When I meet people I’m going to write about, I don’t like to show up with a story angle already all figured out, but I do usually have a question about the person — something I want to know about who they are and what they do. I don’t like to know what I’m going to write, just why I’m there.
With Top Chef contestant Amar Santana, my basic question was: how does your average home cook like me turn regular food into Top Chef-worthy food? Is it making it look pretty? That’s the most apparent difference, but there has to be more to it than that, right?
Moreover, even the smallest town has one or two good restaurants, and virtually everyone has a grandma or an aunty who they swear is the best cook. That makes a lot of good cooks out there. What makes one a great one? A top one, so to speak. To use the constantly parodied football metaphor: what is it that makes a good chef elite?
I show up in Costa Mesa at Santana’s brand new restaurant, Vaca (that’s “cow” en Español), a massive space tucked into a new-looking business complex in between a theater and a Deloitte high-rise. Think high-end strip mall, very Orange County.
We meet Amar out front. He doesn’t have the key to the joint yet, so we stand around shooting the breeze for a while waiting for his business partner to show up — me, my editor Steve, a videographer (also named Steve), and Amar’s line crew, kicking back nearby, watching videos on their phones (none of them smoked the whole time we were out there, which I found shocking). Amar turns out to be exactly as easygoing as he seems on Top Chef, so score one for “reality” TV.
“It’s two things I like,” Amar says of his new restaurant. “I like tapas, and I like steakhouse. And I feel like every steakhouse you go to is very dark, stuffy — that steakhouse feel to it. I like that food, but I don’t like that feel. So I wanted to do something more fun and outgoing.”
The agenda for today, I discover, is to cook paella, another item from the Vaca menu, presumably a requirement for any restaurant describing itself as Spanish. Amar tells me about his recent research trip (chef research is the most fun research), offering a surprisingly blunt assessment of his findings.
“I’m thinking, I’m opening a Spanish restaurant. I’m from the Dominican Republic. I know how to make paella. Let me go to the place where paella is known for (even though paella is actually Middle Eastern, but whatever). So I went around Spain trying different paellas… and they all sucked.”
Surprising, but not exactly shocking. I rarely order paella myself, simply because I don’t trust any dish that combines three or four different types of seafood that all cook at different rates (ditto cioppino and bouillabaisse). You usually end up with tasty rice, overdone fish, and mussels like a baby’s ear (that is, rubbery).
“I agree with you,” Amar says when I mention this, “that’s why my paella’s a pain in the ass to make. Usually when people make paella, they put all the rice, stock, seafood, stick it in the oven, and it’s a set-it-and-forget-it type of thing. And you take it out an hour later and you have pasty shrimp and over cooked seafood. So the way we do it is, we start with partially cooked rice, we take it like 75% of the way. And then on the pick up, we take the rice, the stock, put it together, cook it down, reduce all that liquid. Once all the liquid is reduced down, the rice is hot, it’s cooked and ready to go, then we put on the seafood and put it in the oven. Then once the mussels are open, the clams are open, and the shrimp is barely cooked, we take it out and it’s ready to go. So then you get rice that’s nice and crusty with barely-done seafood.”
The explanation is perhaps a little inside baseball for me and my average reader, but the point is: we’re vibing. He agrees with me! Maybe I actually know what I’m talking about here. Maybe this chef thing isn’t that complicated after all. (It’s especially easy to have these thoughts around Amar, by the way, the man is a human daiquiri.)
In contrast to Amar’s preternatural chill, at least two or three different security guards walk up to us as we stand in front of the restaurant. They ask us who we are and what we’re doing, even though the only video camera is clearly just sitting on a table not turned on. This is always done in the guise of “friendly bystander dropping by for a chat.” Good old Orange County, home of Disneyland and Richard Nixon.
The plan was to cook a little food with Amar, chat a bit, and shoot an episode of Uproxx’s new series, Offline. Amar tells us we’ll be cooking the meat paella from his menu. “A sort of meat-lovers paella,” he says, not to be confused with the more complicated seafood variety.
I watch him lay out the ingredients on his station — partially cooked, perfectly yellow bomba rice. Blood sausage. Another kind of sausage. Chunks of pork belly. Cubes of braised beef cheek. Confit duck leg. Not exactly the kind of stuff your average home hobbyist has lying around the house, no matter how well-informed our paella hot takes may be.
One of Amar’s sous chefs comes over with some stock that he’s rehydrating in one of those metal cylinders that’s like a smaller version of a steamtray soup receptacle (note: this thing probably has a name). He folds some broth into it with a ladle, twirling the spoon around until it becomes velvety, a rich dark brown color, smooth and semi-gelatinous. It’s one of those things you can tell is flavorful just from looking at it. “We put basically every meat we could find into that stock,” Amar says.
