Chef Chris Santos on "Adrenaline-Filled" Cooking, Feeding Slayer, New Metal Label | Revolver

Chef Chris Santos on "Adrenaline-Filled" Cooking, Feeding Slayer, New Metal Label

Celebrated NYC restaurateur, 'Chopped' star, metalhead talks how "pirate lifestyle" led to Metal Blade partnership
chris-santos-stephanie-cabral.jpg, Stephanie Cabral
photograph by Stephanie Cabral

"Hey, you guys like metal? That is fucking lame as shit."

Ann Courtney, the lead singer of Mother Feather, was taking a moment to get a rise out of the crowd during her supremely snarly band's blustery, highly choreographed set last month at Manhattan's Gramercy Theatre. She has an aversion to microphone stands and a distaste for the constrictions of genre. "Hey, what do you sound like," Courtney asked the crowd later, before answering her question with another kiss-off: "Is this the most boring conversation in the world?"

Mother Feather's set — along with performances by Candiria, Gozu, Good Tiger and Eyes of the Sun — was part of the first-ever showcase for Blacklight Media, a label co-founded by Brian Slagel, longtime leader of the revered metal institution Metal Blade. And though the crowd was full of t-shirts pledging allegiance to Gojira and Coheed and Cambria, Mother Feather's songs look elsewhere, drawing on late Seventies FM radio riffs and pop song structures. At one point, the band's drummer even slammed out an approximation of the beat from Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

But Blacklight Media's other founder is Chris Santos, best known as a chef on the Food Network show Chopped, and he happens to share Courtney's disapproval of narrowly conceived genre categories. "I don't want this label to be defined by any one genre," he said the night before the showcase. "I want it to be multi-platform. As long as you've got riff-age, I'll give it a listen."

Santos wants you to know he's not just some famous outsider dabbling in the world of metal as a flavor of the month. "I'm a hard-rock and metal lifer," he says. He's sitting, beer in hand, in the freezing-cold stairwell leading to the roof of the Stanton Social, one of his restaurants — he's involved in "over a dozen" — that's smack in the middle of New York's Lower East Side. Outside, the sidewalks are covered in slush and it's still dumping a stinging mixture of snow and freezing rain. "It's amazing, I can see my breath here," Santos says. "This is very rock & roll."

Santos talks fast, like someone who owns 12 restaurants, and his phone is constantly clamoring for his attention. Riffage drifts into the stairwell through the wall: Slagel and those Blacklight-affiliated bands who managed to beat the weather and make it into town for the showcase are enjoying an open bar next door.

Seventies hard rock served as Santos' gateway drug into the metal scene. "My first records were Cheap Trick at Budokan and Kiss Alive II," he remembers. "But I didn't really identify as metal, I just knew that's what I loved. When I was about 12 or so, this girl I liked invited me over to her house and she played Don't Break the Oath by Mercyful Fate. That changed my life forever."

Even as a budding metal enthusiast, Santos never championed one subgenre at the expense of all else. "In 1985, I was 14," he explains. "That was the sweet spot: It wasn't just Slayer and Metallica's formative years, hair metal was in full effect. I didn't choose one or the other. I loved them both." He ticks off his first three concerts: Loudness and Keel, Dark Angel and Possessed, and Ratt with special guest Bon Jovi.

chris santos GETTY 2017, Ethan Miller / Getty
Chef Chris Santos, Las Vegas, 2017
photograph by Ethan Miller / Getty

Santos soon started taking the bus from his "picturesque New England town" of Bristol, Rhode Island, into nearby Providence to hunt for metal records. "They were almost always on Metal Blade," he notes. "Metal Blade, Combat — or what else was back then? — Relativity. I knew who Brian Slagel was probably when I was 15." Santos also started his own fanzine, which gave him the opportunity to interview groups like Testament and Nuclear Assault.

Around the same time as he fell for metal, Santos also took his first dish-washing job in a restaurant at age 13. "I realized how cool being a chef could be while watching this rock star chef, who I was washing dishes for, in a tiny restaurant in my hometown," he said in 2009. "He was getting all the girls, partying every night 'til a.m., and every night — every night — customers were throwing themselves at him, complimenting his cooking and his artistry." This helped convince Santos to dedicate himself to life in the kitchen.

