There’s something about Your Local. Since it opened its doors, the place is almost always fully booked, and has consistently been earning rave reviews. Maybe it’s the atmosphere of the place, which fits in among the trendy industrial interior designs of late, yet moodier and more intimate. Maybe it’s the slightly hidden location, obscured by a jollijeep and lacking in-your-face signage. Really though, it is all about the food. Chefs Denny Antonino and Nicco Santos have created something entirely their own, inspired by the flavors of Southeast Asia, bold and against the grain of whatever trend Manila restaurants are adopting these days. In spite of the restaurant’s popularity, Nicco Santos is sometimes known more for his photography than for his role in the kitchen. A quick look at his Instagram shows a feed full of gorgeous women, and his resume is chock full of features for Esquire, and other similar publications. He’s become the lensman of choice for some of the country’s most enigmatic female celebrities, with a style that is distinctly his. So how exactly does he do it all?
Pepper: Did your photography career come before your career in food?
Nicco Santos: Cooking came first. My mom’s tight group of friends are mostly cooks and chefs, so I would watch them cook around the house when growing up. One of my early mentors was Ed Quimson; cooking was my first love. My love for photography only started when I visited my cousin Andre in Singapore. I saw a film camera in his house, started playing around with it. Out of curiosity I started taking up photography lessons using that film camera. First I was just doing abstract and conceptual photography, but then I took one class with Leo Castillo on studio lighting, and taught us how to direct models. That was my first experience with a model, engaging with someone. Since then, I’d been shooting pure fashion.
P: You said the reason why you love photography is the way you engage or interact with the model. Is there a similarity between the way you connect with your models, and the way you connect with your ingredients and your food?
NS: They’re both very personal. I went to culinary for two years, but I did not apply anything from culinary to what I’m doing now. The lessons that stuck with me were the ones that my mentors taught me personally. My mentor in Malaysia was Muslim, and he taught me to make laksa; I really like dealing with people one-on-one. I like meeting people, developing relationships. In terms of shooting, it’s the same thing. When I meet a model, I won’t get my shots on the first take. I get some, but as we keep shooting over and over again, the more I become involved—it’s like getting to know a person, the more you spend time with them. Again it’s the same with cooking–the more I cook, when I deconstruct a dish or an ingredient, the more I know about it, and the more I can play with it.
P: So where are you most yourself? Behind the camera, or in the kitchen?
NS: Both. I think as long as there is a human connection, I’ll be myself. As long as I’m dealing with someone, I’m very comfortable. The whole reason why I’m so addicted to photography is because I like it when they see a different side of themselves. It’s very rewarding. Just like cooking, I get to transform a dish into something else– that’s the whole context, and it fuels my passion, as long as I can inspire people, or move people.
P: Here at Your Local, and in your previous venture Shiok, you have a great emphasis on Southeast Asian flavors. How did your interest in the cuisine grow; what inspired you?
NS: When I got out of culinary school, I wasn’t inspired to be honest. I wanted to understand techniques and the fundamentals of cooking, but I wasn’t inspired with the whole thing. I don’t believe in the whole military style of cooking. I didn’t think it was empowering. I just wanted to cook! The thing I did get exposed to was Singaporean cuisine, which to me, was so new, and so different from what I knew. I got so obsessed with it, and it eventually led me to Malaysia, to Hong Kong, to China, to Bali– I liked the fresh, crisp flavors.
P: Was there a particular dish during your journeys that really moved you?
NS: It was laksa. I came to the airport, and my cousin’s mom forgot to pick me up. So I took a bus to the nearest place he recommended, in Serangoon. I was so hungry, and I didn’t know where to go. So I ate in Chang Cham and I had laksa. I didn’t know what it was but it was awesome. It was spicy, and it wasn’t so rich too. It wasn’t nyonya laksa or katong laksa; this was a little more like curry. I told myself–I need to learn how to make this.
P: How do you balance your love of photography with your restaurant? With all the attention Your Local is getting, how do you find the time to keep your other creative interests satisfied?
NS: I’m full time here, I’m at Your Local every night. I guess I don’t shoot as much anymore, I pick my projects; maybe when I meet someone interesting I take a day off. But whenever I do take projects, I shoot them in the morning, say 8am, before I come to the restaurant. Nowadays, I’m here more often.
P: Does that mean then that you like being in the kitchen more?
NS: Not necessarily–I need to shoot, otherwise I’ll go crazy. I need to hold a camera and direct someone, at least maybe once a week. I’d go nuts.