Chef Jason Santos and his bright blue hair made a splash on the seventh season of Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, and he ultimately placed second in the competition. Like it or not, he’s probably stuck with blue hair for life, especially considering his year-old restaurant, Blue Inc., is named after it. The bold color is a reflection of Santos’ cooking style, at times daring and whimsical. (And perhaps it also contributed to his win in Eater's 2012 Boston's Hottest Chef poll?) Prior to opening Blue Inc., he served as executive chef at Gargoyles on the Square in Somerville. Eater spoke with Santos to find out how the first year of owning his own restaurant has been, and he opened up about how a drunk day at the Boston Marathon led to the name of the restaurant, how he feels about bad reviews, and what he’s doing next. (Spoiler alert: he’s opening a new restaurant in the fall, and instead of choosing another primary color for the name, he’s moving to the alphabet this time.)
How did the idea for Blue Inc. come to be? I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant. I feel like it’s a natural course for a chef: work around and then open your own restaurant. I wanted a small place, I wanted a patio, and I wanted the front doors to open, so those were the stipulations as far as the real estate goes. I like fun, I like funky, and that’s sort of how it all evolved. Real funky, casual, a little edgy. As for the name, I feel like good or bad, I’m going to have blue hair for the rest of my life, so it was a natural fit.
The name came from a contest, right? How did that work? I was drunk at the Boston Marathon, and an editor from the Herald approached me - I didn’t actually know who he was - and he said, "I heard you’re having trouble with the name. Let’s do this contest." So we did this contest, and the next day, it was on the front page of the f***ing Herald. Something crazy like 7000 people wrote in, and then some of the radio stations picked it up, and then I started doing this radio tour. At the end of the day, it was around 9000 names. I had actually thought of Blue Inc. in the very beginning, but I didn’t think it was it, but then when I heard someone else say it, I liked it. So technically this girl won, but technically I already had it in my head, and the contest just brought it home.
How was the build? Not as crazy as I thought it would be. The bar [from Lobby Bar, the restaurant that previously occupied the space] was on the back wall, so the bar had to get ripped out and rebuilt on a different wall, but other than that, the space is the space - it’s a box. We just painted, stuff like that. On the scale of restaurants, it was relatively inexpensive.
How was the opening? Amazing. To this day, the best comment I’ve received was about the opening. We opened, and three days later I was in the hospital with bronchial pneumonia. I came back the next morning with pneumonia and worked, but the one day I wasn’t here, a customer made a comment that they didn’t know who I was or that the restaurant was new; they just came here and ate, and when they were told that we’d only been open three days, they assumed we’d been open for a year because we ran so smoothly. So opening was great. There was pretty big anticipation - lots of press leading up to it - so it was exciting to get the doors open.
What’s the feedback been like from critics, Yelpers, bloggers, etc.? Minus the Globe, it’s been awesome feedback; we got awesome reviews. Supposedly some of the highest reviews on Yelp. But I don’t necessarily care about that stuff; it’s all apples and oranges. I just care that the staff makes good money, we make good money. We’re successful, we’re busy, and that’s all I care about.
How often do people ask you about Hell’s Kitchen? On a bi-hourly basis. It’s awesome. I’m actually on Hell’s Kitchen again in two weeks, so that’s going to kind of bring it all back up again. But it is ridiculous. I’m very grateful, and it’s awesome, but I cannot believe - I just can’t get over it. It’s like, every single day of my life, someone stops me on the street for Hell’s Kitchen.
Are you actually competing again or just visiting? A little bit of both. [A preview of the upcoming episode shows the top six contestants of the current season being forced to compete against a mystery team with blurred faces. One appears to have blue hair.]
Did you take away any management lessons from Gordon Ramsay while on Hell’s Kitchen? Gordon came here unannounced when we were building the restaurant, and he said that his first restaurant - Aubergine in London - was about the same size. His advice was to do it on a smaller scale, because there’s less money to lose if it goes bad, and use the experience to learn the business better. He was like, "You think you know it, but until you own your own place, you don’t really know it," which is totally great advice. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve run a smaller restaurant, and I’m ready for bigger and better.
Does it feel like it’s been a year since opening? Yeah. It feels like it’s been seven. This is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. It’s amazing, it’s rewarding, but it’s by far the hardest work I’ve ever done. I have no time to myself, and it consumes me, but at the same time, I knew what I was getting into and I’m happy about that.
Is there a specific moment you can pinpoint as the most challenging part of the year? When I first came into this, I was very concerned about reviews, and the Globe killed me. But at the end of the day, I feel like it didn’t do anything. It didn’t make us business, it didn’t lose us business. I put a lot of stress and effort into that one specific review, but I don’t really care anymore. I don’t know if it jaded me, but I have a busy restaurant, and that’s all I care about. I cook for customers, not for critics.
Any big changes in store for the coming year? As far as this restaurant goes, no. It’s going well. But I’m opening another restaurant, hopefully by the end of September. It’s a big restaurant in downtown Boston, across from the Wang Center. As of today, the name is XYZ, but I can’t confirm or deny that; I’ll know 48 hours from now. 200 seats, two floors, much bigger. Super fun, American, really crazy, but very approachable and simple.