Former 'Hell's Kitchen' contestant Jason Santos shares the secret to making the show's notorious lobster risotto 'from beginning to end, in 3 minutes'
From undercooked rice to a poorly-seasoned dish, Hell's Kitchen fans are no stranger to chef Gordon Ramsay's rants about the many ways contestants mess up his iconic lobster risotto recipe. The famed dish, found on Hell's Kitchen restaurant menus around the U.S., may seem intimidating to the home cook, but chef Jason Santos, a restaurateur and cookbook author who appeared on Season 7 of Hell's Kitchen, says it's easier than you might think.
"It blows out everything you've ever learned," Santos tells Yahoo Life. "I think the way [Gordon Ramsey] makes the risotto is different from anything I've seen in my life — you take everything you know about risotto and throw it out the window to make it his way."
"It's sincerely the best I've ever had," he adds, "and I've made it the same way ever since."
What makes a good risotto turn bad?
Risotto, a rice dish made with short-grain arborio rice, is well-known for being time-consuming. But Santos, who's latest endeavor is a cookbook titled Simple Fancy: A Chef's Big-Flavor Recipes for Weeknight Cooking, says it doesn't always need to be difficult.
"Traditional risotto [is made up of] garlic, shallots, whatever you're putting in it, and then you put the rice [in the pan] and you keep feeding it hot stock," he says. "You add a ladle, let the rice absorb, add another ladle, and next thing you know, you're spending a half an hour making risotto."
Chefs stand over steaming pots of stock and slowly cook the rice, stirring constantly to achieve the perfect consistency and even then, as seen on Hell's Kitchen, sometimes the dish still doesn't quite pan out.
"Bad risotto is when it's overcooked and mushy," he says, "or if you pour it onto the plate and it keeps its form, it's already too late. [Poorly-cooked risotto is] like eating a little lead weight — not into that. I never order it in a restaurant, because I feel nine out of ten times, you do get bad risotto."
The easy (and fast) way to make risotto
While terrible risotto is a disappointment to chefs and diners alike, the finicky rice dish can be even more daunting for the home cook. So how does the perfect risotto fit into Santos' cookbook, where he shares recipes that elevate simple meals made at home?
"Because the book is geared towards the home cook, risotto might seem a little pretentious or hard to make," says Santos, "but [Ramsey's] way makes it very easy. It's a way to make risotto in minutes instead of a half an hour."
"I think it comes out a lot better, and I just thought, everyone always asks me about food from TV, so I thought it would make for a perfect chapter," he adds, "give a nod to Gordon Ramsey, and demystify the whole risotto thing."
For chefs and home cooks who have made the dish in the past, fifteen minutes might seem like a pipe dream for a perfectly cooked, creamy risotto, but Santos says it's all in the technique.
"You take the arborio rice and you blanch it (scald it in boiling water for a short time) as if you're blanching pasta," he says. "Boil salted water, throw in the rice, boil it for nine minutes, strain it and throw it on a sheet pan. It's 90% cooked, so all you're doing is just picking it up. Once it's blanched, I can make risotto, from beginning to end, in three minutes."
With the traditional method removed, foodies may wonder if the consistency is less creamy, as rice starch isn't utilized to thicken the final product through that slow addition of stock to the rice. However, the Hell's Kitchen sous chef, who later appeared on Seasons 19, 20, and 21 of the show, says the recipe is not only creamier, but more flavorful.
"It's better because you can argue that rice starch has flavor, but I would rather have mascarpone cheese for creaminess than rice starch," he says. "So yes, when you cook the rice [through blanching] it does get rid of a lot of the starch, but you replace it with more flavor."
What makes Hell's Kitchen's risotto special?
That flavor comes from majorly decadent and creamy ingredients that also give the dish body, texture and an amazingly buttery mouthfeel.
"It gets butter, mascarpone cheese and parmesan cheese at the end, which brings it all together," says Santos. "Mascarpone cheese is one of my favorite ingredients, so adding that just immediately makes it creamy, but you don't have that starchy, thick risotto — it's not supposed to be like that."
While Santos is sharing this recipe in his book, he makes sure to give credit for this technique, which has been studied, tested and perfected by Gordon Ramsey, to the man who made the dish famous on his reality cooking competition show.
