Chef Amar Santana, an East Elmhurst native and graduate of Long Island City High School, is showing off his cooking chops on season 13 of “Top Chef.”
The show premiered on Dec. 2 and puts 17 chefs through a number of culinary challenges. Though Santana is not allowed to reveal much about his time on the show, he did say it was challenging and rewarding. An executive chef at two restaurants in Orange County, California ― Broadway by Amar Santana and two-week-old Vaca Restaurant ― the chef said his restaurants have seen an influx of traffic since the show aired.
“As far as business-wise, my two restaurants are doing great and that has a lot to do with it,” Santana said. “[The competition] was stressful but I had a lot of fun doing it.”
Santana moved to East Elmhurst from the Dominican Republic when he was 13. He attended Long Island City High School after his guidance counselor suggested he enroll in the culinary arts program. Santana said his family remembers his interest in cooking started when he was around 5 or 6 years old.
“When my mom used to make a salad, she would add oil and vinegar and I would just take the same salad and add more salt, vinegar [to season it],” Santana said.
Though Santana dropped out of the culinary arts program freshman year to focus on his ESL class, he was mistakenly enrolled in the class again his sophomore year and was encouraged by a teacher to enter the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). Through the program, Santana was able to travel to London for a week to study with chefs at a prestigious restaurant. He also received a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.
“I owe everything to [C-CAP],” Santana said. “They were always there for me when I needed advice. They’re the one that put me in the right path.”
He studied with and worked under celebrity chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer and moved to southern California eight years ago to open Broadway by Amar Santana, a restaurant he describes as “modern American fine dining” and Vaca Restaurant, which serves Spanish tapas and doubles as a steakhouse.
The accomplished chef said he took a less traditional route to a successful career, choosing to work with Charlie Palmer for 10 years instead of jumping from restaurant to restaurant like other young cooks. He encourages aspiring chefs to learn as much as they can about the industry before concerning themselves with how much money they’re making.
“Don’t think about the money at first,” Santana said. “Just go with your passion, soak it in and learn as much as you can. And the money will come later.”
Season 13 of Top Chef airs every Thursday at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Watch Santana’s preview interview below: