Kingbird, the buzzy restaurant on the ground floor of the Watergate Hotel is that rare place that attracts both locals and visitors. Initially, people were drawn to the storied history of one of the hotel world’s most anticipated relaunches, but quickly curiosity was replaced by respect for the food. The credit for this feat goes to Chef Michael Santoro, who delivers standout food in a town now crowded with great kitchens. Santoro’s wagyu beef tataki is melt-in-your-mouth perfect; his scallops refined with rhubarb and brown butter; and his reverence for the vegetable is on display in sides like char-grilled beets with toasty pecans and grille carrots spiked with cardamom and paired with tangy yogurt. Santoro brings his international experiences –including stints at Michelin Star restaurants like The Fat Duck in England and Mugaritz in Spain—to the menu while sourcing from local farmers and artisans, thanks to relationships he forged while helming kitchen in DC, Philadelphia and most recently New York City, where he was Executive Chef at the Andaz on 5th Avenue.
What drew you to become a chef?
Honestly, it was the only thing I was ever good at, enough to earn a living.
Any early memories of cooking?
Most definitely. My best mate’s mother was from Naples, Italy. Growing up I would literally finish dinner at my house and go directly to his and eat legs of lamb, fresh made pastas, sweets, you name it. My earliest cooking memory was when I learned how to properly pick a lamb head.
From veal to vegan, what drives the diversity of your menu?
The diversity of what this region has to offer. The veal is 100% vertically born, raised, and harvested, free ranging local product. With so much diverse vegetable and growing season, doing vegan food is inspiring. Basically, we cook what our experiences are. Luckily, most of us have had the fortune of travel and working all over the world. Bringing those inspirations and preparations to DC is what makes this job so much fun.
Any thoughts about working inside The Watergate, with it’s..uh..rich history?
Pour me a couple of whiskies and I’ll tell you all about it! I have the whole scoop!
When you’re not working, what’s your favorite go-to meal at home or out?
I cook on Sunday’s at my house for my wife and son. I teach him new dishes every week. His favorite is pasta, so as long as he is eating and helping it’s my favorite as well.
Are there any ingredients that you haven’t had a chance to work with yet but would love to incorporate?
When I was in Amsterdam, there was this tiny little restaurant that sat eight people. The owner, cooked the food, sat the table, served the table, cleared the table. It was so cool. She served me a braised lamb ear with skate wing dish, that I have not forgotten to this day—that was 15 years ago. I have been looking for lamb ear ever since and still haven’t been able to find it.
Flash forward ten years: What are you doing?
Celebrating our 5th year of 3 Michelin stars.