Comida del alma

Food for the soul

The Spectrum

On any given day, a group of young Latinos can be seen walking down Lisbon or Minnesota Avenue. It would be easy to assume they're on their way to cause trouble. The laughing, joking and anxiousness surrounding them can be easily mistaken as a recipe for disaster, when in fact, the group is only on its way to get a taste of home.

Another dinner by Felix Santana, the people's chef.

Santana, a senior international business major, attends UB with a full course load, but off campus, he's recognized as one of the best cooks by his friends - and even some strangers. Santana currently caters small, private events for friends and family for free but hopes to expand his horizons by opening a food truck in Buffalo and, eventually, his own restaurant.

"I feel like the kitchen is my office; it's work," Santana said. "I can see myself doing this for 80 hours a week and not complain. My back [will] kill me, I'll feel pain, but it's all mental."

Last Saturday, Jan. 26, it wasn't Santana's friend's kitchen that was his office. Santana hosted one of many "coros," a Dominican slang term for get-togethers but with a Latin twist.

The group of approximately 15 consisted of both UB and Buffalo State College students. Within five minutes of being at the Lisbon Avenue apartment, it was easy to see the camaraderie. The music alternated between bachata, merengue and hip-hop, but the mood stayed the same - comfortable yet hungry.

Although Santana's friends considered him the host, he seldom made appearances in the living room and only exited the kitchen to get fresh air followed by a pull from the hookah placed on the coffee table.

Santana's best friend and pseudo-sous chef, junior nursing major Amanda Torres, grew up in the world of catering. Her mother, a caterer herself, taught Torres from a young age how possible it is for a person to single-handedly feed hundreds.

Santana has never had any formal training, yet Torres considers him a genius.

"We jokingly called him 'the food whisperer' the other day," Torres said. "His love for food and catering to others and seeing them enjoy his food: that is what gives him his talent. He has a huge heart and he puts all his love into his food and the people he makes it for."

Last Saturday's coro was a light day for Santana. While friends sat a few feet away discussing the Knicks-Hawks game, their fantasy basketball rosters and social plans for that night, Santana and Torres made a Dominican-style dinner. The menu for that night included ribs, morro de gandules (rice and pigeon peas), pastelitos (baked puff-pastry filled with savory beef) and pastelon, or Dominican lasagna (sweet plantains, beef and cheese), according to Santana.

Despite waiting hours to dig into Santana's one-man potluck dinner, the get-together at the Lisbon home didn't end when the food was served. In fact, conversation became louder and more spirited, and while some ran back to get second and third servings, others organized a post-dinner game of dominos while they digested their food.

Nights like these are common for Santana, according to Marlene Ferreris, his old roommate and a 2012 alumna with a Bachelor of Arts in geography.

"Sometimes living with Felix felt like we lived in a soup kitchen," Ferreris said. "He loves doing it for others, and being in college, it's something that makes everyone around him feel at home, away from home ... [his cooking had] a lot to do with our house being the center of socialization."

Santana's interest in cooking began at age 15 while watching his grandmother prepare Thanksgiving dinner in his native Lower East Side of Manhattan, N.Y. Within a year, his interest grew to a talent, and he assumed the responsibility of cooking the annual feast for his family.

By the time Santana arrived at UB, he had already honed his craft. Shortly after his freshman year began, he declined paying for a meal plan and began to cook in his dorm, MacDonald Hall.

Santana specializes in Latino, Italian and American food and hopes to develop his skills into other food genres. But for now, his current menu keeps his sizeable group of friends (and their friends) tight-knit and comforted.

"I cook on average for 15-20 people every day," Santana said. "There's never a certain number ... and if more people come, I start cooking again. Food never runs out."

Santana's cooking has sporadically made its way onto UB's North Campus, as well. After discovering the now-defunct Latin restaurant Papi's was overcharging Student Association club PODER (Puerto Rican Organization for Dignity, Equality and Responsibility) for food, Santana offered his services free of charge.

