, right?
JS: That’s correct.

FJ: Can you talk a little bit about your experience
going through culinary school? Obviously there are those that feel culinary
school is important.  Others feel that
the best way to learn is just in the kitchen.
JS: I have a few things to say about it.  First of all, I hated high school; like hated
it, hated it, hated it.  Not once did I
ever say, “God, I wish I could go back to high school.”  However, culinary school, I miss it every
day.  I loved it. I guess it’s different
when you’re paying to go to school, rather than just when you have to go.

I
learned more in a kitchen in two weeks than I did in two years of culinary
school.  But, the one thing that is
different is that cooks that don’t go to culinary school tend to know what to
do, but they don’t necessarily know why they do it. If you’re making chicken
stock, they know to start the stock with cold water,  but they don’t know why.  They just know that’s how you do it.  Culinary school I think is the science and
theory behind cooking, so I think you actually get to know why you do things, which is important if you want to start working out your own dishes

FJ: What was your first experience when you made
the jump into actually working in restaurants?
JS: I started cooking when I was 16. I worked at a
bowling alley and I worked at a pizza shop, stuff like that. I worked at the
Newton Marriott Hotel.  I did my
internship there.  Then shortly after my
internship there, they hired me on as a full time employee, but I also was
working part time at the Blue Room for Chris Schlesinger. I lucked out.  Right out of culinary school, I’m cooking for
Chris Schlesinger.  It was pretty cool.

FJ: If somebody walked up to you and they said, “Hey, I’m thinking about
being a cook.”  What’s your advice going
to be?
JS: I would just say make sure you really, really
want to do it because it’s a very unforgiving industry. I think my graduating class
has maybe four or five people that are still cooking.  My best friend, we went to high school
together, he sells real estate now. I have another good friend who went to
culinary school with me; he’s a nurse now. 
It’s a very high failure rate.  I
don’t mean failing, I mean just choosing to not do it anymore.  I mean 15 hour days, six days a week takes a
toll.
FJ: That being the case, why do it?
JS: It’s
like a blessing and a curse. I love to hate it and I hate to love it.  For me, it’s addicting.  I’m a big huge fan of instant gratification
in my life.  And cooking is one of those
things that I can do and see instant gratification.  I can make something, someone needs it, and
right in there I get gratification.  

I’m not a very patient person, so it’s a good industry for me.  It’s fast-paced, with a lot to do.  You multitask. It’s good for ADD.  I can do a lot of things at once. I think nowadays,
a chef is not just about cooking. It’s a little bit of everything.  I enjoy a little bit of everything.

FJ: So, these days, there is a lot of attention on cooking and the culinary
world, especially on television. You had a chance to compete on Hell’s Kitchen. Has there been a boost
for you as far as your career, as far as the restaurant with the Blue Inc.,
since your time on Hell’s Kitchen?
JS: Definitely. 
Best move I’ve ever made in my life. 
Lucky for me I did really well on the show.  There are people that didn’t do too well and
I think it’s probably quite the opposite for them. It’s a lot of exposure, primetime on
Fox.  The exposure on average, seven million
viewers an episode, so if you do something wrong, the whole world sees it.  Lucky for me I came out pretty well and
pretty unscathed and they really didn’t edit me too much.  Everybody always says to me you’re the same
person that you were on TV, which I think is a very good complement. The
exposure that came from it, though, is crazy. It’s been realistically two years
now since I’ve been on the show, and there’s not a day that goes by that I
don’t get stopped or someone wants to take a picture.  It’s … actually, it’s kind of weird.  But, I’ve been lucky to get good exposure.

FJ: A lot of people watch these food competitions shows, and I’m sure some
people might think its similar to what actually goes on in a professional
kitchen.  Can you talk about what the
differences are between those competition shows and what actually goes on in a
kitchen?
JS: There’s nothing. There’s no comparison.  It’s a television show.  Everybody will say, “Oh, is Gordon really
like that?” To a point, yes, but it’s a television show.  You’re on a TV set.  Are there similarities?  Yes. 
You deal with food that’s about it. 
Anything else about it is not realistic.  

In Hell’s Kitchen there are no clocks, no emails, no phones. You’re
sequestered, you’re not allowed to talk to anybody, you don’t have service a
different time every day, and you don’t know what you’re cooking.  That’s not real life, it’s a TV show. If
everything went well and everybody was well rested, it wouldn’t be much of a TV
show.

FJ: So my last question for you; do you have a
particular food memory that stands out to you? Something you like to think back
on?
JS: I do remember the first thing that I used to
always make for everybody that I thought was this amazing dish.  I used to take portabella mushrooms and I
would sauté them and add balsamic vinegar. 
I grew up in a family of non-cooks. I mean cooks, but nobody comes from
a culinary background or anything.  I’m
50% Irish and Irish aren’t necessarily known for phenomenal flavors in
food.  So I kind of grew up with, not
bad, but just bland and under-seasoned food, and I think anybody in my age
group kind of grew up with a lot of processed bull[SALT].

I had fresh mushroom and I sautéed them. 
I remember adding balsamic vinegar, not having a clue, you know the fat
with the fat, the vinegar cuts right through it.  I remember it being amazing.  Now I sort of laugh about it, but I remember
making it for everybody.  Any time I
wanted to sort of show off pre-culinary school, I would be like, “Hey, try my
mushrooms.”  Now I look back and I’m like
damn.  Was I drunk?  What the hell was I doing? [LAUGHS]

Jason Santo is the Executive Chef of Blue Inc., located at 131 Broad Street, and Abby Lane, located at 255 Tremont Street, both in the city of Boston

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