‘Chopped’ in Half: Celebrity Chef Chris Santos Discusses Running a Record Label and His Culinary Career

Celebrity chef Chris Santos has a lengthy list of accomplishments in the culinary field. The restaurant mogul has multiple restaurants around the world, is a partner with international restaurant and hospitality business Tao Group and has appeared as a judge on nearly 30 seasons of the Food Network show Chopped.

Santos is also a devout metalhead. In addition to catching dozens of shows in cities around the country annually and helping out touring bands with his restaurants, Santos operates the record label Blacklight Media, which he founded in 2016 in partnership with longtime favorite Metal Blade.

Decibel got on the phone with Santos to talk about his culinary career, Mayhem Festival, how he and Brian Slagel become friends, what makes a band stand out to him and how the chef finds time to be a label boss with his busy schedule.

Can you share who you are and how you got to the point of owning and operating a record label?
I’m a lifelong card-carrying metalhead, pretty hardcore, since about the time I started listening to music. I cut my teeth on Kiss Alive II when I was about 7 years old. My life really changed when I was about 12 and someone played me Mercyful Fate’s Melissa and Don’t Break the Oath back to back.

My first couple of shows I ever saw were pretty epic. Dark Angel and Possessed, Loudness from Japan. I just was right from the start really into metal. Around that same age, I started working in a restaurant mostly because I wanted to be a metal drummer—that was the career path I thought I wanted at that time and so I wanted to start saving money for a drum set and so I took a job as a dishwasher. I’ll spare you the details, but I got very interested in cooking over the years, had a chef take me under his wing, teach me a lot, went to culinary school with the plan that I was going to graduate culinary school at 19 and then I was still going to pursue rockstar dreams.

At the end of my two years, they offered me a full scholarship for another two, I went to Europe for a year on kind of a food journey so my career as a chef really took off. I moved to NYC in 1993, 22 years old with like $500 in my pocket and no job but within a year was the executive chef at one of the busiest restaurants in New York City, completely no idea what I was doing.

Circling back to the teenage years, I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island and records would come out on Friday and every Saturday I’d get on the bus from my little town to Providence. My brother had a record store and it would be the highlight of my week; I’d go with a couple of friends and we would buy all of the albums. We’d go every Saturday and buy all the new metal; all of it was coming out on Metal Blade and Combat and Megaforce and those kind of labels, so I knew who Brian Slagel was probably when I was 14, 15 years old. Fates Warning Awaken the Guardian is one of those records that shifted me… a seminal record to me.

I knew who Brian and who Johnny G. were and all those cats back when I was a teenager and I’m almost 50 now. Fast forward thirty years, I’ve become a very well-known chef, I’ve been on the food network for 10 years on a show called Chopped, I’m a partner in a hospitality-restaurant company called Tao Group that operates over 40 restaurants and nightclubs across America as well as in Singapore and Sydney, Australia.

So I’m still a metalhead through all this time, I’m still playing in bands but really just for fun, I’m going to shows all the time. Living in New York City, a lot of shows are coming through town and I’m meeting some really cool people. My restaurants slowly but surely have become known for—and now are definitely known for—the place to stop if you have a day off if you’re on tour and you’re in New York or Vegas or LA and you want a break from tour food, go see Chris Santos and he’s gonna hook it up.

I start to become friends with a lot of these people in these bands and I’m going on tours and then Jägermeister enters the picture. Jägermeister asked me to be a brand ambassador for them in 2011 and I still partner with them and I do various things for them: develop recipes for food and cocktail with Jägermeister. One of the first things they did in 2012 or 2013, they put me on the Mayhem Festival.

They gave me my own tour bus and put me on tour for three weeks. I would do these eat-and-greets every day where I would do these ribs that I’m known for, they’re black cherry Jägermeister ribs—and fans would come, they’d get some ribs, they’d do a shot with me, it was great except I had to do 200 shots of Jägermeister a day. But also as part of that tour, they hooked me up with Huntress and the late Jill Janus, who was their singer, who became one of my best friends.

I became good friends with everybody on that tour, including Johan from Amon Amarth who is good friends with Brian Slagel. Brian is a big foodie, big wine connoisseur. They were having dinner one night and Johan asked if he knew me, he didn’t. I have become good friends with Kerry King, asked me if he knew Brian, so it was collapsing around us, the universe was bringing us together.

