An interview with Chef Richard Blais
by Marla Norman-Freytag, Publisher
Top Chef Richard Blais owns four restaurants in Atlanta and hosts YouTube's Burger Lab.
“Don’t play with your food! Eat it! -- How often did we hear that refrain while growing up. But why not play with our food...and then eat it? I think this is the question that greets Richard Blais when he wakes each morning and that then rides on his shoulder throughout the day, muttering in his ear. It’s the notion that keeps him in his notebooks and in the kitchen.” Top Chef Judge, Tom Colicchio, writing in the introduction for Richard Blais’ cookbook Try This at Home.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Blais went on to train under legendary chefs Thomas Keller (French Laundry), Daniel Boulud (Daniel), Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) and Ferran Adrià (el Bulli). But he’s best known for winning Bravo Top Chef All-Stars, after losing an excruciatingly close competition in a previous season. Top Chef fans could be heard around the globe as they heaved a single, collective sigh of relief, March 30, 2011.
Blais’ cooking style is wildly creative -- not only in terms of the foods and flavors he manages to successfully marry, but his ceaseless adaptation of ordinary and not-so-ordinary techniques and equipment -- as in immersion circulators, isi siphons and liquid nitrogen! Says Blais: “What I love about cooking is re-creating traditional dishes to make them delicious and an experiment. I prod my diners for an emotional reaction -- a chance to revisit childhood, or a special time and place, or to find whimsy in overwrought dishes that we sometimes eat.”
Oysters with Pearls (of frozen horseradish)
A few examples of Blais ingenuity from the menu at The Spence (See Food Quest for more on this restaurant.)
Oysters with frozen pearls of Horseradish
Bone Marrow with Tuna Tartare and Fried Quail Eggs
Macaroni & Head Cheese
Sweet Rolls with Coconut Butter and Sea Salt Sweet Potato Gnocchi
“Juicy Lucy” thrice-cooked French Fries
After an exceptional dining experience at The Spence, we asked Chef Blais to share a bit more of his cooking philosophy and essentially...how the heck he comes up with such sublimely-crazy stuff!
Of course, we rooted for you throughout both of the Top Chef seasons in which you competed. And were always in awe of your creativity. So, what is your creative process?
Wow! Thanks! The process is really not a specific process. I take inspiration from everywhere and any place and use it in my cooking. I like to put a dish through the wringer by reimagining it, adjusting textures, temperature, and taste along the way. No matter how refined a dish I may create, no matter what manner of luxurious or unusual ingredients I might work with, at the end of the day, I know that what I do is about pleasing people and satisfying my guests in a special and profound way.
Interior and bar of The Spence Restaurant
Says Blais: "I take inspiration from everywhere and any place and use it in my cooking."
I keep a sketchbook with me at all times for recording moments of inspiration or planning events or holiday meals. I sketch composed dishes or elements of a dish, trying to get the first few iterations of it down before I even touch a pan. I love to tinker with my food and come up with ways to make it more delicious.
How did your time at el Bulli working with Ferran Adrià impact your style? Do you know José Andrés, another alumnus?
Working at el Bulli had a big impact. I was coming off of running my own kitchen for the first time in my career and it turned a lot of what I knew upside down. Some of my biggest mentors to that point had been Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, two classically trained chefs. Chef Adrià was very different and that juxtaposition helped mold me as a chef.
I've met José Andrés many times and done a few events with him. He's amazing and always has an Iberico ham on him!
The staff at The Spence are superb -- so knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Seems as if mentoring is an important role for you now too?
A lot of that is in the hiring and goes to our managers Justin Amick and Meghan Maron for selecting people that want to learn and grow. Mentoring has always been very important to me. One of my favorite things to do at my restaurant is give line-up (nightly all staff pre-shift meetings)
You recently competed in the Food Network Chopped Masters. Will you continue to compete in cooking competitions?
As long as they'll have me! It keeps me sharp and brings about inspiration that can only happen under fire.
Speaking of competitions, you’ve made racing a significant part of your life. Did running affect any changes in your restaurants and menus?
It definitely brought me closer to vegetables. I think you should care for your produce the same you would for a dry-aged steak and cook them with the same respect.
Your restaurants in Atlanta and Birmingham are super successful. Will you expand beyond those two cities?
We hope to yes! We want to do it the right way and grow when we are ready as a company.
Are you teaching your children to cook?
Absolutely. Kids eat better when they get to pick the menu and help prepare the meal! We make pasta, whole wheat tortillas, and they always want to help stir anything that needs it.
Beautifully-built burgers -- for every taste imaginable -- at Flip Burger Boutique.
You mentioned in a Food & Wine article that if given a $1,000 you'd buy a ticket to Japan. Is that still a top destination for you? Where else would you like to go? Do you have favorite vacation spots you travel to with your family?
Japan, yes. Also, Scandinavia. As far as family vacations, our daughters are at the age where a good sandy beach is entertainment for days. So we've spent a few family trips at the Ritz Carlton at Amelia Island. And we also just discovered Reynolds Plantation right outside of Atlanta on Lake Oconee-- that place is great too!
Richard Blais owns five restaurants: Flip Burger Boutique, in Atlanta and Birmingham; HD-1 in Atlanta; The Spence, in Atlanta. Read a review of this restaurant in Food Quest
Lobster Roll with Old Bayonnaise
Chef Blais also hosts YouTube’s BurgerLab and has just released a new cookbook. Here, a recipe from Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate
LOBSTER ROLL WITH OLD BAYONNAISE
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 live lobster (about 1 1/2 lbs)
1/3 cup aioli or quality store-bought mayonnaise
2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp Sriracha hot sauce
Kosher alt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 stalks celery, sliced
1/4 cup finely diced Vidalia or other sweet white onion 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro stems
12 fresh basil leaves, minced
3 sprigs fresh tarragon, leaves removed and minced 4 New England-style hot dog buns
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
4 large globe artichokes, stems trimmed
1 cup aioli or quality store-bought mayonnaise 3 tbsp chopped fresh dill
2 tbsp drained capers, chopped
1 tspn finely grated lemon zest
2 tspn fresh lemon juice
1/2 tspn smoked sea salt
1/4 tspn smoked paprika
Hot sauce, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste