Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Paul Sant was born in Victoria, Australia. He’s worked as a chef in London, Toronto, Miami and Bermuda. But even despite a sketchy first impression, Sant is sold on Louisville these days.
He recalls when he and his wife Mary Ellen first landed at Louisville International Airport in early 2008 and were greeted by an ice storm — not something one sees often in Miami or Bermuda.
“We thought, ‘What are we getting into?’” Sant, who recently was named executive chef at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, says with a laugh.
But he adds that, of all the cities where he’s lived and worked, Louisville is “probably my favorite. I absolutely love Louisville — it feels like home.”
Unlike many chefs, Sant wasn’t exactly set up to go into the hospitality industry by learning handed-down recipes from his family. No, he recalls being “a typical boy” and attending an all-boys school in Victoria where he was taught things like woodworking and sheet metal.
Only when a few of the boys requested a cooking class did the school put together a makeshift classroom and curriculum to accommodate them.
“I wish I could say I learned tugging at my mother’s apron,” says Sant, who is quick with a laugh and a witticism, “but I don’t remember when the lightning struck.”
He notes that the educational culture in Australia is quite different there. There is no middle school — it’s elementary school and high school, and the education isn’t designed to prep students for college, followed by a career.
“In Australia, you have to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life at age 16,” says Sant, 50. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”
So, there wasn’t really an inspirational moment when he fell in love with cooking; it just sort of happened. What he does remember is being at his first restaurant job as an apprentice, peeling carrots. Piles and piles of carrots.
“I thought, ‘Now, I’ve arrived,’” he jokes.
(He now says that peeling carrots is his therapy. He may or may not be saying this with a straight face.)
Speaking with Insider Louisville just days after Kentucky Derby weekend, he says he got a total of nine hours of sleep between the Thursday before and the Sunday after the big race. It gets that way the first weekend of May in Louisville.
Typically, however, he makes time for a life outside his profession: “I think if we can get away with 50 or 60 hours a week, we’ve done well,” he says.
In off hours, he spends time with Mary Ellen, their 14-year-old daughter Amanda, and the family dog, Benji, a yorkipoo that Sant swears is his miniature bodyguard.
“He thinks he’s Godzilla,” Sant says, “but he weighs 8 pounds.”
Home hours might be spent barbecuing or simply hanging out. While his love of barbecuing meats and veggies is admittedly partly born of a love of cooking and partly born of a love of playing with fire — “Don’t we have a caveman in all of us?” — he and Amanda also like to get nerdy.
“When we’re at home, it’s really easy,” he says. “We’re watching a Marvel movie or something silly like that.”
But in his professional life, he’s focused on quality food made with fresh ingredients. His history in fine dining goes back a long way — all the way back to Australia at the five-star Regent Hotel in Melbourne. He next served as the chef de partie at the renowned Hilton Olympia in London, followed by a stint in Toronto at the Four-Diamond resort Westin Harbour Castle.
After his stops in Bermuda and Miami, he landed at Tarrytown House Estate in New York. Louisville came calling in 2008 in the form of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, working with the late Dean Corbett.
He then served as chef at the Omni before accepting his current position at the Seelbach, where he oversees culinary operations at Gatsby’s on 4th, the Old Seelbach Bar, special events at The Oakroom, the banquet kitchen and all in-room dining.
“They said you can’t make it as a chef in Australia,” he jokes. “Well, I showed them. Whoever ‘they’ are.”
And while he’s an internationally trained and well-traveled chef, Sant’s tastes in food aren’t necessarily complicated. Just take a look at the Gatsby’s menu — it’s upscale Americana, with Southern favorites like shrimp and grits, fried cod and a smoked pork chop.
Ask him where he’d most likely go to dinner in Louisville, and he pauses only briefly before saying, “I’m a big fan of Joella’s. I’m a big fan of Against the Grain. Garage Bar. I think they all get it right.”
When it’s all said and done, even with all his travels and experiences as a chef, he repeatedly says he believes simple luck is what has carried him through and ultimately brought him from an all-boys school in Australia to Kentucky.
He’s settled into a life where he can enjoy bourbon whenever he wants. He takes in the culture. He doesn’t take life’s simple pleasures for granted. And he’s clearly having fun, even when he’s in the kitchen.
“We don’t have that many carrots here, thank goodness,” Sant says with a smile.