Chef Jamie Santoro has been in the same Ahwatukee kitchen for ten years. She actually might be the only constant in a venue that's been a bagel joint (Beyond Bagels), a lunch spot (Mary Ann and Richie's) and finally a dinner restaurant (That Italian Place).
"I've been able to watch something grow," Santoro says. "I saw it at a very young age to what I believe is now mature. I've learned from every venture that has been in this building and it's because of those that I am where I am right now. "
Chef Santoro's first memories are those of cooking with her mom and grandmother. She says the most important lesson her mother taught her was to use the best and freshest ingredients possible. Famous in Ahwatukee for her half-priced-lasagna on Tuesdays, Santoro says she takes her mom's advice (and recipe) to heart.
She recently made it into the final round to be a contestant on The Next Food Network Star, an experience she says was unbelievable and unexpected. Chef Santoro talks more about the importance of locally-owned restaurants, her experiences with the Food Network and her love of Crocs.
What is the Ahwatukee food scene missing?
Ahwatukee is missing mom and pop restaurants, small breakfast places, small lunch spots that are owned just by Ahwatukeeans. I see the food scene growing more and more, but I think that local restaurants are what Ahwatukee has been missing up until now. But I think we're evolving in a culinary way. I mean, we're not Scottsdale. We can be Scottsdale, though, because I think that Ahwatukee can become a food niche where people can come to appreciate new food and new business.
Do you wear Crocs in the kitchen?
Absolutely. Let's chat about Crocs. I've worn tennis shoes in the kitchen, I've worn Dr. Martens in the kitchen and none of them are conducive to moving around -- you want to be light on your feet. I love them! I can throw them in the dishwasher at my house ... they're great.
If you could be any chef's apprentice growing up, who would it be?
Mario Batali. Just because of those Crocs ... No, but really. I know he's classic Food Network, I know he has his own show, and people don't think his restaurants are that great. But I've been to his restaurants and they are that great. His knowledge about Italy and Italian ingredients is admirable.
What are some ingredients that are overhyped right now?
People are getting so comfortable cooking frozen meals with frozen and prepackaged ingredients. You don't need to do that because it's so easy to use fresh ingredients and to learn to cook easy, simple meals. I think people could be using better ingredients if they knew what was readily available at a local level.
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How did you end up trying out for Next Food Network Star?
I really applied on a whim. Somebody said, "Why don't you send in your bio to the Food Network and see if they respond?" The Food Network gave me a generic response. So I went to an open casting call with I don't know how many people, hundreds, and I get a call back and another call back and another call back. Then I flew to New York and cooked in the Food Network kitchens ... it was a great experience. I'll probably never get the chance to do something like that again in my life.
What is a recipe or aspect of cooking that you still find challenging?
Still to this day, baking is a challenge. Can I make a tiramisu? Sure. Can I put a cheesecake in the oven? Of course. But following directions at this point in my career is so difficult. I'll push 120 dinners out of my kitchen and never look at a book -- with baking, I still have to take out the measuring cup and be so careful. One cup of flour, one cup of milk, three cups of sugar ... maybe I'm just not structured that way.
I have no idea. I never thought I'd be running my own kitchen. I never thought I'd be in the newspaper. I never thought I'd be in the Food Network kitchens. I've never embraced that feeling of not knowing until now. The not knowing is the best part of my job right now.