"It's been on the menu since day one, it's Gordon Ramsey's signature dish," he says. "When I was a contestant 12 years ago, it was on the menu … it's just something he's become famous for … I remember the first time I made it thinking What is this sorcery?"
Tips for making the dish at home
After making the dish for over a decade, Santos shares his top tips for that velvety consistency every time.
"Blanch the rice," he says, "specifically for nine minutes. We've tested it either way — 12 minutes, it's overcooked, six minutes it's undercooked — so that technique is important."
After blanching the rice, it takes just a few quick steps to finish the dish.
"You don't put [the blanched rice] in an ice bath, you don't oil it, you just lay it out on a flat surface, like a sheet pan, until it cools," says Santos. "Then, when you're ready to cook, you start building your flavor — hot pan, oil, garlic, shallots, sauté it, throw the rice in — you toast the rice in the oil to keep the grains separate, you deglaze with white wine and then you start adding lobster stock until you get the texture and consistency you like."
Next, it's all about adding those final touches. "Finish it with mascarpone, butter and parmesan cheese," says Santos, "and then, at the last minute, add your cooked lobster meat."
That all-important lobster stock and meat elevate this rich dish — but what makes the seafood delicacy a perfect pairing for risotto?
"I think lobster is fresh and buttery," says Santos, "and that mascarpone and butter risotto really lends itself — you dip your lobster generally in butter, why not dip it in mascarpone and butter? I like the texture, too. The kind of chewy lobster and the creamy rice gives it balance, in my opinion."
While lobster is a seamless pairing for the Hell's Kitchen-style dish, this life-changing risotto-making hack can be utilized to bring any of your favorite flavors to life. "I don't think lobster is the [only] perfect match," says Santos. "To me, butternut risotto is just as good. It's just what's on the show, but if it had been butternut on the show, I would have done butternut."
"My favorite thing about this recipe is the technique of balancing the rice," he continues. "In this case, we use lobster stock to flavor it, but if you're making butternut, you could add butternut squash puree at the end, or English pea puree. It's just a blank palette — it's rice, what do you want to put on your rice?"
Ready to give Santos' risotto tips a try? He shares his recipe for lobster risotto below.
Infamous HK Lobster Risotto
Courtesy of Jason Santos, Page Street Publishing Co.
If you've ever watched Hell's Kitchen, then you know how iconic this risotto is. In fact, it's made the cut for 20 seasons! You probably also know how much the contestants screw it up. This isn't your normal way of making risotto, which is why it's so hard for the contestants to get right. But trust me when I tell you it's the best you'll ever have. I've adjusted the recipe to be very easy, versatile and crazy-fast to make. You'll never make risotto any other way again. I know I haven't.
Pinch of salt
1 cup (197 g) arborio rice
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil
8 to 10 cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon (10 g) minced shallot
¼ cup (60 ml) dry white wine
2 cups (480 ml) lobster stock
1 cup (145 g) lobster meat
2 tablespoons (29 g) mascarpone
2 tablespoons (12 g) lemon zest
1 tablespoon (3 g) minced chives
1 tablespoon (14 g) butter
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons (8 g) roughly chopped Italian parsley, for garnish
Blanch the arborio rice: Heat a pot of salted water as you would for cooking pasta. Once it has boiled, add the rice and give it a stir. Let it cook for 9 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain. Do not shock the rice, rinse it in cold water, add any oil or do anything to it! Just strain it and spread it out flat on a pan to cool.
In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over high heat until hot, then add the cherry tomatoes and cook just until blistered but not mushy, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove them from the pan and set aside. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic and shallot and sweat until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir for 30 seconds to evenly coat the rice with the mixture.
Deglaze with the white wine, which will also stop the garlic and shallots from overcooking. Add hot lobster stock incrementally in four portions, stirring constantly until the rice is just cooked. When the texture you like is achieved, add the lobster meat and heat just until it is warmed. Fold in the mascarpone, lemon zest, chives and butter, and mix until well incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Then, using a potato peeler, shave some Parmesan over the top. Add the blistered cherry tomatoes and garnish with chopped parsley.
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.