'Chopped' Judge Chris Santos Dishes on New Restaurant

Vandal serves street food-inspired international dishes, elevated.

— -- Call Vandal on any given morning to make a reservation and you’re likely out of luck.

The hot new Lower East Side restaurant by celeb chef Chris Santos can seat upwards of 300 people, but they’ve been booked solid ever since the tapas-style street food-inspired eatery opened in January in Manhattan.

Santos, 45, is no stranger to New York’s most popular food scene. He opened “The Stanton Social” in 2005 and “Beauty & Essex,” in 2010. Both are still packed nightly. Later this year, there are plans to further add to the Santos food empire, with Beauty & Essex set to open locations in both Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

“It’s very humbling to be like, ‘Wow, people really love what we do,’” Santos told ABC News’ Chief Business and Economics Correspondent, Rebecca Jarvis. “There are so many intangibles that go into a successful place. Hospitality, I think, really trumps all.”

But “of course you have to have great food,” added Santos.

The restaurateur’s fame doesn’t hurt either. Santos has been a judge on Food Network’s top-rated show “Chopped” since it began in 2009, critiquing contestants as they cook up appetizers, entrees and desserts under tight deadlines using a “mystery basket” of (often odd) ingredients.

“Life is a little bit different now because the show is so popular ... it took a little while to get used to that,” Santos said. “Typically the first question that people want to ask me is, ‘Who’s the biggest jerk on the panel?’ I have such a great relationship with everybody that there isn’t one. I usually say, ‘Me. I’m the biggest jerk on the panel.’”

What you see in that “Chopped” kitchen is all real, Santos said.

“The producers don’t prompt us to do anything other than just be ourselves and be honest about what we think about the food, which is sometimes good and sometimes not so good,” he said. “You can just tell when a contestant gets an ingredient they’ve never, ever, ever seen before and they just don’t know what to do.”

While the true competition plays out on air, boiled down to hour-long weekly episodes, Santos explains it is no small feat to even be selected from hundreds of applicants for a shot at cooking for the judges. Oftentimes, he said, applicants have applied more than once for a consideration.

“The amount of applicants that come in on a daily basis is just out of control,” Santos said. “That selection process takes a really long time. They’re looking for a little bit of some character ... your biggest version of you personality-wise, I think, will help you. But ultimately, it’s about cooking, so you gotta have chops ... no pun intended.”

If he weren't already busy enough, Santos added an additional focus to his plate earlier this year, launching “Blacklight Media,” a record label focusing on hard rock and heavy metal. The label has since signed the band “Good Tiger,” which Santos discovered.

His hard rock and heavy metal music tastes mirror his love of urban street foot and street art. Vandal serves street food-inspired international dishes, elevated; steak tartare on a hot New York pretzel, shawarma in a salad with falafel croutons, a chicken and chorizo paella, and grilled Chilean sea bass tacos, to name a few.

The graffiti art inside Vandal is ubiquitous: From the walls to the stairs leading into the lounge, street art covers every inch of the sprawling space.

“Lighting and the whole aesthetic is very important,” he said. “I build big restaurants. And I think that also separates us a little bit. [In New York City] there are few places that are just these giant kinds of spaces.”

Greeting Vandal guests, who enter through a flower shop to get into the actual restaurant, is a giant breakdancing bunny. “Icy grape,” Santos said of its purple paint, a nod to the difficult-to-obtain Krylon spray paint color revered by graffiti artists.

Among the many artists featured on the end walls of the space’s "secret garden" is Shepard Fairey, who is most famous for the “Hope” poster featuring Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. Large murals by Tristan Eaton blanket another room’s back wall, the eyes of greyscale women peering at diners through color.

The unusual and interesting fills every sight line and, Santos hopes, every dish you try.

“Yeah, yeah, well, I’m a quirky guy,” Santos said. “I just started doing what I liked as opposed to doing what I thought people wanted. It kind of clicked.”

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