Welcome to the second installment of our CT Chef Series! We are traveling around the state to get to know some of the talented chefs that are making Connecticut a dining destination.
On a cold Monday night this past December at Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen, Xavier Santiago faced off against Chris Sheehan to see who would be named the winner of 86’D: A Culinary Collision (think CT’s version of Knife Fight). A competition that had started 11 months and 16 chefs ago came down to two. With focus, determination and a blender (we’ll get to that later), Xavier Santiago came out victorious. That focus and drive isn’t just something he reserves for competitions; it’s part of what shapes him as a chef. Those attributes combine with some serious talent, a lot of inspiration and his genuinely hospitable nature and you have a recipe for success.
Xavier started working in kitchens at a young age; he climbed the ranks to hold chef positions at both Rooftop 120 and Barcelona in West Hartford. He is currently a partner and the Executive Chef at Trattoria Toscana in Manchester, which if you haven’t been, you should go immediately! The restaurant can accommodate 200 plus guests, has a large bar, private room for events and the food is fantastic. They will also be launching a Tuscan inspired Sunday brunch menu this weekend.
Who or what are your biggest influences?: Growing up, definitely, my grandma. I got to live the chef’s dream of living on a farm - she had her farm, we would get eggs from the chickens every morning, we did the whole going outside and looking for lunch. I was lucky enough to be raised that way, even though we were poor, very poor, but I got to eat and enjoy something that now as a chef makes me happy that I went through all of that. Also, my mother. She's was amazing pastry chef and really inspired me. And obviously my kids, I have an eleven-year-old daughter and a two and a half-month-old right now so everything I do in the forefront is to make sure my family is good.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with?: It depends on what I’m cooking. So let’s say I’m doing Spanish food, I’d say cilantro and limes, jalapenos are essential. If I’m doing Asian obviously it would be a lot of ginger, a lot of soy, a lot of miso. I’m not super attached to one specific ingredient but if I were to think of one that I could use on anything it would be honey. Really good organic honey, it’s the best thing. When I was in Spain I brought back two jars of honey from a place, and I went to, and I am still trying not to waste them because I can’t get those again or buy them online - so honey is an item that I use for everything, it’s a natural sweetener.
What is a food or restaurant trend that you’re sick of?: As I get older, the less I appreciate when people manipulate or try to hard, like manipulate a product. For example, if you take the rib eye and sous vie it, and this and that to it - to me that’s too much, just let the product speak for itself. If you get good fish, sear it, add a little sauce, and enjoy it. But if you’re going to cook simple food, you have it make sure it’s very good. Keep it simple, respect the product.
What is your favorite kitchen tool?: One of the things I use the most is the blender; I use it for everything. I use a blender to make purees, make pestos, make sauces, so the hand blender and my blender are two things I can’t live without. Every competition I won during 86’d, I brought a blender with me, just in case. You can make the best hollandaise in a blender, you don’t have to be slaving over a stove, it takes two seconds, and it lasts longer - it won’t break as quickly. A stick blender and a blender are the things I use the most - I have them at my house and when I travel.
What is your biggest pet peeve in the kitchen?: Long nails. Everybody needs to have their nails down to where they should be, and clean stations. I am crazy about cleanliness and organization. So my big things are - be organized, clean, presentable, and always have your nails cut. When you work with your hands so much, you have to make sure that they’re clean. As a cook and a chef you have to be clean and organized, at the end of the day you’re serving people, and you deal with a lot of product, and you don’t want to get anyone sick.
What is a piece of equipment you want for your kitchen?: Pasta machine. That’s coming soon, that’s the one thing I really want for the kitchen. I’m dying to start making different kinds of pasta but it’s an investment I’m going to do a couple of months from now.
Favorite cheap eat?: Chicken fingers and honey mustard. (Editor’s note: heard that!) Love it. Next door is Dairy Queen - the best. Chicken fingers are our thing, we all eat em. They aren’t on the menu but sometime’s I’ll buy them and make the honey mustard, so if it’s late night or were busy and we don’t have time to eat - throw some chicken fingers in the fryer and let’s get some honey mustard. When I used to work at Barcelona, Christopher Lee, a Michelin Star chef, he would visit, and that was one of our things. He'd come in and be like “Hey man, throw some chicken fingers in!”. We’re talking a Michelin Star chef here - but that was our thing we’d eat chicken fingers and honey mustard. I think a lot of people would agree with that. It’s just delicious.
What’s your favorite “splurge meal”? (#cheatday #allthecalories): I like pizza, and I like a good burger. BUT since I’m not eating as bad as I used to I’ll go to El Pollo Guapo and just get a spread from there - it’s the best. Roy’s my boy, and I like El Pollo because it’s like fast food, but it’s chef-driven. I know everybody back there, and it’s like solid. I think Roy is doing an awesome job over there. Nothing better than roasted chicken and a couple of sides.
What is your all-time most memorable meal?: Spain. I was there for seven days. One of the best days we went to Avino, and they charbroiled these Spanish onions and served them with romesco, and you’d eat with your hands. So your eating and drinking rose out of the porron - and that was just the start, we didn't know they were still actually cooking a whole meal. We were inside this beauitful house on a mountain, overlooking all the vines, it was just incredible. They served us lambchops, marinated white beans, spanish tortilla, it was so much stuff. It was course after course, and everything was paired with wine. I had a lot of meals in Spain, but to me, that was the most memorable because beginning to end it was just luxurious - meats, steaks, foie gras. They sauteed snap peas and just shaved foie gras on top, and added a fried egg - like okay I’ll eat that! (Editor’s note: drooling) They made langoustines with a little salsa verde, real simple, sauteed, but it was so good and luscious.
What are your favorite restaurants in CT right now or where are you looking forward to eating?: I like going out to eat at Bricco’s in West Hartford they always do a great job, the food is delicious. El Pollo Guapo, Rooster Company, Olives and Oil. Also Max Fish, their raw bar, I go out for specific things most of the time. I want to go to Grano, I’ve heard great things. I want to go to Flora. Engine Room is on my bucket list. Also, ON20, I haven’t been in a long time since before Jesse Powers became the chef and I’d like to go back. That view, and the food is very driven, it's pretty perfect. It’d be nice to see what they’re doing now, enjoy the view and drink some good wine.
What’s coming up next for you?: Hopefully, if everything goes as planned, we’ll be opening a new place in the next year. The name I’m leaning toward is Delilah, that’s my grandma's name. So the restaurant itself will be a tapas restaurant, strictly tapas. It’ll be food from the Carribean, South America - Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, that kind of cuisine. It will be the concept of tapas but different styles, different textures, different foods. People are under the impression that tapas is Spanish food, but it’s a way of eating, and that's one thing I really want to share with people. I want to bring flavors to Connecticut that we don’t have right now, I want to share that with people. Of course, we’ll always have the best ingredients and respect for the product.
Photos by Sarah McCoy Photography
Video by Emily Sanntarsiero