If you’re a foodie, then the name Chris Santos likely rings a very clear bell in your mind. Santos is a world-renowned, New York City-based chef who has been in the restaurant business for over three decades and who has about the longest list of accolades you could pile up for someone in his line of work. His interest in food and cooking extends all the way back to his early teens when he began as a dishwasher in a local restaurant in his hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island. From that point on, he pursued cooking as not only an interest but as a lifestyle, eventually studying for a degree in culinary arts and restaurant management at Johnson & Wales University in Bristol.
Santos’ career really began to take flight in 2005 when he opened The Stanton Social, located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The restaurant quickly became a hotspot and turned into a massive success, no easy feat for a city that has literally tens of thousands of restaurants. His career as a restauranteur eventually led to Santos becoming a television star for the Food Network show Chopped. The show continues to be one of the network’s most-watched programs and Santos has become one of their most recognizable stars.
What may be less well known about Santos is that aside from his love of cuisine, he is a huge metalhead, so much so that he has his own record label Blacklight Media Records! Blacklight began operations in 2016 and was founded with the intention of finding undiscovered talent to give them their start and begin exposing them to a larger audience. Perhaps their greatest discovery thus far is Good Tiger, along with Gozu and Eyes of The Sun.
We recently had the good fortune of speaking with Chris Santos for a well-rounded interview wherein we discussed when he first fell in love with heavy metal, how Blacklight Media Records got its start and mixing the worlds of food and music.
Get better acquainted with Chris and his prowess as a chef in this appearance on the Wendy Williams show in 2016:
Hello Chris, please tell us a little about yourself, what you’re most known for and maybe some things that the general public may not know about you.
Chris Santos: “Oh, sure. Well, my name is Chris Santos. I’m first and foremost a chef. I’m a partner in over 40 restaurants and nightclubs located in New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Singapore, and Australia, with more cities to come. I have been on the Food Network for going on eleven years, on a show called Chopped, which has been one of their big hit shows for the last decade. I’ve been a regular cast member or whatever you want to call it, a judge. Well, I’m a judge, but regular judge cast member for the entire run. I started in season one.
I am most known, I guess, for creating a couple of restaurant brands: the Stanton Social, Beauty & Essex and Vandal. They are all now under the Tao Group Hospitality umbrella, which I’m a partner in. And then I have the record label. I have a heavy metal record label called Blacklight Media Records. It’s a subsidiary of Metal Blade Records. Brian Slagel, who is legendary, has been operating Metal Blade Records for over 35 years. It’s one of the largest independents in the world. He had a large hand in discovering and setting Slayer and Metallica on their way to world domination.
He’s one of my best friends and we decided to do the label together. We launched it a couple of years ago. It’s a small boutique label right now, although the end game is to make it a much bigger label when I one day have a little bit more time on my hands because I also dabble in some other things. I have a home fitness product, I have a line of sauces, barbecue sauces and hot sauces. I’m an author, I have a cookbook out. I’m working on my second cookbook. And documentarian. I’m working on a film documentary, so there’s lots of things.
I also work very closely with the Jägermeister brand. I’m doing special events and I’m all over the country. Everything from music activations in the heavy metal world to the country music world, as well as just doing fun, pop ups at just different fun events throughout the years for them. So it’s a very busy life. I got a lot of balls in the air, but it keeps me out of trouble.“
Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta joins celebrity chef Chris Santos for a hardcore taste test:
When did you get introduced to heavy metal in general and what were your favorite bands growing up?
Santos: “Sure. So my older brother actually had a music shop. I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island, in New England. My brother had a music shop in the ’80s and I guess early ’90s where he was actually selling CDs and guitars and things of that nature, but it was very much a rock and roll shop. But before that... I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. He’s ten years older than me, so when he was around 17... He’s a great guitar player, actually teaches guitar to this day.
But he had records like Kiss Alive II and Cheap Trick Live at Budokan, and not necessarily metal, but rock forward records that caught my ear and my attention when I was about seven or eight years old. And then, when I was about 12 years old, a girl that I went to school with brought me over to her house and played me Mercyful Fate’sDon’t Break the Oath and that pretty much changed my life forever. I immediately became a metalhead that day, I remember that moment. This was going to be the music I was going to love for the rest of my life. Every Saturday would take the bus from my tiny little town in Providence, Rhode Island to buy vinyl, we’re talking about when I’m like 13 years old, so it’s the ’80s.
