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Executive Chef of Gargoyles Restaurant at Davis Square makes it to final four on Hell’s Kitchen

Jason Santos has achieved culinary perfection in some areas. He has rendered truffle into powder that can re-materialize into truffle oil as it hits the tongue, or even turning parmesan into a cracker. Making it to the final four on Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, however, is something else. He has braved Gordon Ramsay’s fiery temper and even makes a marriage proposal to one of the contestants.  In less than a month, Santos will have a chance to compete for the position of Executive chef of Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant at the Savoy Hotel in London. Check out the show on Tuesdays 8-9pm ET/PT on FOX and his profile, featured below. Alternatively, full episodes can be viewed online at http://www.fox.com/watch/hellskitchen.

JASON SANTOS: Artist, Scientist, Whimsical Chef

Like an Olympic ice-skater at a perfectly choreographed musical, Chef Jason Santos glides back and forth around an airy, high-ceilinged kitchen, overseeing his sous-chefs to ensure that everything is in order. And indeed it is – kitchen noise is reduced to a whisper-quiet level save for the soft noises coming from gurgling pots of chemicals, whirring fans and the rhythmic dicing of vegetables and herbs.

He then approaches a gleaming steel tank that resembles a nuclear warhead.

“That’s a tank of liquid nitrogen, a freezing agent; we use around 250 liters of it every day,” Santos said. “Sugar and alcohol don’t freeze well, but with liquid nitrogen, you can freeze vodka into powder, and you can puree nuts into fine powder without it turning into mush.”

Santos fails to mention that the tank could also internally combust, explode, and instantly freeze all objects within a 15m radius.

Alas, for any diner casually touring his kitchen cum laboratory then, the experience would be an unusually baffling for someone expecting a more ordinary kitchen atmosphere. Ordinary, however, is not the word to describe Santos, who sports a cropped, jet-blue spiky hairstyle, with facial features borrowed from Robert Downey Jr.

Santos, executive chef of “Gargoyles at the Square,” a high-end, hole-in-the-wall eatery in Somerville, dabbles in a form of culinary arts known as molecular gastronomy, which uses chemicals and equipment to manipulate and create different textures in food.

“I have really bad ADD – I get bored very easily – so I think my present concept is to be a little more creative, a little bit more whimsical,” said the 34-year old from Melrose, Massachusetts. “I want to give diners things they haven’t had before.”

By the likes of it, Santos is expecting that Somerville residents and Bostonians alike have yet to try dishes like “vacuum shrimp carbonara with parsley spaghetti and two-hour egg,” “Foie-gras torchon with eggnog in textures,” or “chestnut bisque with black truffle chicory granola and pine-tree smoke.”

While diners would shudder at the thought of such complicated dishes, he assures that most should place their confidence in him.  After all, he had already been Gargoyles’ chef for five years.

And Santos, too, is no novice to the culinary world. After graduating from Newbury Culinary School in 1996, he worked his way up the ladder, first as a sous-chef at East Coast Grill, then the acclaimed Tremont 647 for seven years before helming “Gargoyles,” which previously served Mediterranean-inspired fare. In between, Santos had stints at feature cooking shows from the Food Network, CBS, and Channel 5. He said that the experience allowed him to develop his own sense of style, which he decided would be molecular gastronomy. He bases it on his own motto: “if you can’t create new foods, then you create new techniques.”

“Instead of cookies and milk where you dip your cookie in your milk, I’d do it where you dip your milk in the cookie,” he said. “And it’s very simple – we actually make a mash potato that tastes like movie-theater popcorn.”

Although Santos makes all his nouveau creations sound easy, his process in obtaining the results were not so. Because of the lack of learning materials, he had to learn by experimentation.

“You can’t get a recipe book that says ‘use two grams of xantham gum and ascorbic acid,’” he said. “And it’s not like you could call someone and ask ‘how do you make paper taste like cheesecake?’ ”

Before any dish comes out on the menu, Santos claims he experiments on it for up to 99 times. His proudest creation to date is “eggnog in textures,” a dish in which a velvety luscious Christmastime drink is served every way possible: powdered, foamed and turned into a cracker.

“We can smoke anything too,” Santos adds with a grin. “We’d smoke root-beer, and then make vinaigrette out of it.”

As it turned out, his efforts paid off. Last year, “Gargoyles” received a “Best of Boston” award. Just last week, he was featured in an article about molecular gastronomy on “Stuff Magazine,” and now he has braved Gordon Ramsay’s hot temper and twelve eliminations to make it to the final four at Hell’s Kitchen.

Santos insists, however, that he is nowhere near the caliber of some of the more famous American chefs of his kind, like Wiley Dufresne and Grant Achatz. Sometime in the future, he hopes to cook for Achatz at his acclaimed restaurant “Alinea” in Chicago.

Culinary dreams, stalwart beliefs

Santos is a firm believer of the need to follow one’s dreams and passions in whatever one pursues in life.

“I felt like this was sort of the thing I wanted to do, born to be. I think I came out of the womb wanting to make aioli,” he recalled.

As a child, Santos would visit his grandmother’s house and spend the entire day there glued to her television set, watching Julia Child effortlessly de-bone a duck or whip up beef bourguignon. Later, when Santos grew older, he became frustrated that his family could not cook, so he made it a point to enroll himself into culinary school.

Even now, he still believes in continuing to strive for culinary perfection.

“If I think of the food I served last year, I think its crap. Even the food I serve right now is better than what I served last weekend,” he said.

According to Santos, the restaurant business is and has always been tough. Despite the 12-hour days, however, Santos doesn’t mind.

“It’s still a high turnover business for me, and we have a great kitchen where I can teach my [sous] chefs.”

Balancing family life, too, would be a difficult feat, but since Santos has no children, he feels that he has the liberty to concentrate on honing his culinary art.

“Even at home I think about food – nothing else,” he said, even though he listens to occasional musical performances in and around Boston.

If he did have children, however, Santos said that he would not go out of his way to make sure they pursue some form of cooking, but admitted to hoping they did.

“No matter what, I’d make sure my kid’s lunchbox consists of a six-course tasting menu.”

Whether or not that lunchbox consists of peanut-butter and jelly prepared multiple ways, Santos is confident that any kid, not just his, would try anything if it were presented in the right way.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors,” Santos said. “Kids don’t like vegetables, but if you put them in like a butterfly, maybe they’ll try it”

The same concept applies for his menu at “Gargoyles,” described as controversial because some alleged rumours accuse molecular gastronomy as an advocate of unhealthy additives. Often times, his friends, whom Santos claims “are more into the local, sustainable crap,” would give him flack about his food.

But in the end, everything is all composed of chemicals, Santos says.

“Salt is sodium chloride, as do many other foods. We serve things that we had every day – if you ever had salad dressing you’ve had Xantham gum,” he said. “Even cheese tacos and burritos have lots of chemicals that give them that perfect shape.”

So in his case, it was all a matter of making his menu sound less scientific and more appetizing.

“If I said ‘here’s some Sodium Algamate mixed together with some blackberry puree, nobody would dare try it, but if I say, ‘here’s some blackberry caviar,’ all of a sudden people will want to try it,” he said.

“But no matter what, it’s got to taste good.”

(Note: This interview was conducted before Santos was featured in Hell’s Kitchen and without any knowledge of this fact. A follow-up interview will be done at a later time and will be featured on the blog sometime during the fall. Gargoyles Restaurant remains open for business at this time.)

–          Jon Cheng

Check out several videos of Hell’s Kitchen as well as those featuring Jason Santos.

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