According to Darwinson Valdez, president of PODER and president of Santana's fraternity, Lambda Sigma Upsilon, Papi's charged PODER $900 to feed 150 people, while Santana only required $550 to feed 250 people.

Shortly after his first experience cooking for PODER, Santana offered to take over catering for the SA club's events charging only what the food would cost.

Santana has also used his talents to give back to the local community through both his fraternity and through leadership courses he has taken at UB. His services include cooking for Occupy Buffalo, the Salvation Army and PUSH Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing). Santana and his fraternity brothers also feed the homeless three times a year and he helped feed an all-women's homeless shelter for his UBE 496 course last fall.

His food has also made it to other college communities - one being Buffalo State, where Santana has become popular.

"The fire department [at Buffalo State] knows me," Santana said. "I've blown out four [fire] alarms before. There's pictures of me with the fire trucks on the Internet."

While traveling to schools in places as far as Pennsylvania, Santana is always looked upon to feed his hosts, which he does proudly, knowing he's their only option for a home-cooked meal.

"Every school I visit [lacks a Latino community]," Santana said. "I'm the only guy who cooks Spanish food. We are the minority at these colleges."

The closing of Papi's, once located on Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo, has left very few options for Latinos in Buffalo to buy authentic homemade food. Santana's specialty within the Latin food genre is Dominican food, which leaves only Niagara Caf?(c) on the West Side of Buffalo as a primary competitor.

Between the distance of Niagara Caf?(c) to UB and Buffalo State, as well as confidence in his one-of-a-kind-seasonings, sofrito - a blend of saut?(c)ed aromatic ingredients - and recipes, Santana feels little pressure to upstage the local restaurant.

"Restaurants in Buffalo use straight adobo, [powdered seasoning]. I use no dry seasoning," Santana said. "The only time I use [store-bought] sofrito is when I combined it [with my own if] I don't have any. I don't like anything in a powdered form; I like it all fresh and blended myself. It digests better."

Santana has no formal training and all his experiences have derived from trial-and-error situations. He has created his own sofrito, which he adds to every meal and experiments frequently with new ingredients, mixes and recipes.

"[Santana] makes the most authentic [Latino food] in Buffalo," said sophomore digital media studies major Ryan Brion. "It might even be better than my grandmother's, but don't tell her that."

While most of his entrees are based on typical Hispanic recipes, Santana has no qualms thinking outside the box.

His latest signature creation is his "cream cheese-ranch mashed potatoes," which include four cheeses, dry ranch powder, sour cream, cream cheese, butter, mayonnaise, salt and cilantro - one of Ferreris' favorites.

"I basically took the ingredients from Cool Ranch Doritos chips and applied it to my mashed potatoes," Santana said.

His other concoctions include baby blue rice, purple pork chops, lasagna with three different meats and fried frog legs. His ability to experiment and stay humble is what Torres believes will make Santana a successful chef in the future.

"Being a great chef has to do with the love [and] skill, but I would say not being afraid [is a bigger factor]," Torres said. "You cannot be afraid how it will taste, whether or not people will like your food, whether or not you will get cut or burned."

Santana has already obtained his food vendor's license and hopes to get the necessary credentials to possibly own his own food truck in Buffalo or New York City. He also aims to open a high-quality - but affordable - restaurant to introduce authentic Hispanic food to the masses.

Santana's current plans include catering a large-scale event for his fraternity this weekend, auditioning for The Food Network's Chopped on Feb. 28,two baby showers during Spring Break in March and two weddings later this year.

He is currently gaining momentum on the Internet for his dishes via Instagram and Twitter, which are both listed under his username "Chef_Felix7."

"If I didn't go to class, I could be in a kitchen all day working," Santana said. "I take pride in seeing people eat [my food]. I hate when people tell me they're hungry, [so] I do it for them."

Santana is hopeful for the future; he has increased his network and marketing skills and hopes that one day his passion will become profitable.