Celebrity Chef Chris Santos Talks About Beauty & Essex, Food and Music

The Speakeasy Burger inspiration also stems from one of Santos’ favorite movies

By Jason Harris

There’s busy and then there’s Chris Santos. The celebrity chef, television star and entrepreneur has his hands full with getting his flagship restaurant, Beauty & Essex, up and running at full steam in multiple cities. Add onto that, Tao Group’s recently announced purchase of the Hakkasan Group, including the newly opened Hakkasan Restaurant, and Santos, a managing partner and executive chef of The Tao Group, will have his imprint all over a swarm of new restaurants.

We caught up with Santos and discussed his plans for the Beauty & Essex expansion, the restaurant’s newest item (The Speakeasy Burger) and so much more.

What’s your plan this year?

Whoa! (Long beat) I have so many things going on, I don’t know where to begin. 

I’m going to bring back Stanton Social (another Santos restaurant), perhaps in a couple of cities. I’m looking to do another restaurant in Los Angeles.

I’ll be doing some integrations with hard rock and heavy metal festivals.

Obviously, you’re aware that Tao Group acquired Hakkasan Group so there will be a lot of projects that come my way. I don’t even know what they are going to be yet.

Will you be involved with every restaurant moving from Hakkasan to Tao?

Not every restaurant, but definitely a handful of them. There are two chef partners in Tao Group. The other, Ralph Scamardella, takes care of Tao and Lavo.

How about on the TV front?

I am shooting more episodes of “Chopped” for Food Network than I ever have. I’m also working on another television project with another chef, which is kind of fun. I’m really trying to come up with a killer concept to bring to Discovery. I’ve been working on this, for it seems like, forever. I keep spending three or four or six months and then all of a sudden having an aha moment about a completely different idea.

Then, you’re also involved with music at your record label Black Light Media.

My record label is like a full-time job. We’re doing really well. I’m a heavy metal dork. I started it with Brian Slagel. He’s a legend in heavy metal. He discovered Metallica. He has the largest independent record label in the world, Metal Blade Records. They’re about to celebrate their 40th anniversary. 

We started our label four years ago. We started slow and now we’re ramping up. It seems like we’re signing bands left and right.

There’s a good friend of mine who tragically took her life a couple of years ago. She left behind a lot of unfinished recordings. This is probably the thing I’m most excited about. We’re putting together a tribute project where we are taking all her stuff from all her various different projects. We’re working with people like Nita Strauss, Rob Halford and Monte Pittman. All the proceeds from that will go to suicide prevention causes.

It sounds like you are locked into a lot of projects. Anything else we should know about?

Maybe I should have led with this. I’m trying to start a family! We have our fingers crossed. We’re excited.

All of that stuff that I just mentioned, I don’t really take a lot of time off. All of that comes second to Tao Group right now. I started working a restaurant kitchen when I was 14. I got my first executive chef position when I was 23, which I wasn’t ready for. And I’m 50. So for 27 years, I’ve been an executive chef. And for 36 years, I’ve been reporting to a kitchen every day for work. I don’t see my career going another decade. I see another 3 or 4 years helping grow this company as much as I can. I want to finish out strong, open a couple of really exciting restaurants and then walk off into the sunset and hang out with my family.

Will Beauty & Essex be expanding this year?

We are looking at several locations in several cities. We don’t have a signed lease anywhere, but we do have four cities that we are pursuing pretty hotly. It takes 9 months to get a B & E up and running. The blueprint, they’re all different, but they all have similarities. We call it 70 / 30. 70 percent of it is identical to the original New York branch and 30 percent is unique to whatever city we’re in. We don’t have to spend a tremendous amount of time designing.

I’m in the middle of reorganizing my team to get ready to open several restaurants next year.

I loved the concept behind VANDAL with the themes of street art and the globally inspired street food. Will it see a rebirth?

Vandal is closed permanently in New York. It had to do with a lot of factors, the pandemic being the biggest one. It was a natural fit out here. We were so excited, too. But that deal just came together right. I love VANDAL and I love the concept. I never really closed a restaurant before so it was kind of heartbreaking. But it’s fine.

What should people know about the current menu at Beauty & Essex?

Our menu is actually very small right now. We’re hoping to add another ten dishes or so. But, we are having the hardest time finding staff. Every chef I know is dealing with it. We can’t go seven days a week or add more things to the menu until we get more staff. By the way, that’s not just here. It’s happening in LA. It’s happening in New York. The entire labor pool, they’re just not coming back.

It’s hard work, working in a kitchen. It’s grueling. It’s long hours. You’re on your feet all day. You feel beat up every night when you go home. I think people had a year to think about things and said, “I don’t want to go back to that.”

Tonight, you debuted The Speakeasy Burger, complete with a Quentin Tarantino-fied, table-side presentation that includes the opening of a lock box in which the bur

The inspiration behind The Speakeasy Burger comes down to my love of my three favorite things: Burgers, peanut butter (the accompanying milkshake) and “Pulp Fiction.” I’ve always wondered what was in that case and I think most people think gold bars or something of that nature. Me? I think a delicious burger and shake.

Tell me about the burger.

It features double beef, double cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and secret sauce on a sesame seed bun that arrives in a safe with truffle fries, and is accompanied by a chocolate and peanut butter milkshake. It’s only going to be available Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s an off the menu thing. Each Wednesday and Thursday, we’re going to pick one server who gets to sell them.

Are you going to dress the server like Steve Buscemi at Jack Rabbit Slim’s?

(Laughs) Exactly. It’s just fun. Our food is always generally fun, but we take it very seriously. I just wanted to do something a little irreverent.

What did you think?

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