I’d be going to buy vinyl. And it’s funny because I would buy a lot of Metal Blade releases back then. So I knew who Brian Slagel was when I was a teenager, and it’s funny to now have him be one of my best friends. I grew up in the era of both hair metal and thrash metal, and I embraced them both, which is kind of, I guess, a unique thing. Usually, people gravitated towards one or the other but I’m an equal opportunity metalhead.
So, some of my first shows that I ever saw were. My very first show was a band from Japan called Loudness. I don’t know if you remember them. Loudness and Keel. And then, right from there, I saw Possessed and Dark Angel. And then, right from there, I saw my first arena show, which was Ratt with special guest Bon Jovi. So I was kind of all over the map, and that’s kind of remained true throughout my adult life. I love metal. I wouldn’t say I love rock. I don’t really love radio rock so much. It’s definitely got to be some genre of metal. But I love it all, man. I love doom. I love stoner. I love thrash. I love metalcore. I love black metal. You know, I still love the hair metal. That’s usually my songs of choice when I’m driving.
But yeah, I’ve been a metalhead since I was a kid. I started playing drums when I was about 14. I wanted to be a big rock star. I’m almost 50 now. I still want to be a big rock star. I play music whenever I can. I’m a mediocre drummer at best, though, I’ll be honest. And yeah, I love it. I love it. I bleed metal.“
After Hours: Rock Stars
And what are you listening to these days, be it metal or anything else?
Santos: “Oh man. Well, I’ve been listening a lot lately to Rivers of Nihil, which is actually a Metal Blade band. I really love them a lot. I’m a huge Deftones fan. Always have been. I love the way Deftones have been able to kind of be sort of standalone. They don’t really fit in any like nice little neat little genre of music. They’re just Deftones. And I recently saw them in Nashville, just a couple of months ago, and it really rekindled my love for their band and the catalog. I’ve been listening to a lot of Deftones lately.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Mercyful Fate lately, kind of getting myself ready for the new King Diamond record that’s going to come out. I’m obviously listening to a lot of my own catalogue. And then there’s a band called Numenorean, who are ... I think they’re on Season of Mist, that I think put out maybe the record of the year last year that I’ve been listening to a lot. And they’re kind of all over the place. They sort of have a black metal sound but metalcore breakdowns and some weird kind of acoustic songs kind of thrown in there, just to kind of turn the whole thing on its ear. I think that was the record of the year for 2019 for me.
And I love this band Brutus, who are not really metal at all. They’re kind of like a metal post-hardcore band. I just got to see them for the first time in L.A. I really love them. They’re a three-piece. If you haven’t heard of them, you got to check them out. They have so much energy. Their drummer’s incredible.“
You kind of touched on it earlier, but how did you get involved with Metal Blade other that you became friends with Brian Slagel? How did that come about? Also, can you tell me what’s on Blacklight Media’s plate at the moment?
Chris Santos on Martha:
Santos: “Yeah. So I’m good friends with... Trying to remember how this happened. I always recall it. So Johan (Hegg) from Amon Amarth is a friend of mine. In 2013, I went on tour in the Mayhem Festival with Jägermeister. They put me on tour. They gave me my own tour bus. It was really great. And I basically did barbecues for all the bands, every night after, after the show was over. And then I would also do fan activations where we would do... I would cook these amazing ribs, barbecue ribs, that incorporated Jäger in the recipe and fans would stop by and do a shot. And I got to be friends with all the bands on that tour, among them Amon Amarth, and Johan is a big foodie and Brian Slagel is a big foodie and I’m, again, mostly known as a chef. I’ve been a chef for 25 years now, and I guess Johan had asked Brian if he knew of me.
And then separately I became friends with Kerry King from Slayer and we all found ourselves at a Slayer show. And I was just formally introduced to Brian, who was a larger than life figure for me because, again, I knew who he was when I was a teenager. And because I’m such a hardcore fan, I followed Metal Blade for almost 35 years myself.
