Vaca and The Hall’s Chef Amar Santana returns to Bravo’s Top Chef
More than five years ago, chef Amar Santana rose to fame among foodies across the U.S. who follow Bravo’s Top Chef, drawing them with his sense of humor, candor and of course, his cuisine’s bold flavors. Amar made it to the season 13 finale as the runner-up shortly after he opened the Spanish cuisine-themed Vaca, the first of his two restaurants in the South Coast Plaza collection. With long-time business partner Ahmed Labbate, he has since gone on to launch a Mediterranean-inspired food hall, The Hall Global Eatery.
By his own admission, he’s in a much different place in his career.
It’s only fitting then, that on Thursday, April 1, Amar returns to the Emmy award-winning cooking competition show for its 18th season – not as a contestant but as a member of an elite judging panel made up of former winners and competitors. We caught up with our favorite Top Cheftestant to talk about life since that career-changing season 13 and his experiences on the other side of the judges table.
What was the impact of being on Top Chef on your restaurants?
It’s incredible. I was runner-up on Season 13 and during this pandemic many people watched those episodes and reached out. Last time it brought guests from all over to our restaurants (Vaca, The Hall Global Eatery, Broadway). I also had a big spike in Instagram followers. Top Chef has a huge, loyal fan base.
How have you changed or evolved as a chef since you last competed on Top Chef?
It was great to receive recognition and be known as Amar Santana from Top Chef. Two things happened since: My food got more mature, and I got more mature as a chef. I don’t feel that I have to create something upside down to make people know who I am. I’m letting me do me when it comes to food and I make what makes me happy.
What was your first thought when you got the call to return to the show?
That they were inviting me back to compete. So, it was a big surprise to hear that Top Chef had a whole different approach in wanting me to judge with other previous chef winners and contestants — something never done in the past 17 seasons.
What did you think of their bringing in past winners/contestants to be on a judges panel?
I think they were looking for a different approach to work within COVID-19 restrictions. It came together at a time of change—between the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Right time to do it differently.
What was it like, being filmed with COVID protocols?
It was impressive—the producers took it seriously. We had three tests before leaving home and upon arrival in Portland. We then all went into quarantine for a week before being allowed out to enter our bubble. Then there was constant testing on the set; we were always masked unless the cameras were rolling.
In this season, how did the chef contestants seem to differ from those in the past?
The resumes were strong—up-and-coming type chefs recognized by culinary institutions. Good representation from different regions and ethnic diversity.
What’s it like working with head judge Tom Colicchio and longtime host Padma Lakshmi?
They are amazing. After having the opportunity for them to judge my food, then later getting to know them, that was amazing. The fact that I got to talk to them more behind the scenes and connect more with them was on another level.
Padma is such a pro, doing this for so many years. I still felt a little intimidated judging with her. She is a great lady with a wicked sense of humor.
I connected with Tom in a different way than when I was a contestant, in this new judging role. We had some intense conversations on the industry and such. Tom, he’s a chef’s chef. He’s in the kitchen and he understands what we do.
As you were watching the cheftestants compete, did you ever feel that you missed competing and that you wanted to be part of the action at that time?
I did not feel like for one second that I wanted to be in that competition. I was thinking, “I don’t envy you at all,” as I was on the set watching them run around. I thought, “This is crazy!” I’d much rather be tasting the product.
So what was it like to be on the other side of the table, tasting and evaluating the food instead of being in the kitchen?
It was so much fun. I enjoyed watching Top Chef even before I competed, so I really enjoyed being on the other side.
Is it true you couldn’t help but lick a plate in one episode?
Yes. It was so good I couldn’t resist.
Your favorite episode as a judge?
There were a couple of fun ones, but it would be a spoiler to share any more. One should air around Mother’s Day. And being part of the dining panel for Restaurant Wars, one of Top Chef’s biggest episodes, was great.
Restaurant Wars features the cheftestants divided into two teams competing to execute the best restaurant concept. How did your previous experience inform your experience as a judge in that episode?
It gave me an understanding on how challenging that episode is, trying to create a new restaurant in 24 hours with contestants who have different opinions. I knew what they were going through and it’s tough.
What were your food experiences while filming in Portland?
Got a taste of Portland’s food carts, which are located in “pods.” We also learned about the local African food scene. It’s pretty robust and was used to inspire the contestants.
Were you inspired by your experience during season 18?
As a chef I learn something every day. Being a judge, I saw how those guys are talented and there were times, situations and dishes that I loved that I thought, I’m going to try that idea.
Would you ever go back and compete again on Top Chef?
I would go back if it were a competition against people who had already competed – like an all-star season, if time permits, and if the circumstances were right. Although I feel like I’m too old for that stuff sometimes, the competitive thing is still inside me.