Next, Amar drops the pork belly and duck leg into the deep fryer to crisp them up. Next to the fryer on the stove, there’s an industrial stock pot bigger than a beer keg, which is filled with about 100 lobster bodies. Another ingredient that’s surely a snap for the average home cook. You know, provided you’ve got 10 hours, a hundred spare lobster bodies lying around, and hate your neighbors.
Realize: these are all ingredients we’re starting with. It’s around this point that the creeping realization starts to crystallize. What a stupid question I’ve come here to ask. Gee, LeBron, how do I dunk like you at home?
Could you or I make our food look pretty? Sure. But how long would it take me to perfect even one component of this dish? Getting the perfect braise on the beef cheek. Cooking the bomba rice to the optimal level, with just the right spices. Knowing to even use bomba rice in the first place. “It absorbs the most liquid of any rice. And more liquid, more flavor,” Amar says, by way of explanation.
Amar gets some fancy rice and molassesy Noah’s Ark stock going on the stove, and then turns around to cut some bell peppers into perfectly uniform bits with his $900 Japanese knife. It looks like a small machete. You know how jackasses like you and me would probably start by cutting a little circle in the top of the bell pepper and then pulling out the core? Yeah, Amar doesn’t do that. He just slices a perfectly rectangular slab off the side and dices it into tiny cubes, talking to me the entire time.
I discover that he’s been cooking professionally since he was 15. “I knocked on the door of a restaurant one day. I’d just came from the Dominican Republic and I was starting high school, and I said ‘take me in, I want to be a chef.'”
He got a scholarship to CIA a few years later and has been cooking ever since. I feel that pang of envy mixed with annoyance I get whenever I’m talking to one of those people who had their life path all figured out before they even had a driver’s license. While I spent my formative years driving a forklift, editing porn, working in a Chinese restaurant, etc. I ask Amar if he ever thought of doing anything else. He’s momentarily stumped, like he’d never even considered the question before.
My point is, Amar’s been cooking professionally for 15 years plus now. The knowledge, the practice, the trial and error that goes into every component of a dish like this, let alone the whole thing – there’s no way he could just explain that to me and we’d know what it takes to make high-end restaurant food. He might even think he could explain it, but there’s a wealth of accumulated knowledge and unexamined experimentation that goes into almost every knife cut. It’s easy to forget on TV, but up close you breathe it in like steam from the stock pot. You don’t know shiiiiit, it seems to say.
Amar mixes the rich, brown stock with the bright, yellow rice and the perfectly uniform cubes of bell pepper. He adds the slices of blood sausage and the other sausage, and from above the round paella pan, the concoction looks sort of like a big, yellow-brown pizza made of rice. Then the whole thing goes into the convection oven.
It’s not that hanging out in the kitchen with Amar taught me that trying to be good at something you didn’t grow up doing is hopeless, it’s just that there isn’t some trick. Making that perfect paella isn’t about learning a secret, it isn’t even about having some natural talent. It’s about trying it out, figuring out how you could make it just a little bit better, and then trying that. Over and over until it doesn’t suck. Until it turns into something you’re proud of.
I’m sure some people are born with some insane natural talent, but for most people who are really good at something, I think the key to greatness isn’t some unshakeable belief in your own greatness. I think it’s about creating something, then stepping back and thinking about how it could be just a little bit better, and then doing it again. Is there a perfect paella? An elite paella? Maybe. But most of the time, there’s just a paella that’s a little bit better than the previous one.
I got to skip most of those, but I can say for certain that the last one was f*cking amazing.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
Amar’s Seafood Stock Recipe, For The Home Cook
2 Tbsp olive oil
Shells from 1 pound large shrimp
Shells from 2 lobsters
1 lb white fish bones
2 cups chopped yellow onions
2 carrots, unpeeled and chopped
2 heads of fennel chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 pinch of saffron
1 gallon of water
2 cups good white wine
1 cup tomato paste
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
10 sprigs fresh thyme, including stems
6 sprigs of tarragon
2 Tbsp fermented roasted shrimp paste (Asian market) secret ingredient
Warm the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the shrimp and lobster shells, onions, carrots, and celery and sauté for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Add 1 gallon of water, the white wine, tomato paste, salt, pepper, tarragon, saffron and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, add fish bones, shrimp paste and simmer for 1 hour. Strain through a sieve, pressing the solids. You should have approximately two quarts of stock. Use stock to make paella or seafood stew. Leftover stock may be frozen.