So we became fast friends. He likes wine, he likes restaurants. And so he would come to my restaurants and oftentimes we’d go back to my place and listen to music and I started turning him onto bands that he liked enough to sign. I brought him Harm’s Way. I brought him If These Trees Could Talk, who are this great instrumental metal band similar to Russian Circles, I would say. I kind of brokered the deal for the Candiria comeback record because I’m good friends with Candiria. And so I arranged a dinner with those guys and Brian at one of my restaurants and they sat down and by the end of the dinner, Candiria was doing a comeback record on Metal Blade.
I introduced him to this band Mother Feather, who’s kind of not really metal. They’re this very high energy, very presentational kind of David Bowie, Blondie influenced sort of punk edge band with a crazy, crazy live show. And when he signed them, that’s when he turned to me and said, ’You know, you’ve got a really great ear and you’re bringing me all these great bands that we’re not finding on our own. Why don’t we do a label?’ And that’s when I gave him... I said, ’I have so many things going on. I can’t commit a lot of time to it.’ And he said, ’Don’t worry about it.’ He said, ’Let’s get you a label. You’ve got such a great ear. Let’s build it slowly. We’ll do all the heavy lifting. And then one day, when you have more time, we’ll put more time and energy into it and turn it into something big.’
And so that’s kind of the path that we’re on. We launched a couple of years ago. We’ve got about a half a dozen bands on the label, another half a dozen that we’re looking at for 2020. We do get about 30 to 40 demo submissions a month and then the goal is to build it slowly but consistently. And then I’ve been in the restaurant business for 35 years so I don’t want to be in the restaurant business for another 35. I’m in the twilight of my restaurant career and so when that ends, my second life is going to be really turning, hopefully, Blacklight Media into a label, maybe not as big as Metal Blade, but certainly very sizable and very substantial and well known throughout the industry.“
Check out some music from Blacklight Media Records band Good Tiger and their music video for “Float On:“
You mentioned also a little earlier all the things that you were doing. So how do you balance all these things from your personal life to your professional life without burning out?
Santos: “Well, it’s kind of cliché, but I don’t sleep a lot. I figure you can sleep when you’re dead. Although I take one day off a week, which is Sunday, and I do tend to sleep a really long time on that day. But the rest of the week, you just get up and go. I also have a lot of help. Like I said, Metal Blade does a lot of the heavy lifting on the record label side.
Our restaurant company employs 5,000 people. Underneath me directly, who I manage directly, I’ve got a great team of executive chefs that are as talented as any chefs I’ve ever met or seen. I really got just such a fantastic team of chefs that I can rely on, that I trust, that have been with me for a long time. I’ve got a great assistant and I’ve just got a great infrastructure. I’ve got a great team around me. I’m only as good as my team. I’m only allowed and able to do all this stuff because of the hard work and efforts of my team in all the different places, whether it’s the record label, whether it’s the restaurants, whether it’s the line of sauces, whether it’s any of those things. It’s about my partners and the people that are working with me. I’m just very fortunate, really.“
What is the most metal dish that you have ever cooked up?
Santos: “Oh, that’s good. I like that. The most metal dish that I have ever cooked up is probably... I’m also a big chili head. I’m really into super, super, super hot food. So I occasionally get a little nutty and we do these sort of over the top like ghost chili or reaper chili rubbed ribs or we’ll make a reaper chili kind of like... we’ll make our own cheese in house and we’ll make a ridiculously over the top hot reaper cheese and kind of stuff a burger with it, like a juicy Lucy-style burger, but with this literally molten center where it’s molten because it’s melting and it’s hot that way, but it’s also as hot as anything you ever have. And we like to actually do that for ourselves in the kitchen and kind of out-tough each other and see who can finish the burger. We have a lot of fun that way. We like to keep it loose in the kitchens. We listen to a lot of metal in the kitchen while we’re getting ready. Metal’s been the soundtrack of my cooking since I started cooking.“
Celebrity Chef CHRIS SANTOS and Metal Blade's BRIAN SLAGEL Interview:
So, what’s the best compliment you’ve ever received for any of your dishes from any band? Which one stands out the most?
