Carolina Santos-Neves grew up traversing the globe. The daughter of a diplomat for the Brazilian government, she lived all over, from Geneva and Manhattan to Mexico City. Everywhere she went, she was enamored, most of all, by the riches of food options. Sitting down for dinner as a family was always a priority—no matter where the clan was. And, items like escargot and carpaccio were normal to the latent chef. “I had an opinion about everything we were eating,” she says, with a throaty laugh. “Everywhere we traveled, I was exposed to foods that weren’t normal for kids my age. My love of food stems from that—and my family.”
Though becoming a chef was always bubbling in the back of Santos-Neves mind (throwing casual dinner parties, for example, was de riuguer for her), her circuitous path led her to work in film and music before finding her way into the food world through working Epicurious.com. A part-time program at the Natural Gourmet Institute nudged her closer to her dream. And finally, through a serendipitous connection made at a supper club, Santos-Neves linked up with now-business partner, chef Felipe Donnelly. Now, the team (along with sommelier and partner Tamy Rofe, as well as Mac Osborne, director of operations and Lauren English, catering chef) offers vibrant, diverse, wholesome food with a Latin underpinning at their restaurants Comodo in SOHO and Colonia Verde in Ft. Greene, as well as international cuisine through, Compartí Catering. RSBS chatted with the avid traveler to find out about her life in the kitchen, tips for home cooking and her favorite home-chef tools.
SBS: What’s cooking about for you?
CSN: For me, cooking has always been about gathering people, whether that was for dinner with my family or lunches with my grandmother. When I threw dinner parties early on, it was always casual and pot-luck, because it’s the people that truly make the event. In my restaurants, then, we draw from a lot of nostalgia for those gatherings. It’s playful, and we let our imagination run wild: We don’t overthink things.
SBS: In the male-dominated kitchen industry, how do you feel being a female in—and at the helm of—kitchens?
CSN:The male-dominated kitchen world definitely exists, but I’ve always been only in my own spots. However, I do work with two guys on my line, and I felt I had to prove myself. But, I felt I was proving myself as a person, as a chef—not as a woman chef. I have never thought I know everything. I’m creative and dedicated, but there’s always more to learn. So, I don’t see it as a gender thing, but a reminder to always be learning and growing more.
SBS: What are your favorite dishes at your restaurants?
CSN: We’re always trying new things, but right now I’m loving the mezcal-braised octopus, the salmon tostada and our steak.
SBS: What are chef-tastic starter items?
CSN: My favorite knife is a Korin. It's an amazing, beautiful Japanese knife. Wusthof options are also wonderful.
SBS: What are your favorite types of workouts?
CSN: I love yoga, running and cross-training, and for a splurge, I love barre class!
SBS: What’s your place of peace?
CSN: My peaceful activity can be anything from chopping to just walking to spending time by myself or sitting in a hot bath. I love my morning coffees.
CHEF CAROLINA’S DO’S AND DON’TS FOR NEW CHEFS:
DO use spices to flavor, and explore new options. I love applying what I learned from one dish to others. For example, I use ginger, turmeric and cinnamon in a chicken tagine. I love mixing veggies in to that same set-up.
Don't be afraid! Try something new. Even if it doesn't turn out exactly as you hoped, try it again. That's what I tell myself all the time! Just because I'm a chef doesn't mean things always go well the first time around.
Don’t be afraid of using a little fat like butter or olive oil. Even in healthy cooking, you need fat. Also, a touch of Parmesan cheese, avocado or eggs never hurt anyone. I always like to add some kind of protein to a dish, whether it’s nuts, beans, avocado or fish.
CHEF CAROLINA’S FAVORITE RECIPES RIGHT NOW:
Preheat your oven to 425. Break apart a head of cauliflower, drizzle olive oil and salt over it, and place it on baking sheet. Then, heat up a little water with saffron threads until the saffron dissolves. Pour it over the cauliflower. Add chopped shallots and your dried fruit of choice. Roast it all for about 20 minutes. Delicious!
Add cooked quinoa, avocado, chickpeas and feta to arugula with a simple dressing of honey, mustard, olive oil, salt, pepper and caramelized shallots for a healthy, flavorful meal.