Hello there! Welcome back to Gracie’s Service Sessions. In our last edition, we spoke with Anat, a front server here at Gracie’s Providence. Today, we’ll move to the Back of House to catch up with James Santana, a line cook and plater to take a look at what drives him to provide the best hospitality he can, and why. At Gracie’s, the Front of House staff is the most visible to the guest. However, it’s the Back of House who creates the product that the servers are so excited about to begin with. Find out why James comes back day after day, what he’s passionate about, and why, out of all things, he chose cooking as a career path.
By: Kelly Doran
What drove you to a career in cooking?
I could not tell you a precise reason other than food. By that I mean that it was the lore and mystery of food got me into it. I loved the trial and error methodology behind it. I still remember as a young kid, when I was about 9, watching food and travel shows on television and being mesmerized by what was going on. Its funny because I grew up with cooks my entire life but never reflected on it. My mother, who self-taught but in no way a professional cook, would go to night school, come home, and still manage to whip something up for us and it would be delicious. My aunt, who I attribute my baking knowledge to (before school , of course), was a baker. She made cakes for many people in our town (weddings, birthdays, etc.). In later years as I got a bit older, my mother worked a lot so I spent a lot of time with my aunt and she saw that I had interest in and a knack for the kitchen. She took me under her wing so much so that I would spend whole weekends with her, even days that mom was home from work, just so that I could talk with her and be in her kitchen. The sound of the Kitchenaid paddling buttercream was my Coltrane. I remember the first time I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook I asked my mom in front of my aunts and they said no. They said I was too young and small to see over the stove and that I’d burn myself. I brushed it off and taught myself and my life has never been the same since.
To answer your question what drove me to cooking, I feel as though destiny or nature or whatever you want to call it drove me. I have always been a person of strong conviction, so I think that being in the kitchen just felt right for me. I never had doubt; I just knew since I was a child. I think it’s the connection of food and family and the love. My family and the love and care they gave me drove me to cook. To care for others and to give unconditional love to others, including strangers, and expect nothing in return. Love drove me to cook because to cook is to care.
How is a working kitchen different than what you see on TV?
It’s a matter of perspective. Shows on TV aren’t meant to glamorize WORKING in kitchens, but rather to attract people to the lore and magic of food. They are meant to intrigue people and make them think, “Hmm, maybe I can do this, too.” But yes, it is very different from what people see on TV. They don’t show the hard work and dedication it takes. Cooks and chefs work crazy hours and get little in return. Only a “crazy” person would do this. But in a world of quid pro quo, you have to go for something that is bigger than us and gets down to the very core of humanity.
What is the best piece of advice that you could give to a person who is looking to enter the field?
Care. Love what you do and do it with integrity. Don’t listen to anyone if they say you can’t do it. Do not do this if you wish to get rich monetarily. Notice I said monetarily. There is a great quality of life to be had you just have to live in the moment and appreciate the people around you and remember always Love, Live Life, Proceed, Progress.
What’s your favorite Back of House slang?
For me, “Hoo-whaa” has to top it all. That means quickly. That usually happens when a server forgets to ring something in or doesn’t fire a ticket. I also like the “heard” and” behind” because when in a restaurant it’s universal, so much so that I say heard in conversation regularly and my girlfriend makes fun of me for it. “Behind” is integrated into my soul at this point. I say it at the market, at the mall, and walking down the street.
What makes you come back day in, day out?
It’s the food and experiences we provide that bring me back. Honestly, I could go work in other industries or even other restaurants, and make more money, but it’s not the same. You can’t do this for money as the sole motivator. I truly love what I do, simple as that. We get the humbling opportunity to work very closely with the farmers of Rhode Island and truly showcase the hard work that they put into their products. It’s actually one of the things that drove me to work at Gracie’s. I love seeing Deb ( where we get our pea greens from) and Steve (who is actually one of, if not the first organic farmer in RI) and talking to them about the products, new things they are trying out, and what they think about food. I think that the interconnected network of cooks and farmers is a necessity to understanding sustainability both for restaurants and communities alike.