Profile: David Santos, Supper Club Chef

By Brenna Walton

For the past year, Chef David Santos hosted Um Segredo, a supper club in his own apartment that offered fine dining at a more affordable price with a more casual atmosphere. Now he’s bringing the concept to his first restaurant, Louro, in the form of Nossa Mesa.

Chef David Santos at his Roosevelt Island apartment, where he hosts Um Segredo. Photo: Jose Moran Moya.

When Chef David Santos started Um Segredo, a supper club he hosted in his Roosevelt Island apartment for the past year, it quickly earned the nickname, “the poor man’s Per Se.” That’s because Santos, 33, earned his stripes working 120-hour weeks under celebrity chef Thomas Keller at the original Per Se, the acclaimed French restaurant in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center.

But it’s also because, at Um Segredo, Santos created tasting menus for half the price such a high-end restaurant would charge – Santos charges $90-$120 a seat for six courses that he estimates Per Se would charge $250 for. Since then, his whole perspective on running a restaurant has changed. Like any other legitimate chef, Santos believes in using ingredients of the highest quality, but unlike the rest, he doesn’t see why his diners should feel like they have to “mortgage their home” to eat his food.

“Some people in the industry have called me out for saying this,” Santos said. “But I think we’re in an era in New York where the dining scene is really lacking a quality-driven restaurant that’s affordable.”

At Um Segredo, Santos reduced operational costs by taking measures like forsaking fancy china and glassware. He will continue this kind of cost-effective practice at his first restaurant, Louro, which just opened in the West Village. (“Louro” is the Portuguese word for basil. Santos’ family heritage is Portuguese.). He says the cost of a full table setting for a typical tasting menu for just one diner at the high-end restaurants he’s worked at can cost over $2,000.

“It was such a big deal whenever a glass or something like that got broken in those restaurants,” Santos said. “When a wine glass costs $30 wholesale, that’s coming out of a server’s paycheck if they drop it.”

At Louro, Santos will continue his supper club legacy with Nossa Mesa, a special event that will be held every Monday night following Um Segredo’s format of a themed, six-course tasting menu. Nossa Mesa will also be available on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

Um Segredo always featured a theme and so will Nossa Mesa. One of the last Um Segredo dinners had a “Wild Game” theme, featuring courses like venison, partridge and hare. On Christmas Eve, Nossa Mesa will feature a “Christmas Vacation” theme, in honor of Santos’ favorite holiday movie. The menu will have items like trout with wild mushrooms and walnut jelly as a reference to the “Jelly of the Month” club membership the movie’s main character’s boss gives him as a Christmas bonus.

Santos will reprise some of his Um Segredo themes, some of which were literary-themed menus with dishes inspired by Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Edgar Allen Poe. One of the first Nossa Mesa themes will be Jack Kerouac’s Beat-era classic “On The Road.”

His most inventive idea came from the show “Swamp People” on the History Channel.

“I did a ‘Down on the Bayou’ theme for that one,” he says. “I made alligator sausage, Creole catfish stew. I was inspired by how happy those people were.”

When Santos left his job as executive chef at Griffou just over a year ago, it was not a good time for fine dining in New York City. He wanted to open his own restaurant, but in the weak economy, investors weren’t interested in anyone who wasn’t an established name. Santos had the resume, but not the following. He didn’t want to take another job that wasn’t the right fit just to keep working, which he says was the case at Griffou. But he was strapped for cash.

“When you’re a chef, cooking is your everything, it’s your outlet in life,” Santos said. “When you don’t have that and you’re so passionate about it, you kind of start to go into a depression and that was starting to happen to me. You’re sitting on the couch. You have no money. It’s just a bad recipe.”

Santos knew he had to do something. That’s when he started making plans to run a supper club out of his own apartment.

“I thought if I do this private party thing in my home for maybe 8-10 people, at least it will make me a little happier and maybe put some money in my pocket, or maybe it won’t, but at least I’ll be cooking what I like,” Santos said.

He sent out the first invite for Um Segredo to about 40 people he met over the course of his career at Per Se and Griffou, as well as other high-end restaurants he worked for like Bouley and Five and Diamond. The first two dinners sold out in 18 hours. From there, word spread quickly. Influential food blogs like New York magazine’s Grub Street and Chowhound soon ran items about Santos and Um Segredo. A year later, the Um Segredo mailing list had nearly 1,000 recipients.

Check out the proceedings below from Um Segredo’s final “Wild Game” dinner. All photos by Brenna Walton.

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