To television audiences across America, Chris Santos is best known as the bald, bearded and more than a little intimidating resident judge on the Food Network’s hit series, “Chopped.” In New York City, though, the 44-year-old chef is also hailed as the king of the Lower East Side restaurant scene, thanks to the popularity of his sceney eateries, Beauty & Essex and The Stanton Social.
Last week, the enterprising chef added another with the opening of Vandal (199 Bowery, 212-400-0199, vandalnewyork.com), a 360-seat, 22,000 square-foot restaurant designed by David Rockwell (who was also behind GATO and Tao Downtown) and inspired by global street food and street art.
With a menu that offers a variety of sharable, multi-ethnic small plates, from a grown-up version of the classic street cart pretzel with American Kobe tartare to bacon and miso ramen and grilled Chilean sea bass tacos — plus the sheer size of the space — Vandal is Santos’s most ambitious venture to date.
And he’s just getting started: This summer, the chef will open new restaurant projects in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and he will publish his first cookbook in February 2017.
amNewYork asked Santos a few questions about his newest NYC restaurant.
What is the concept behind Vandal?
Vandal is a celebration of street culture from around the world, and through its menu and the restaurant’s design, it pays homage to international street fare and street art. It uniquely showcases the work of seven world-renowned street artists, including Hush and Shepard Fairey. The menu is a culmination of inspiration from my life travels and includes nods to street fare from locations as varied as New York, Rome, Peru and Hong Kong.
What are your influences as a chef?
I am influenced and inspired by my travels, which have taken me around the globe. For research and concept creation of Vandal, we visited over a dozen countries to sample local cuisine.
How did you become a pioneer in the LES food scene?
When I opened The Stanton Social in 2005, it was one of the only restaurants in the then still-gritty neighborhood. I was inspired by the history of the LES and incorporated parts of its garment industry history past into the concept and design. So I’d like to think I’ve always been respectful and admiring of the neighborhood itself. Luckily, we had an enormous response from the public to the small plate style of dining we were doing, which not many restaurants were at the time. That paved the way for Beauty & Essex and now Vandal. Since I was one of the first chefs to arrive in the LES, I’m also very involved with local organizations like the Bowery Mission that help empower locals and provide aid to the needy.