South Coast Plaza’s longtime chef favorite, Amar Santana of Vaca, is back for his third season on the Emmy-award winning cooking competition, Bravo’s Top Chef. The charismatic Santana first joined the South Coast Plaza culinary family in 2008, when the CIA grad was hand-picked by chef Charlie Palmer to open his eponymous restaurant at Bloomingdale’s. Two years later, Santana and business partner Ahmed Labbate departed to open their own restaurants–Broadway in Laguna Beach and the critically acclaimed Vaca at South Coast Plaza.
We sat down with Amar Santana to chat about battling it out in London with an elite cadre of 16 Top Chef competitors from around the world for the milestone Season 20 World All-Stars.
Chef Amar Santana, Photo by: Sarah King
SOUTH COAST PLAZA
Q & A WITH CHEF AMAR SANTANA
What was the first thing that went through your mind when you got the call to be on Season 20?
I thought they were crazy—I’m too old to compete. In Season 13, I was 33. Last year I turned 40. For Season 18, which was in 2020 during COVID, they modified the format and I was brought in for judging and mentoring—I loved it. What changed my mind to be on Season 20 was my competitive nature—I could not turn down an opportunity to compete on a world stage with a group of amazing chefs.
Friends of James Beard dinner, Vaca. Photo by: Corey Cano
Photo by: David Moir/Bravo
In Season 13, you worked with other chefs from the US. What was it like competing with chefs from around the world?
It was at another level; the global chefs had so much to bring to the table. Each episode was an educational experience; I learned a lot. It was eye-opening with someone like Ali Ghzawi from Jordan—how he spiced his food and gave it texture. Mind-blowing. I connected with Ali and Charbel Hayek from Lebanon—great guys.
We hear the food scene in London has evolved and is so dynamic now. What were your impressions?
I was in London over 20 years ago when I won a C-CAP sponsored contest for a 10-day internship at the Cordon Bleu school there. Fast forward to 2022—what a huge difference. The food/restaurant scene is incredible—great quality ingredients; fantastic seafood, impressive variety of ethnic cuisines. And they take their Michelin stars seriously.
Photo by: David Moir/Bravo
TOP CHEF – Episode 2001, Photo by: David Moir/Bravo
Top Chef judges: Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons, David Moir/Bravo
You participated as a cheftestant with Tom, Padma, and Gail in Season 13 (where you were runner-up after battling your way back from Last Chance Kitchen). Fast forward to Season 20. Had the judging style evolved?
Not really—it’s honest. They are great at what they do, no matter who you are or where the season takes place. Tom, Padma and Gail judge you by the food you put in front of them.
Fans of Top Chef here are accustomed to seasons taking place in different US cities. Bringing 16 global chefs to London is a whole different level. How did the chefs adjust to the host city?
It made the show a lot more interesting. Since the chefs came from Top Chef productions from around the world, you could sense the countries have some different formats. In the Middle East version, the winner of the Elimination Challenge not only had immunity for the next episode, but sat at the judges’ table in the following episode. Before leaving for London, I watched some of the finales of the global shows. Top Chef Saudi Arabia—looks like they had a huge budget. Insane sets.
Vaca at South Coast Plaza
Chef Amar Santana with business partner Ahmed Labbate
Leaving the restaurants for a month or longer must be hard—fortunately your longtime business partner Ahmed Labbate is running the show. What are the biggest challenges to the kitchen when you’re away?
My biggest concern as co-owner and chef is that the kitchen is executing food like if I were there—the consistency, the quality. I am lucky to have a great partner in Ahmed. He said “go—we’ve got this.” It gave me great peace of mind. My two chefs—Ed Pak at Vaca and Richie Ramirez at Broadway—do a phenomenal job.
Menu offerings, Vaca. Photo by: Sarah King
It must be an incredible high to participate in this special season. Describe the vibe on the first day on set.
First day is sort of scary; basically, you are sizing everyone up. It’s the first time to see all the chefs. Top Chef did an excellent job of keeping it quiet on who was competing. I didn’t know who the other chefs would be from the US. And it was great to see the judges on set again. Everyone was there.
It seems the biggest challenge during the competitions is the time element. How do you do it?
I always think of a dish I can execute in that time. I don’t start something I can’t finish–if it’s good, it’s good. Trying too hard to impress—be different—in the end it doesn’t work. All that matters: “Is it good?”
Seared scallops, Vaca. Photo by: Sarah King
Scallop crudo, Vaca. Photo by: Sarah King
Are there any chef’s tools the cheftestants take with them?
We are allowed 10 knives and 10 kitchen gadgets. I took my most important knives: chef’s, paring, serrated; my tweezers and some tuile stencils. They had great resources for us in the set kitchen.
Top Chef was in production when Queen Elizabeth passed. Seems the country shut down. What was that like?
The British had not experienced a monarch passing for over 70 years. People were crying everywhere. It was historic. Everything closed—including the streets during her funeral procession. Production of course had to stop for a few days.
What’s the best thing about being on Top Chef?
You get a lot of respect for being on the most iconic cooking show; it’s the most real, most dynamic and best in my book. Being part of the Top Chef family is such an honor.
It’s also an incredible boost to business. We get many new and returning guests at Vaca and Broadway every week the show airs and after. Then there’s a cult following who watch past seasons and come in to dine.
Personally, each time I’ve been on I get a big boost in followers on social media. The comments after each episode are a lot of fun.
Cassiopeia cocktail, Vaca. Photo by: Sarah King
Why do you think Top Chef has remained such a popular reality show for so many years?
Because it is real. People sense the reality. When they say you have 30 minutes to make the dish, it is. No exceptions. Quality is everywhere. Every detail is well thought out. The editing of each episode is on target—captures the essence of what went on.
Having Tom Colicchio as the head judge of Top Chef since the beginning has set the standard of the show. He is an incredibly accomplished chef with excellent, long-standing restaurants and five James Beard Foundation Awards. I feel so fortunate to have worked with him on three seasons.
Photo by: Sarah King