Orlando Santos

How tough was it for Orlando Santos to get the boot from Top Chef: Just Desserts one week shy of the finale? "Between Judges' Table and the stew room, I think I had completely lost every feeling that I had," he tells TVGuide.com. "When I got to the stew room, seeing everyone just brought back the emotions and all the effort and time it took to get me where I was. It was very, very difficult. When I left off-camera, it was even harder, just walking away knowing I was so close to the finale, and I just broke down."

Santos was shown the door for his dessert-in-disguise paella — the critique of which he found "a little disturbing." Find out why he disagreed with the judges, if he considers himself this season's villain and why he worships Cat Cora.

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Did you think you were going to get eliminated or did you think it was too close to tell?
It was a close call. Altogether, just like Johnny [Iuzzini] said, it was going to come down to the point where we have to split hairs now. Realistically, between Matthew and me, we both had flaws in the presentation, but at the same time, we had really strong desserts. So I guess I had more flaws than Matt did.

It seemed like they liked your flavors, but not the execution, whereas it was the opposite for him.
Which is a little bit disturbing. Within the competition, flavor played a lot later on. At the beginning, it was more the aesthetics of what we were doing. When you look at the pictures [of my paella] they showed, it's not like it was just thrown together. I physically placed all the elements, all the fish, all the compressed fruit. They were strategically placed on the plate so they were appealing to the judges. I disagree with them saying that the execution wasn't clean. My cuts were excellent, the plate was very clean, the presentation was clean — I think it was all there.

You were the only one who didn't create a solid object, so do you think that hurt you?
I don't think so. All in all, I tried to replicate the elements as best as I could in the dish. The dark shell that was done in the tuile cookie was supposed to be the mussel. It had the sliced apples, the pieces of onion. There was compressed fruit that represented slices of red pepper. Another thing could've been that I didn't explain it well enough for the judges. Visually, it was appealing because they said it. When it was in front of them, they loved how it looked. Maybe they just didn't get the full idea from my explanation.

Hubert Keller also criticized you for cooking rice in a cooker.
The reason I cooked it in the rice cooker versus making it in an individual pan was ... there was no possible way to produce that many plates in those individual sautee pans in time. I plated them individually in the pans, but I cooked the bulk of the rice in the rice cooker because it was faster. It was as very difficult challenge, and I had to streamline it somehow. During the entire competition, they kept saying, "You have to edit yourself. Edit yourself." When I finally edited myself, they tell me, "Don't edit yourself." So one part of it is, you're giving me criticism that I'm constructively utilizing and now you're taking it back and saying, "No, you shouldn't be using it." ... I did not defend myself [at Judges' Table about that]. I just let it go. I was too exhausted that day just to comment.

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So that was your equivalent of Chris using the store-bought puff pastry?
Yeah! Chris used it and I'm not going to attack it. What's the point? He did great execution, but the day before, I couldn't see him making puff pastry in two hours on the day of. On the first day, I think it would've been difficult to make puff pastry, but I think he had enough time to come back [the next day] and finish it.

They showed you scrambling to plate.
Which I thought was hilarious. I had adequate time to plate the dish. There was enough time left over that I was able to finish every plate to put down in front of the judges and make each of them look exactly like they were supposed to. I really wasn't rushed. It was just the magic of TV! They make things look different than they seem. It's preparing you for [my elimination].

You were portrayed as the villain early on, but that image softened up as the season went along. Did you set out to be the villain or was it just edited that way?
It was edited. I can be difficult in the sense that I tell people this is how I perceive what I do. The company that I work for, it's like an institution and you have to represent the institution. They hold you to a very high standard. So for me lowering my standard to try to become friends with somebody, it's not going to happen. I demand a lot from myself and they demand twice as much from me. I guess it comes off as me being arrogant or, excuse the word, an ass----, but I gotta do what I gotta do. On Top Chef, we were working with a lot of different personalities than we were used to on a regular basis. I just disagreed with a lot of the things that a lot of the contestants did. But we're all trained differently. My facial expressions say a lot, and I just don't know how to hide them.

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It was nice to see you guys as friends, compared to last season when everyone was fighting and crying.
Yeah, during the entire season, we were all pretty close. We all got along. If you look at my exit interview online, they actually showed more clips of us in the house having fun. We were there to do business, but at the same time, we got to enjoy each other's company from time to time. It was pretty cool. I'm sorry I came off as the villain, but they got to see a different side of me when I got to help Rebecca out or worked with Sally.

Why is Cat Cora your idol?
I love Cat Cora! Oh my God! For the simple fact that Cat is the first female Iron Chef. I think it's awesome. It's an amazing accomplishment. In the industry — it still happens today — you have females who have to fight 10 times harder to show their talent because of that simple fact. I like that Cat was able to showcase her talent during the course of the competition and come out on top of all of those guys and show them that, "Hey, I'm just as good, if not better, than you are." Her food is phenomenal. It was an honor to be able to meet Cat. I hope to actually to get to go down to her restaurant and get to spend some time with her. ... It's unfortunate [I got eliminated when she was on], but I didn't take it as a negative. I actually took it very positively at the end. I take it as constructive criticism and will use that to make myself better.

What are you up to now?
Right now, I'm trying to decide what the next step is. Currently, I am the pastry chef at the Duquesne Club and I have a small chocolate business of my own, but I want to make sure the next step that I take is going to take my career above and beyond anything that I've done. Top Chef has done that, so what can I do now to make it even better? I've got to figure that out!