Jason Santos earned fans and friends cooking at the South End’s Tremont 647 and at Davis Square’s Gargoyles on the Square. Since then, the candid chef has appeared on “Hell’s Kitchen” and “The Talk,” and splashed across the downtown dining scene with Blue Inc. — named in part for his signature blue hairdo — and at people-pleasers like Abby Lane and Back Bay Harry’s. Last year, he opened Bayou-style restaurant Buttermilk & Bourbon in the Back Bay, where he’s often seen cheerily holding court with Hurricane-slurping guests. In a couple of weeks, he’ll open Mexican spot Citrus & Salt in the same neighborhood.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? I think it was actually the East Coast Grill. It was in 1996, and I was in culinary school. I started without ever having had good food! I just thought I wanted to be a chef. I was interested in doing my internship there and vaguely remember the dish: grilled tuna with a seaweed salad, grilled vegetables, some soy and wasabi. It was pretty straightforward. That’s what got me really into cooking even more, having a real meal versus the crap I had before that. My family never went into the city. I don’t think I have memories of being in Boston as a kid. My memory is horrible. I’m told on a regular basis how bad it is. I remember once my mom’s car broke down on Storrow Drive, and we ate at Buzzy’s.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? Without a doubt, I wish there were more of a talent pool to choose from. It’s begging, scraping, and pleading. People don’t like to work Sundays; people can’t work between the hours of 7 and 7:12. It’s too much.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? I think the industry has changed. It once was about good food and good service and that was it. That’s as important [now], but it’s also about the experience and the hospitality. It’s more about ambiance and the full package versus just about good food.
What other restaurants do you visit? I am a big steak guy. I love a good steakhouse. The last meal I had was at Saltie Girl, which I thought was fantastic.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants”? It’s not exciting, but my grandmother used to make American chop suey. I remember being in her kitchen, and she’d use chili powder and garlic powder in it. I vividly remember it. I was 8, and my parents got divorced. She’d pick me up, and I’d watch Julia Child, and it really got me going, being in her kitchen. She was 100 percent Irish, the food wasn’t extravagant and a lot of it was processed, but I vividly recall her adding these spices. It was entertaining to see someone create something.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? It was a restaurant in Brookline. I could not believe this restaurant was in business. I will never forget it. I had a rib-eye that I wouldn’t serve to my dog. It was all fat and gristle. There was a pile of shredded carrots, not cooked, not dressed, just taken out of a bag and put on top of the steak. The dessert was a coffee cake, and it was literally a chunk of cake with canned whipped cream. It’s now defunct.
How could Boston become a better food city? I think Boston is well on its way to becoming a better food city. With our clientele and demographic, people are becoming more educated, and it’s pushing chefs to do the right thing — to be more sustainable, more local, with higher quality. [Customers] are demanding a higher quality product. The educated consumer is growing exponentially. There are a lot of “foodies.” A lot of them.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Excited, demanding, and creative.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I think people think it’s cool to be gluten-free. It’s trendy. Don’t say it’s an allergy unless it is one. At a good restaurant, they will go over the top to accommodate you, so it’s not necessary to say it’s an allergy.
What are you reading? I haven’t read a book since “Chocolate Fever” in third grade. That is not an exaggeration. I did attempt to read “Kitchen Confidential,” but my ADD doesn’t allow me to read short articles at best. I wish I enjoyed reading.
How’s your commute? I live in Woburn. It’s below suicide watch but above “this really sucks.” I’m in full-blown rush hour traffic daily. It’s a little over an hour.
What’s the one food you never want to cook again? The one food I sincerely don’t like are chicken livers. I just can’t eat them. They disgust me on every level, even though I just sold one for a special the other day.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I wish there were more fun involved. I am more concerned about people having a good time. I wish restaurants would just relax a little bit and just enjoy it. A lot of things are forced. I wish it were more organic, I guess. I am the least pretentious person, so I just think — good is good. Doesn’t matter if it’s a peach or a piece of foie gras.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Clio. I had some great memories and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.
Who was your most memorable customer? At Back Bay Harry’s two years ago, we got a printed-out notecard with specific directions on how to make a drink, like, “Swirl the spoon two times and use six ice cubes.” I thought it was funny. I posted it online. I think it made the Huffington Post or something. I didn’t mean to disrespect the people.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I’d go to New Golden Gate for salt-and-pepper fried eel and cry myself to sleep.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.