I met Brian Slagel about six years ago, seven years ago now. It was like long-lost brother. At first I looked at him, like I said, I knew who he was as a teenager, so it was like meeting a legend and they say don’t meet your heroes but he was the coolest guy and we became fast friends. Actually, now, I can call him one of my best friends.

We started hanging out slowly but surely. When he was in New York he’d come to my restaurants and he always liked to bring his own wine. A lot of times what would happen was that he’d end up with extra wine and we’d go back to my place.

One of my hobbies had become, to decompress from a long restaurant day which can be as long as 18-to-20 hours… you can’t just go to bed and you can’t go to the bar every night, so I kind of developed a hobby of going down the rabbit hole of the internet and Spotify. I would start with Slayer and just follow the Youtube or Spotify, go down the rabbit hole of “listeners also listen to this” until you find a band that has 12 listens that no one’s ever heard of that just uploaded their song yesterday. That became a hobby for me recreationally and I would get turned onto these bands.

In this new digital age where a lot of bands get to self-release, I was building my own music library by finding shit myself. Brian would come to my house, drink wine, I would play things for him. Over the course of time, he signed four bands that I turned him on to. He signed If These Trees Could Talk, he signed Harm’s Way who are now becoming one of the biggest hardcore/metal bands, he signed Mother Feather who are this ’70s, Bowie-inspired shock rock thing, Alice Cooper-meets-Bowie. He did the Candiria comeback record because I am really good friends with the Candiria guys and they were talking about getting back together and doing a comeback record so I kind of brokered a dinner between the four of them.

He finally turned to me one day and said “Dude, we should do a label.” And I said “What? What are you talking about?”

He said “We should do a label together. It would be an imprint of Metal Blade” and I said “You’re out of your mind. I don’t have any time for this. I’ve got all these restaurants and I’m on a plane eight days a month and I’ve also got some other side projects,” but he kept on me and said “Look, we’ll do the heavy lifting. You’ll choose the bands you want to work, we’ll obviously work together with the team and once we sign the band, you’ll be as involved as you want to be but we’ll do all the heavy lifting.”

He talked me into it, we launched Blacklight Media in March 2016 and one of the perks, I have a pretty recognizable profile as a chef in the food world. The exclusive was actually covered in Forbes magazine. One of the cool things I hadn’t thought about is bringing exposure to metal in publications or arenas that might not normally care.

If Brian had done an imprint with a metal guy, it probably wouldn’t have been in Forbes but because he did it with celebrity chef Chris Santos, he did. The idea with the label is that it works for Metal Blade because it’s a multi-genre label that doesn’t really conform to anything. It’s gotta be rooted in metal, but it’s an opportunity to sign bands that don’t fit the Metal Blade mold but when you sign to Blacklight, you’re signing to Metal Blade for the most part.

I say for the most part because I’m just now releasing my first Blacklight Media independent release, a band called Opulence. We released their record on November 15. The idea with that is that’s also the second layer. Now that we’ve been together for three years, we’re signing bands that can have an immediate impact and I’m signing bands independently that I think have a lot of growth potential.

This is going to sound like it’s not organic and true or it’s going to sound stupid, but I’m not really into this to make money. Of course I would like to make money with it but I’m really more into it to give bands that might not otherwise have the opportunity to be heard, a chance to be heard.

The idea of starting this independent kind of release is now it’s on me to release a record and try to build this band, and then get them to the point where it makes sense to upstream them to Metal Blade and then they’re a full-blown Metal Blade band.

I’m still deeply ensconced in the restaurant business. That won’t be forever. I started in a restaurant kitchen when I was 13, I’m almost 49. I don’t wanna work in a restaurant kitchen into my 60s. A big strategic move for my future when I do depart the restaurant business, and this is a conversation that’s been had and is expected, that I’ll work much more closely with Metal Blade on a daily basis and really grow the Blacklight Media roster more aggressively.

Right now, we’re not being aggressive. We’re being very selective based on my availability… and right now it’s really about finding bands that I personally really love, that I want to get ears to listen.

Do you still feel like you’re cutting your teeth and figuring out what’s what in the label business?
1000%. Infinity percent. Because Metal Blade has been so kind as to do a lot of heavy lifting on the back end of things, I’m still very green when it comes to all those things. Right now, my involvement is I hear something, I like it. I get Brian’s attention, we listen together. More often than not, he likes it. If we both like it, we’ll circulate it through the Metal Blade offices to get a consensus. If everybody likes it, then I have some deep conversations with the band about what it is they’re trying to accomplish, where they see themselves going.

