A couple sits and sips their glasses of wine at the long bar that runs from the entrance of Carma to the open kitchen where dishes fly out during the dinner hour. They sit in comfortable silence until their attention turns to the show at the end of bar.
Carma’s executive chef Leo Santana, 34, is sprinkling herbs and rotating pans as he prepares sweet and spicy flatbread, fettuccine de mare and lobster spiedini. His movement is measured. This isn’t a flashy performance. It’s an orchestral piece where everything has come in on time in order for the whole plate to come together.
Santana is a fixture at Carma. He’s even got a steak (a filet with a rosemary demi-glace) named after him.
“People wonder how I can work such long hours,” Santana says, his grin revealing his answer before his words. “I love it.”
The chef grew up outside Houston, Texas. One of five kids, he was cooking for his family before he was out of grade school. Both his parents worked, so when he turned 10 years old, his mom turned over some of the dinner duties to him.
“My mom would leave me a piece of paper that would tell me to use this much water and cook [a chicken] for this long,” Santana remembers.
An uncle in the restaurant business helped him start his career in the kitchen. He moved to Kansas City to work in the Canyon Café and he decided to stay here after meeting his wife. They now have five kids of their own.
He learned the Italian classics during his five years at Garozzo’s and a bit about fusion over nine years at YaYa’s European Bistro. When it opened in December 2013, Carma, formerly Carmen’s Café, represented Santana’s first chance to run a kitchen.
“I feel like if we deliver great food, people will be happy,” Santana says. “This is my opportunity to do what I really want to do. It’s my time. Carma is my personality.”
The Park Place restaurant has made a commitment under Santana to be a scratch kitchen that utilizes fresh ingredients. The staff grinds its own sausage and makes the ricotta cheese. Fresh herbs -- Santana uses everything from microgreens to parsley -- dot plates of pasta and soup.
One of the early hits for Carma was the introduction of flatbreads. The crackly appetizers -- featured in the adjacent Carma Café and on Carma’s Happy Hour – were one of Santana’s first menu changes. The restaurant makes it own pizza dough for the café and uses it for the flatbreads. The sweet and spicy has shrimp tossed in a sweet chili sauce with feta cheese, arugula and a lemon vinaigrette drizzle.
“It’s spicy, but not too heavy. The feta is a little bit salty and then you have that fresh salad with the arugula,” Santana says.
Seafood features prominently into the menu at Carma. And it’s often paired with pasta, which is just another way for Santana to make an impression on diners.
“We roll all the pasta out by hand. We make the dough with flour and eggs and then we roll it out,” Santana says. “I saw the electric pasta machines and I told the owner I want that for Christmas.”
Two of the more popular seafood pastas are fettuccine de mare and lobster speidini – a pair of entrees that are new interpretations of familiar dishes from Carmen’s Café.
For the fettuccine, Santana sautés mussels, shrimp, and scallops in garlic butter, white wine and lemon juice. The garlic cream sauce is one of the seven different sauces made in house. He then adds in tomatoes, mushrooms, oregano and parsley.
“The homemade fettuccine takes time and it feels different when you eat it,” Santana says. “I love the presentation and flavors.”
The lobster spiedini is a regular special, made with fresh lobster that’s marinated in butter and dusted with Italian breadcrumbs and spices (crushed red peppers, garlic, parsley and a little bit of lemon juice). It’s then skewered and charbroiled on the grill. It comes with a pair of sautéed shrimp with lemon butter or champagne cream sauce and a side of pasta like the linguini amogio made with olive oil, garlic, basil and a touch of red sauce.
Santana is excited by the response he’s seeing in the dining room, but he doesn’t see a chef’s job ending with the tiled floor of the kitchen.
“I focus on the entire restaurant, whether it’s serving or the menu. People may say, ‘I’ve never seen a chef clean the carpet before,’” Santana says. “But I don’t have a problem with that. I want my restaurant to look good.”
For him, the kitchen is home and the diners are guests in that home.
“This is not a company restaurant,” Santana says. “It’s a family restaurant.”