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Fort Lauderdale pastry chef Max Santiago on Food Network

Staff writer

Not many pastry chefs can say their career started in the U.S. Air Force. But Max Santiago, pastry chef at Valentino in Fort Lauderdale, says it was his four-year stint in our flying force that set him on track to culinary school.

“That’s actually how I started cooking,” says Santiago, 37. “I was 18, just had a baby and it was the best thing I could do at the time for a young guy that obviously needed medical benefits.”

Santiago was part of a team that won the Hennessy Trophy, an annual award presented to Air Force installations with the best food-service programs. Back home, he attended culinary school at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and a pastry chef was born. “I’ve been an artist ever since I was a kid,” he says, “so I really took a shine to pastry.”

At 10 Thursday, Santiago gets to test his pastry skills against two other chefs on Food Network’s “Sweet Genius,” in which chefs are presented with odd ingredients that they must turn into desserts within a limited amount of time. While Santiago can’t reveal the outcome of tonight’s competition, chorizo was one of the ingredients he was forced to use.

Like most pastry chefs, Santiago has been a fan of “Sweet Genius” since it began three years ago. He loves that it showcases pastry chefs specifically. “We actually use more tools than any other jobs in the kitchen,” he says.

While he’d often wondered how to get on the show, the producers called him to apply. “They called me, and I agreed. It was really a lengthy interview process. It was harder than getting a real job.”

The “Sweet Genius” kitchen in New York is much bigger than it looks on TV. And not knowing where anything was created the biggest challenge.

“When you’re laying back on your couch, it’s easy to say I could whip these guys,” Santiago says. It’s a whole different ball game when you’re there on the spot.”

While he’s competitive by nature, Santiago says “Sweet Genius” taught him that the TV spotlight might not be for him. “I got it out of my system,” he says. “I’d rather be in my terrain.”

Santiago’s creations have been on the menu at the former Chef Allen’s in Aventura and at Max’s Grille in Weston and Fort Lauderdale. He’s also created desserts at STK Miami, the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, the Ritz-Carlton in Coconut Grove, the Cove at Atlantis Bahamas, and was corporate pastry chef for Norman Van Aken.

At Valentino, his menu includes fried ravioli stuffed with brown butter, sage and sauteed apples. They’re then tossed in pecorino cheese and cinnamon sugar and served with marsala-toffee sauce, cinnamon-truffle foam and an apple chip.

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