Now he also identifies other commonalities between metal fandom and the culinary arts. "There's a certain pirate lifestyle to be a chef, to being a cook," he explains. "You work off hours. You work late into the night. Your happy hour is from 1 to 4 a.m. as opposed to 5 to 7 [p.m.]. You gotta be a little bit off to want that lifestyle. It's a high-pressure environment. I think the profession in and of itself is an adrenaline-filled profession. Metal fits that as well."

After a pair of unsuccessful restaurant ventures in the Nineties, Santos partnered up with Richard Wolf and founded Stanton Social (2005) and Beauty & Essex (2010), both of which are still going. He started appearing on Chopped during the show's debut season in 2009. "I'm not the greatest chef in New York — I'm not even the greatest chef on this block probably," Santos says. "But I've had longevity, which is really rare in this business in New York. I've carved out a little bit of a niche for myself in the chef community. My restaurants are definitely food focused and hospitality driven but they're also about creating an escape for people."

As he became more successful, Santos was increasingly able to intertwine his passions: In 2013, he headed out on the Rockstar Mayhem Festival tour as a brand ambassador for Jägermeister. "I got to hang with and meet a lot of my heroes, Robb Flynn from Machine Head, Johan [Hegg] and the guys from Amon Amarth," Santos remembers. "A lot of these bands don't have the luxury of being able to eat well on tour. Now they know that if they come to one of my restaurants in New York or L.A. they're going to eat well and have a good time. There are bands, including Slayer, that legitimately put a pin in the dates where they can eat at one of my restaurants and hang out with me 'cause it's always a good time."

Count Slagel as a fan as well. "I had never been to any of his restaurants after I had known him for a year, so I decided I should probably go to one," the Metal Blade head remembers. "That's a little nerve-wracking because if it's not good, what do you say? But it was one of the best food experiences I've had in my entire life. Now I'm a regular at all his restaurants."

Slayer's Kerry King was the one who introduced Santos and Slagel, setting the stage for Blacklight Media. "We became instant best friends," Santos recalls of his first meeting with Slagel. "He's a big wine enthusiast, as am I, being a chef. When he's in town we'll go out, then we'll go back to my house and listen to some " — here he misspoke to great effect — "wine."

These late-night, wine-fueled listening sessions allowed Santos to play Slagel the unsigned groups he was finding on the internet. "A big hobby of mine is discovering new bands, even before I had a label," he says. "The way I do that, which is also the way I unwind from my chef life, is I go and plug in Mastodon to whatever — Spotify, iTunes, YouTube — and I'll look at the sidebar of related artists and go to a related artist. Then I'll go to their related artists. Keep doing this and the next thing you know I'm checking out some band that has 40 views on YouTube, but I think that shit is dope. I would do that with Brian."

Slagel kept liking what he heard, signing If These Trees Could Talk, Mother Feather and Harm's Way before eventually proposing a label partnership. "I was like, what are you talking about? I'm a chef," Santos remembers saying. But he's proud of his ability to recognize talent — "I've always had the ear" — and figured he could use his platform to amplify voices in a musical community that's frequently ignored by the mainstream. "My celebrity in the chef world does allow for a certain bit of exposure that's non-traditional," Santos explains. "Meaning The Wall Street Journal wrote about the label. The Wall Street Journal is not going to just write about any metal label. That's a great avenue for some of the bands."

Blacklight Media also gives Santos a chance to institutionalize his rock tastes in a world that's known for fans who are intensely devoted to specific subgenres. "I'm an equal opportunity metalhead," he reiterates. Slagel points out that the band Good Tiger, which centers around a nearly operatic falsetto from Elliot Coleman, is "not something that we would necessarily be looking at to sign." "We like to do crazy stuff anyway at Metal Blade," he continues, "but [Blacklight Media] definitely provides a home for stuff that's too left of center of what we might do."

At the Gramercy Theatre, SiriusXM's Jose Mangin served as the night's MC, and he repeatedly doubled down on the importance of variety. "[This music] doesn't fit into one box, one envelope," Mangin told the crowd in between throwing oversized promotional T-shirts into the crowd. "Metal, hard rock can be all sorts of things."

Santos acknowledged that the wide-ranging nature of his bands might cause moments of whiplash during the showcase: "If you only love one of the bands, you might not love any of the others, because they're so disparate." "We definitely get hate on social media platforms," he added, adopting a death growl to parody his detractors: "'Good Tiger's not metal.' 'Mother Feather's not metal.'"

"Is it metal?" he continued. "I'm not sure. But it's fucking cool."