Santos: “Whoah… That’s tough because I have become known over the last decade or 15 years... It took some time, but I slowly have become known as the place to go. If you’re in a band and you have an off day and you’re in one of the cities that I have a restaurant, if you’re a metal band, the word has gotten around. So that’s one of the cooler things is that I make new friends because somebody in Mastodon will tell somebody in Lamb of God to come check me out because my food is amazing. And then all of a sudden, I become friends with the guys in Lamb of God and then the Lamb of God guys will tell the Megadeth guys. And so it’s been this kind of growing list of bands.
So I don’t know that I have a specific compliment. I think that they are living on the road and they don’t often get to eat a really nice meal and I go completely over the top when they come in. I give them an amazing experience, but I guess the best one would be... it might not sound very metal. It’s probably going to be the opposite of the question you asked me, but I’m really good friends with the boys in Avatar and whenever they are in town, they always come and see me and if they don’t have time to see me, I actually go to their show and they’re all vegans, and I pack them this crazy giant vegan buffet, which I’ll bring to the show, which they’ll eat before they hit the stage. And they always tell me that that’s the best night of the tour. They always circle the date on the tour that they’re going to maybe be able to have a vegan meal prepared by me. So that’s pretty cool.“
What is the one concert or show that you are looking forward most to catching in 2020 and why?
Santos: “Well, it’s hard to pick just one. You know, I’m going to go see Ozzy in July. The reason why it’s exciting to me is a. it’s Ozzy. b. it’s probably the last chance I’m going to have to see him, but c. it’s at the Hollywood Bowl, which I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but the Hollywood Bowl is an unbelievable venue in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, obviously. It’s open-air, it’s outside, it’s fantastic.
The sound is amazing and I’ve never actually seen a metal show there. I’ve seen Kings of Leon there. I’ve taken my wife to see singer-songwriters that she likes, not metal at all. So I’m really excited to see a metal show there and it’s Ozzy and Marilyn Manson. And actually, for Christmas, she gifted me seats basically in the second row, right in the center. So I would have to say I’m super excited for that show.
But I’m going to be hitting a lot of the festivals this year. I’m excited to see Metallica a bunch of times on this festival. I might be going to Hellfest for the first time in my life. So that is obviously something I’m super excited about. So I have a lot to look forward to. I can’t say that I can pick just one.“
Check out some more Blacklight music with Gozu and their music video for “They Probably Know Karate:“
Well, you know Mercyful Fate is reforming and playing a few festivals. I’m surprised you didn’t mention them.
Santos: “It’s funny, I was going to mention that, but that’s kind of such an obvious... anytime I can see King Diamond ... So I first saw King Diamond when I was about 14 years old, 14 or 15. It was the Abigail Tour and I was totally bought into this whole thing, and it was at this small, tiny little club called the Living Room, in Providence, Rhode Island. And I was right up front and he was so larger than life.
And he’s another person that I’ve gotten to be friendly with and we sat, and then me and him and his wife and my wife and Brian and a bunch of people sat down at one of my restaurants. I guess it was about a year ago, and to just hear him tell stories about Mercyful Fate and just stories from the road. We spent about three and a half hours together and it was one of those nights you never forget. So anytime I have an opportunity to see either King or Mercyful Fate, I travel. I’ll get on a plane if I have to just to see them.“
Okay, one final question. Are you a vinyl collector or no?
Santos: “I just started being a vinyl collector. It kind of started as again, as a gift, because I typically will take care of meals for the bands that come in. Dinner is usually on me or I’ll do special barbecues for bands. Sometimes I’ll go out on the road for a couple of days with a band and just cook for them. And so bands started sending me signed vinyl as a gesture of thanks, and I started putting them up on my walls at home.
So now I have this huge collection of signed vinyl and not enough wall space, but I just bought a six-bedroom house in Los Angeles. So I’m going to ship all the records out to L.A. and start new walls out there. So I am a vinyl collector, but it’s more keepsakes from bands I personally know who gift them to me.“
What’s the coolest one you have as far as the layout and sound (gram count) to include the color of the vinyl?
Santos: “Well, Candiria has put out some really good one in terms of texture. Gozu, which is actually one of my bands, has a great one, but the ones that are most important to me are actually from a band called Huntress. Jill Janus was their singer. She passed away last year and we became great friends on that Mayhem Festival tour. She really truly became a sister to me. We were best friends, very, very close friends, and I have all three of the Huntress records signed by her on my wall and she passed away last year. So those are the most meaningful to me.“