It’s quite a challenge to find someone in Macau who isn’t familiar with Santos, the founder of O Santos – Comida Portuguesa restaurant in Taipa Village, which has been a mainstay of authentic Portuguese cuisine in Macau for the last 30 years. Known to welcome guests with open arms and an open heart, Santos prides himself on having friends instead of customers. A former sailor, the restaurant owner has been based in Macau since 1983 and has witnessed the city’s significant changes throughout the years. Santos was kind to welcome us to his restaurant in Taipa Village and share with us a little bit of his journey through some of his stories and adventures.
Can you tell us about what brought you to Macau? We believe you were once a sailor but how did you become a chef?
Yes, my youth years were spent at the Portuguese Navy. I first came to Macau in 1983 as a cook for the Navy, which had been my job since 1971. I loved those years in the Navy, traveling all over the world, going to beautiful places and meeting wonderful people! I made very good friends there, friends for life, in fact. We were a very close-knit group and joked all the time. That’s what happens when you are stuck together on a ship, away from your family! (laughs).
When I joined the Navy at 20 years old I was already married to my ex-wife. Back then life in Alentejo wasn’t easy and we were struggling to make ends meet. So I figured the best chance I had at a better living was to join the Navy. I went in into the office one day and told the official I really wanted to join the Navy, and enquired about which of the open positions did I have a better shot at. He told me to apply for the cook position, as “no one wants that “bloody” job” So I did, got the job, and loved it.
After completing the academy and Navy training, I underwent cooking training in Vila Franca de Xira for a year and a half. That’s where I learned the kitchen skills and became a cook–there are no chefs in the Navy, just cooks! So basically it was out of necessity that I became a cook. After the training, I was deployed aboard a ship headed to Belgium. I was eager to start sailing and that was quite a reality check: as soon as we sailed off, while still crossing the Tagus river bridge I started feeling dizzy and by the time the ship turned north, I kept throwing up! I felt so sick I had to lie down for the whole trip. My boss was kind to bring caldo verde to my chamber.
When did you first arrive in Macau? What was your impression of Macau back then? How do you consider the changes the city underwent ever since?
When I got to Macau for the first time. I was amazed at how tiny the city was. I immediately got to work, cooking at the Navy headquarters. Initially, I thought I’d be cooking just for the people I work with, but I was mistaken. I had to cook for many people on a daily basis, including for some fancy government public workers.
I flew with Lufthansa at the time, had a stopover in Pakistan and landed in Hong Kong in the evening. That was in December 1983. I was amazed at Hong Kong and all its glittery lights! I took the jetfoil to Macau and went straight to the Navy quarters in Barra where I’d stay, which was at what we know today as the Maritime Museum. The Navy’s mess was at the current Moorish Barracks and that’s where I’d go to work every day.
At the time I found a quiet, peaceful Macau, I’d compare the city, or say Barra where I spent my days, to Alentejo. I loved it. Later on, I moved to a place nearby Lou Lim Ioc garden and noticed the city was actually busier than what I had witnessed in Barra. The city would start bustling early in the morning and buses were abundant. There was one casino, the one at Hotel Lisboa, and that was about it.
But the real turning point would take place in 1999, following the Handover, when the gaming industry bloomed.
The changes Macau underwent? To be honest, as Macau grew, my living quality as a citizen, as well as that of all those who lived in Macau (whether they like to admit it or not) got worse. However, as a business owner, it got better and even been advantageous. There are these two contrasting feelings towards the changes in Macau.
But thankfully, this restaurant never went through that early striving stage many businesses undergo. I first opened Santos Restaurant in November 1989, and took over this space that had been a restaurant too previously, serving Portuguese food as well. So I ended up keeping the clients the former management had plus the people from the Navy’s mess, to whom I had been catering for six years and who really liked my home-style cooking. In addition, I got the Hong Kong-based British customers that were queuing up for a meal at Pinoquio Restaurant. Some of them still come to my restaurant today! Back then, Santos was one of only three Portuguese restaurants in Taipa Village.
How did the opportunity to open Santos Restaurant arise? Was it something you were on the lookout for?
My mind was set on staying in Macau and I was aware that all I could do was to cook. This is all I know–nothing else. So I thought it was worth taking the risk. I was counting on my friends to visit my restaurant and was committed to keeping on working with honesty and an open heart, confident that things would work out for me–and it did! Today I can say that I have no customers but instead, I have friends. Each person coming to Santos for a meal is a friend of mine and is welcomed as so.
How would you describe the type of Portuguese cuisine you serve and what are some of your must-try dishes?
Traditional Portuguese food; simple and unpretentious. There’s no intention to become a Michelin starred restaurant and frankly there’s not any innovative approach to cooking. If you look at the menu, you’ll find comfort food like Alentejo style pork (cubes of pork served along potatoes and clams). The secret? It’s not a secret really. On the contrary, it is quite simple: high-quality ingredients, careful preparation, and an open heart. To cook with love and welcome people with open hearts.
I have a hard time recommending dishes. It depends on who’s asking. Suckling pig is always a winner amongst the Chinese community, they love it. I don’t even have to recommend it, they always order it. I have many Brazilian customers and they usually come for the roasted codfish. But in general Asian diners are really into suckling pig, duck rice and, recently, seafood rice.
