Food

Chef Jason Santos has a new cookbook ‘strictly for the home cook’

Celebrity chef Jason Santos shares a sneak peek of season 21 of "Hell's Kitchen" and his new cookbook "Simple Fancy."

Chef Jason Santos shares details behind his new cookbook "Simple Fancy" and returning to "Hell's Kitchen" season 21 premiering on Sept. 29.

Jason Santos has a lot on his plate. The celebrity chef has an upcoming cookbook, which is set to be released in December, that features easy weeknight recipes called “Simple Fancy.” He’s returning to “Hell’s Kitchen,” where he has been a regular on the reality cooking competition series for three seasons. For season 21, which premieres Sept. 29 on Fox TV, he will serve as Gordon Ramsay’s sous chef for the Blue Team. In addition, Santos and his wife Thuy recently welcomed a daughter, Teegan, in August.

Between his projects, Santos still continues to oversee his local restaurants Buttermilk & Bourbon, Citrus & Salt, and Nash Bar & Stage. We recently sat down with Santos to chat about the inspiration behind his second cookbook, what it’s like to work with Gordon Ramsay, and how he’s embracing fatherhood.

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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did you first become involved in cooking?

When I was eight years old, my parents were going through a divorce. While they were figuring stuff out, my grandmother and grandfather would pick me up from school, and I’d go over to their house in the afternoon. My mom was a paramedic at the time, so she would work late nights. I would sit in my grandmother’s living room, and I would watch PBS, Julia Child, that kind of thing. I remember being eight years old and writing down the recipes. I’ve always wanted to cook. I’ve never done anything but cook; I’ve done it my whole life.

What inspired you to write “Simple Fancy”?

So, I wrote my first book, and it near killed me. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever done. I’m not a writer. I wrote the whole thing by myself… It did really, really well. The only negative feedback that I got was that it was a little less approachable for the home cook. Apparently it was a little too complicated. So, with this book, I wanted to go in the opposite direction, geared strictly for the home cook. I was offered a second book deal, and I said sure. I wrote the book, and all the recipes in there are homey recipes. Some of it is restaurant driven but simplified for the home cook. My wife is Vietnamese, so there are some Vietnamese recipes in the book. It’s simple and approachable but still has a twist; it’s elegant enough that you could serve it in a restaurant.

What are some of the highlights from the cookbook?

As far as the recipes go, it’s kind of all over the place. In my writing, I try to keep it somewhat comical and light. I take my business very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously. A lot of books that I read are super intense, and I wanted to keep it light and fun. I like to teach technique versus “use this recipe and follow verbatim.” I don’t want people to feel they have to follow it to the T.

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One chapter is called “Prime Time,” and it’s recipes influenced by my TV stuff. The scallops are a rendition of the scallops we served with Gordon Ramsay on “Hell’s Kitchen.” It’s very elegant. It’s ironically one of the best looking plates in the book, but it’s very simple. … Everybody loves a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken that you get at Costco or a grocery store. It’s accessible, it’s easy, and everyone buys one, so I would write a recipe based on that. … The Globe, years ago, wanted a recipe for chicken dip. … It’s got mascarpone in it, which is a key ingredient that isn’t in a lot of traditional chicken dips, and house made hot sauce.

Beignets from Buttermilk & Bourbon. – Photo courtesy of Nicole Russo Communications

You’re going to be back on “Hell’s Kitchen.” What are you excited about, and what was your experience like in the past?

I’m super excited. I was a contestant on the show 12 years ago, and now I’m sous chef for the Blue Team. It’s fun. I lived it, but I don’t know how it’s going to be edited and cut, so it’s exciting watching it for the first time.

It’s intense [working with Gordon Ramsay]. It’s very, very intense. He’s the sweetest, nicest, greatest guy ever, but he just operates at a 10 all day long. Days of filming are 18 hours a day, six days a week, three months straight. It’s brutal.

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I’m excited, because with “Hell’s Kitchen,” it’s an awesome reality show. There’s always drama and all that stuff. The one thing about this season that I really enjoyed is that there’s some really high-end, talented cooks on this season. It makes it a little bit more interesting when people cook really well, and it’s a legitimate cooking competition versus a reality show. I look forward to that. And there’s things I don’t see: the cast is in their dorm, and maybe they’re talking [expletive] about me, or maybe they’re not—I don’t know, but I’ll see it. There’s so much that happens on the show that I’m not privy to. I’m just in the kitchen.

The premise of the show is “young versus old.” It’s 40-plus and 25 and under. That usually can’t go well, when you have someone who’s been cooking 20 years, versus someone who’s been cooking 20 minutes.

What’s it like to be a new dad?

It’s exhausting. I mean, it’s amazing. If you’d asked me prior to the baby being born, I was excited, but it’s really this instant light switch when you hold the baby for the first time. Like anybody having a baby, it’s tough to find a work/home balance, with the baby still only sleeping two hours at a time. I’m on this constant exhaustion for the last couple of weeks. But it’s super fun. The baby’s super healthy, and Mom’s super healthy, so that’s all I can ask for.

[Something surprising was] the humility you need to be patient with the baby. To be responsible, ultimately, for someone else’s well being is not something I’ve really ever had to be part of. So, it’s interesting.

Lobster tacos from Citrus & Salt. – Photo courtesy of Nicole Russo Communications

Do you have a favorite dish?

The biscuits at Buttermilk & Bourbon are still the best thing I’ve ever made. It’s something I made from scratch. I didn’t want to riff on anybody else. I just decided I’d wake up and write a recipe. I tested the biscuits every single day for almost a year… Those are my favorite. Every time I eat one, which is not too often, it’s one of those things that just never gets old.

How do you want your food to impact people?

Years ago, I would have had a very different answer. Food nowadays and restaurants nowadays are very different. 15 years ago, or 10 years ago, it was all about the best food, a tasting menu from the chef, sit for three hours. Now, it’s about a good time. I think that’s how I come up with my restaurants. I certainly strive to be the best chef, though I’m sure you’ve had better this or better that. I just want you to have a great time. We keep our restaurants vibrant and original, photogenic and Instagram-y. I want you to have a good time, and that’s it, really. Good food, a good time.

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Pre-order “Simple Fancy” on Bookshop.org.