Louro's David Santos: I Love This Industry, but I Would Never Want My Kids to Be in It
The New York City restaurant industry can be crushing: Rents and stakes are high, and the scene is saturated. It takes a lot of talent and even more work to make it, which means that chefs put in obscenely long days making sure their restaurants break even, a cycle that causes many of them to burn out. Louro (142 West 10th Street) chef and partner David Santos knows the stakes and he's embraced the cycle, sleeping, on average, just three hours per night. But amid those circumstances, he still manages to have a lot of fun.
All images by Evan Song
The chef's parents are Portuguese immigrants who landed in New Jersey, and they instilled in their son a love of food rooted in the farms they'd left behind: Santos grew up gardening and raising rabbits for food. His father made wine and his mother was, by his account, "an amazing cook" who often enlisted his help in the kitchen. Academics never took -- "I'm dyslexic, so it was difficult," he explains -- so when he started looking at colleges, he knew he wanted to go to culinary school. His love for baseball was the only thing that could rival his love for cooking, so he landed at Johnson & Wales, where he played division three NCAA baseball for four years while he earned his degree.
Once he graduated, he spent time at Restaurant Nicholas, then the best restaurant in New Jersey, before making the leap to the city, where he clocked long hours at Bouley and Per Se. A year in Chicago led him back to Restaurant Nicholas for two and a half years, and then he took a job at Harlem spot Five and Diamond, a move he describes as "a fuckin' disaster" from which he eventually walked away -- mid-shift. After another well-paid but unfulfilling job at Hotel Griffou, Santos worried his reputation was at stake, and he decided he wasn't going to take another job unless it was the right one.
Around that time, the chef's friend Evan Rich launched a pop-up supper club with his wife Sarah in San Francisco as a way to keep the media momentum going for their forthcoming restaurant. Recognizing the move as a good way to gain a following -- the one element Santos thought he was missing for an investor to trust him to helm a spot -- he decided to launch his own party at his house on Roosevelt Island. Um Segredo (Portuguese for "a secret") went live a week before Thanksgiving with a 10-person dinner party, and it garnered a mention from the New York Times. Before long, Santos was selling out three dinners a week, and then he moved to a larger venue in Gowanus, which he continued to book solid.
A year later, he met Kiwon Standen and Didier Palange, who wanted to revamp their West Village spot Bar Blanc into something entirely new. Hurricane Sandy gave them cause to flip their restaurant, and they brought Santos on as a partner, who helped them raise $25,000 in nine days via Kickstarter to make the change. The trio gave the space a quick upgrade (though not much changed, since the building is a protected historic structure), and they flipped the lights on at Louro in December of 2012.
Here, Santos talks about creating tasting menus, the road from supper club to restaurant, and what he hopes to do in his career.