I get involved in those conversations and from there we start talking about budgets for recording and videos and things of that nature and then from that point I kind of hand it over to Metal Blade and they take it from there. That’s the part that I’ve yet to learn, the sort of intricacies that happen from that point on.

When you hear a band and you think “I want to sign this band to Blacklight,” what qualities are there and what makes you think that?
Clever, creative songwriting is always something that I like. The power of the riff that compels me, but I like it to be wrapped around something with a little creativity. I like layered sounds, I like bands that take unexpected turns. I love a brutal breakdown as much as anybody and I love, love, love bands like Code Orange and Harm’s Way and Knocked Loose and Great American Ghost but I also like stuff that’s super, super layered like Syberia, who we just signed.

I can find beauty in both. Mother Feather is this kind of Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Blondie mashup. They aren’t really metal at all except they drip and ooze it in their stage show. Gozu, I can’t pigeonhole them. I can’t say that they’re a stoner band, I can’t say that they’re a Sabbathy band, but they are all those things. It’s not that they’re any one genre.

I think it’s strong songwriting, good visual presence and I don’t slag anybody but there’s a lot of generic-sounding shit out there. That’s what I try to stay away from. There’s not one band on our roster or one record that we released or are about to release that I think you can call generic. If you look at the entire roster, which is only seven or eight bands, every single band is different. Right now I don’t have any two bands that sound alike at all.

So you’re really just going toward things that are unique and that speak to you.
It’s an ear thing. I know that’s not a great answer, but it’s an ear thing. Something catches my ear and it sounds different. A lot of times when I hear a band, the first thing that I do is go and see if they’re signed. There’s some great stuff out there that’s not us that I wish could be us.

I was at a metal festival this weekend and saw this great band that wasn’t very metal. They were hard punk rock, almost Rancid-meets-Social Distortion, but the singer was outrageous and the stage presence this kid had. He was rolling all over the stage and jumping off the bass kit and jumping into the crowd, doing splits. He was like a combination of David Lee Roth, Mick Jagger and every punk rock singer you’ve ever seen and I was taken with them. They’re signed, it’s great, good for them, but I was immediately like “there’s a band that would be great for us.”

It’s not just the music, although music’s probably 80% of it. It’s “What do you bring to people on stage?” I’m all about a live performance. I can’t even articulate how many concerts I’ve seen over the course of my life but it’s in the thousands and it’s my biggest joy in the world, to just go see live metal or live rock. So when I see a band that puts on a performance like that, I’m attracted to them.

Obviously you’re a busy guy so do you find you have a hard time catching shows and staying on top of records?
It’s harder than ever but you just gotta make time for it. It sounds corny as hell, but sleep when you’re dead. All those things that people say that sound corny about “Oh, you’re never gonna look back and wish you spent more time at work or whatever” is true, but this is also work for me. It’s work that I can take into a late age and so I basically work around the clock. All combined, I have like six different businesses, the restaurant business being just one of them so you just do it. You just do it, you just do it. You find the time to do it.

I’ve got a lot of help. I have assistants and employees and my restaurant company has over 5,000 employees and the rest of my businesses I’ve got al ot of help too but in terms of listening to music myself, I walk to work whenever the weather allows so that’s 30-40 minutes a day to scour the internet for music. I get creative. I fly a lot, I get the Wi-Fi. I spend a lot of time on flights scouring for music so I get creative with my time.

What has been the hardest part of running a label for you?
Everything we’ve been talking about. Not having the amount of time I’d like to spend. Ideally one day when I have the time, I’d like to sign a band, be able to be a presence for at least some part of the recording process, be there for a video shoot, go on tour with them for a couple days to be there to support the first few dates of a tour and just be completely supportive of the band. In the current situation I’m in, I’m available by phone, I’ll come see you if you’re playing in one of the cities I happen to be in in any given night and I have to unfortunately pass you off to Metal Blade, which is actually probably better for the band but for me, I’m looking forward to a day I can be part of the process of all those other things.

You can learn more about Blacklight Media and purchase music at their website here. You can learn more about Chris Santos here.