It’s round three on ‘Top Chef’ for Amar Santana

Chef Amar Santana at the bar in Costa Mesa's Vaca.
Chef Amar Santana, of Costa Mesa’s Vaca restaurant and Broadway in Laguna Beach, is one of the 16 chefs to compete on “Top Chef: Season 20 World All-Stars in London.”
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Amar Santana thought his chef competition days were behind him. The executive chef and partner at restaurants Broadway by Amar Santana in Laguna Beach and Vaca in Costa Mesa appeared in season 13 of “Top Chef.”

“After competing in season 13 and doing what I did and getting to the finale, I said to myself there is no point of me competing again, if I made it this far the first time around,” Santana said.

He returned to the show in season 18 for “Top Chef Portland,” where he served as a judge.

“It was during the pandemic, and I had nothing going on so I decided to give it a try. I thought it should be fun,” said Santana. “But I didn’t realize it was going to be that fun.”

Chef Amar Santana
Chef Amar Santana at Costa Mesa’s Vaca restaurant.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Santana said he enjoyed being on the other side of the table.

“Absolutely, I would be a judge again any time,” said Santana.

So how did Santana end up on “Top Chef” season 20 as a contestant?

“When I found out I would be competing with chefs from all over the world, I couldn’t say no,” said Santana. “It gave me that fire again.”

Santana returns to “Top Chef” as one of the 16 chefs culled from the international franchises to compete in “Top Chef: Season 20 World All-Stars in London,” premiering on Thursday on NBC.

Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons return as hosts, and the format is familiar, with contestants competing in a quick-fire challenge and then an elimination challenge. Producers pulled chefs from 11 global editions of “Top Chef,” including four from U.S. seasons. There are currently 29 global editions of “Top Chef,” a total that surprised Santana.

“I have never seen all the versions of ‘Top Chef,’” he said. “So, when I got to London and saw who the contestants were, I didn’t know there was a ‘Top Chef Middle East,’ I didn’t know ‘Top Chef Brazil’ … I didn’t realize there were so many outlets.”

Santana is joined by other contestants from U.S. seasons of “Top Chef,” including Buddha Lo, Dawn Burrell and Sara Bradley.

Santana’s experience with cooking competitions began early in his career. He moved to Queens from the Dominican Republic at age 13 and, while in high school, enrolled in a program called Culinary Arts. His instructor told him about a nonprofit organization, Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which could help him get a scholarship to go to culinary school.

“I said, ‘You’re telling me if I do this competition and become part of this program, I could actually go to school here for free? I am in!’” Santana told TimesOC in May 2022.

Santana earned a scholarship from C-CAP to study at Le Cordon Bleu London for one week and, later, a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Chef Amar Santana cuts a 55-day dry-aged ribeye on at Vaca in Costa Mesa.
Chef Amar Santana cuts a 55-day dry-aged ribeye on March 7 at Vaca in Costa Mesa.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

His success made him a confident cook, and while he was in New York, he dreamed of making it to “Top Chef.”

“I always wanted to do it when I was in New York,” said Santana, “but at that point in time I didn’t speak English very well.”

Then Santana learned about one of his friends and former classmates getting on the show and doing well.

“Ilan Hall, we used to work together and went to school together,” Santana said, “and when he won ‘Top Chef’ [season 2] I remember being, like, I am better than this guy, he is my friend.”

His competitive nature drove him to make his way on to season 13.

Santana isn’t just motivated by friendly competition, however. In the past, his appearance on the show brought in more customers to his restaurants.

“As a business owner like me, it is great for business,” said Santana. “When people connect with you on the show, they want to come to your restaurant and meet you and have your food.”

Vaca, his Spanish tapas restaurant in Costa Mesa, opened seven years ago during the same week of his season 13 appearance airing.

“We were basically sold out for the whole year,” said Santana. “We were a new restaurant, but the fact that I was on TV around the same time we opened ... it was crazy.”

Although “Top Chef” is now in its 20th season and Santana on his third round, he said there are always new lessons to be learned.

Chef Amar Santana cuts a 55-day dry-aged ribeye at Vaca restaurant in Costa Mesa.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I learned so much from the other chefs,” said Santana. “They are bringing flavors from all over the world that were new to me.”

Santana also learned he isn’t done competing quite yet.

“You are never too old to compete,” laughs Santana, who first appeared on “Top Chef” at 33 and is now 40. “I kept saying that I am too old … I learned that even at my age I can still run around with the young kids.”

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