There’s a funny story around the suckling pig. One day I stepped into the restaurant and one of my waiters was speaking to a Chinese couple. They asked for a picture with me and of course, I obliged. That picture would make the cover of a Hong Kong publication in the upcoming days, as they named Santos’ suckling pig the best in Asia. After the magazine was published I had a long queue of people lining up at the door to have a taste at it! But the article stated that the cooking method was roasted on wood fire and that wasn’t true. Since then Santos’ suckling pig made a name for itself!
Santos is very successful nowadays. Has it always been this way? What challenges did you face in the beginning? Have you always been in this location?
Thank God, there was never a particularly hard stage here at Santos. Back when I first opened the place, more than 90% of our guests were Portuguese. We were always packed with Portuguese people for lunch, welcoming lawyers, architects, engineers and public workers for their lunch breaks. For dinner, we would host groups of friends on a night out and they would stick around until late. The least favorable time in over 30 years of operations was during the SARS outbreak in 2012.
What would you say is the key to the success of your restaurant?
Dedication. To cook with much care and attention. Hard work, long hours of work! There’s not much life going on outside these walls. I’m 70 years old and this is my life. And of course, good produce. There’s no point in trying to save on produce. Produce must be good and that means it won’t come at a low price for the business. But I really don’t care. Becoming rich is not a goal of mine. If I offer a bottle of wine to a cheerful, friendly group of diners I’m not losing the cost of said bottle. I’m earning friends! I can proudly say I have friends from all over the world.
You’re known to have a very particular way to welcome those who dine at Santos. Besides being very friendly, you easily engage in conversations and share your many adventures throughout the years. Do you think this plays a role in your success? As in, you make people feel like you’re just hosting friends over for a meal.
There you have it, it’s like hosting friends. This is the way I am. And I’ve always been like that, it’s not some sort of act I put on due to owning a restaurant. I am as you see me here. It doesn’t mean I don’t have problems in my life–I do. But it’s not in me to let those pull me down. And to stand here day after day with a smile and an open heart has earned me countless friends.
How about distinguished guests you’ve hosted over the years? Naturally, we’d like to hear about that Rolling Stones visit or any you are happy to share.
That was hilarious! I’ll always thank my dear friend Cristiana, a dentist, and her husband for that. The saxophone player Ronnie went to see her for an appointment and asked Cristiana about where to go for a nice meal, preferably grilled fish. They would also be celebrating the band’s drum player’s wife 65th birthday that evening. You can see the pictures we took together spread on the walls.
Later on, my phone rang, an English number calling. They requested a secluded table for 10, on a Saturday, under the band at The Venetian Macao. This got me thinking… could it be The Rolling Stones? My friend told me I was crazy and that they’d never dine in a place like Santos! We made a bet that he’d buy me dinner somewhere if the Rolling Stones came indeed.
So my humble restaurant had the drummer, saxophonist, and the road manager, plus their family members for dinner. I was delighted! They were so friendly and outgoing, all of them. Of course, I called my daughter to come over and take pictures with us! It was such a pleasant evening. We made sure there was a cake for the birthday lady, they drank Cartuxa (Alentejo red wine) and we chatted for a while. They were really down to earth and hugged me as they left.
Their concert was the Sunday after that at The Venetian Macao and I had a bunch of friends attending. Suddenly I start getting texts from them saying that Mick Jagger shouted out Santos Restaurant and its wonderful codfish!
The Monday after Cristiana calls me to let me know Mick Jagger would be coming to Santos for lunch and as I spoke to her on the phone he walks in and heads up to the first floor. It’s funny that as he made his way up none of my Chinese guests seemed to recognize him. I went to greet him, even though my English isn’t so good. Mick Jagger asked me to talk on the phone with his son Lucas, who speaks Portuguese (his mother is Brazilian). The kid was so nice! We spoke for a while, as he wanted to hear about China, Portugal, Brazilian people in Macau and so on. As we hung up, Mick Jagger stood up, embraced me and said, “Thank you Santos for talking to Lucas”.
He’s a good man who also supports a team in red as I do.
We’ve had many distinguished guests over the years.. football players from Portugal’s national team, like Nuno Gomes and Petit, musicians like Luís Represas, Dulce Pontes and Rão Kyao, the fado guitarist, António Chainho.
You’re a die-hard football fan. Tell us about all these teams’ scarves you have on display. Do people bring these over as a gift or is this your private collection? Who do you support and why?
Allow me the correction: I’m a mild football fan and a die-hard SL Benfica (Portuguese football team) fan! I can’t tell you why Benfica though. I guess it’s because they did wonderfully well when I was young, they won everything there was to win and this love is for life, stronger than any marriage.
I haven’t bought a single scarf, to be honest (see featured image)! Friends have been gifting these scarves to me for years. I recently started stocking up scarves from Casa do Benfica de Macau to gift back to those who are kind enough to bring me a scarf.
Is retiring something you think of? Can you share with our readers, what do you have planned for the near future?
Technically, I’m retired from the Portuguese Navy. I did 24 years of service in total. Quitting from this ever-busy life at the restaurant? I have no idea. I love doing what I do. This is all I think about from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed. I bought a beautiful quiet property in Alentejo and I love spending time there, enjoying nature, listening to singing birds. But I could never do that every day. I feel drawn to this speedy pace of life in Macau. I won’t stop anytime soon!
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