James Santon is the Sous Chef at the ever-popular Enoteca Sociale, one of those Toronto restaurants that always has a full reso list even in the midst of the non-stop restaurant boom in the city. We caught up with the 30-year-old culinary all-star one of his rare moments outside the kitchen…
Elevator Pitch: Describe your job in a nutshell.
My role is to do the major production jobs for the restaurant (butchery, charcuterie, pasta production, etc.). I also aid the Head Chef in creating specials, as well as coming up with new dishes for the menu. During service, I work on the line where I observe the cooks working and help them where needed. I serve as a liaison between the Chef and the line cooks.
Why did you start working at your company? What was the inspiration for this career route?
What attracted me to Enoteca Sociale was how close-knit of a family the team there was. I love the camaraderie of a kitchen and wanted to be a part of this team. Cooking is always something I have enjoyed doing from a young age. I have been cooking since I was tall enough to reach the stove. It only seemed logical to parlay my love of food into a viable career option.
What is the best part of what you do on a day-to-day basis? The most challenging part?
The best part of what I do is that no two days are the same. Each day brings its own specific challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome. This is also the most challenging part of my job – but by the same token the most rewarding.
What is one sign that you’ve seen over the years to suggest that your work/life balance is off?
I try to maintain a healthy balance between work and day-to-day life, though it is tough with the long hours we work. But a balance is necessary to maintain both happiness and sanity. So, so far, no sign it’s off!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In five years I hope to be running my own farm-to-table focused restaurant.
What is one major challenge that you’ve had to overcome in your career? How did you overcome it?
I started cooking quite late; I entered culinary school at 25. In each kitchen I walked into earlier in my career I was both the oldest and least experienced cook. I have overcome that by maintaining the mantra, “Work harder than the person next to you.” If you do that, your hard work will not go unnoticed and you will rise up the ranks quite quickly.
What does success look like to you? Does Money = Happiness?
Money does not equal happiness in my mind. Feeling fulfilled equals happiness. I would not be a chef if I were hoping to get rich. I cook because I love food and the people I work with.
What is the most memorable milestone in your career?
The most memorable moment of my career to date was cooking for Oprah when she was in Toronto filming her television show.
Do you have any advice for other young professionals?
Set yourself apart from the other people around you. Never be happy with doing a good job; always strive to do a great job. Every time I make something I try to manipulate the recipe slightly to make it the “best batch of it I’ve ever made.” This mentality helps you grow as a chef. Never be satisfied – always strive for excellence.
Where is your favourite place to wine/dine in your city and why?
I personally love Bar Buca. The space is beautiful and both the service and food are excellent. There is something extremely satisfying about sharing food with those you love.
When you’re not working how do you love to spend your “Me” time?
I have a 4-year-old boxer who occupies a lot of my time. When I am off I like to spend time with him and make sure his quality of life is the best it can be.
Where is your favourite place to travel? Why?
I like to travel home (to Niagara) to visit my family. I don’t get to see them very often since I started cooking, as I work the opposite schedule as them. So any opportunity to see my family is quite special.
If you had to choose a theme song, what would it be?
“Enter Sandman” by Metallica.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be doing?
My original ambition while in school was to work for a conservation authority or an NGO.
What to you is notable?
I think the thankless work of those in the food service industry is notable. We spend a lot of hours and make very little money to make others happy. Producing a good meal and giving someone a pleasurable and memorable experience is the only reward we need. That is notable.
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