Chef Richard Blais burst onto the national dining scene in 2008 when his stint on Top Chef allowed him to highlight the innovative cooking style that had earned him a devoted following at BLAIS restaurant in Atlanta. He finished as runner-up, but returned home to open Flip Burger Boutique with his creative culinary company Trail Blais and works with corporations to develop new products and kitchen tools.
As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with stints under food world luminaries like chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Ferran Adria, Blais honed his classical skills and now continually seeks to marry them with innovative techniques that borrow heavily from the chemistry lab. He's currently taking shot at the title as a cheftestant on Bravo's Top Chef All-Stars, and his new show Blais Off premieres tonight at 10 ET on the Science Channel.
Blais spoke with Eatocracy about the balance between tradition and technique, the power of nostalgia and his place in culinary history. Oh yeah - and he carries nutmeg in his pocket.
Richard Blais: It’s about taking iconic traditional American foods and seeing if science and technology can make then tastier and if not tastier, at least more interesting. It’s rediscovering traditional foods.
KK: Who is it for? Are you expecting people at home to cook like this or is it for restaurant chefs?
RB: I want to say it’s in between. If you were making a pizza at home tonight, you could use one or two of the techniques that we’re showcasing in the pizza episode or the burger episode. There are also people in the industry who are interested in it and because it’s the Science Channel, some of the people have played with some of the technologies – immersion circulators and rotary evaporators. It might be, "Hey – I use that at my lab or at work and I didn’t think about applying it to pizza or hamburgers."
KK: Have you found that the scienctific community has embraced what you’re doing?
RB: A little bit. I definitely have some schools that have reached out. I’ve done some lectures at colleges and universities. I’ve had a lot of molecular gastronomy clubs that have reached out. The science and engineering community is a passionate group of people who enjoy cooking as a hobby.
I think it’s fascinating because I’m not a scientist. I never claimed to be a chemist. I always learn from any interaction I have with them On the show, I’m going to learn from cooks, but I’m also going to learn from engineers and scientists – it’s all education.
KK: You walk a really interesting line between good, classic, familiar cooking and a more experimental realm. Do you ever give yourself a gut check to see if you’re falling too much to one side of that? Do you worry about alienating people?
RBs: Absolutely. That’s the neat thing about going through the trials of being a chef in Atlanta over the last eight or nine years. We’re trying to figure out what we can do that still makes us happy, but also makes the guests happy.
I would say my first stint on Top Chef really drove home to me what I do. What I took away from that is that we cook food and we want people to taste it and say, “Wow! That’s delicious.” I know that sounds so simple, but I think Blais Off really showcases that.
What I want to do is food that you want to eat every day. If I can also have fun with it and re-engineer it or make it more interesting or make it more of an experience that you’re familiar with, then that’s great. But at the end of the day, it’s much more important to me that you say it’s delicious, rather than “Wow, that was interesting.”
KK: Chefs like you and Grant Achatz and Ferran Adria and others in this realm seem to be very invested in the experience of the food – almost making it into performance art.
RB: Definitely – that theater aspect of it, that performance aspect of it is always there for me. As far as going out to say we want this to be an experience - that’s all after the fact. When we’re designing something or tackling an idea, it’s just, “How can we make this more delicious?” If in the process we stumble across the fact that – if we’re making liquid nitrogen ice cream and it also happens to look really cool, and there’s an aesthetic to it, a visual – that’s great. It’s a bonus. I’m not trying to create the experience; hopefully it just happens while we’re trying to make the food tasty.
KK: Where does the emotional power of food come into play?
RB: That’s the biggest hurdle, particularly when we’re talking about Blais Off. There, we’re trying to re-engineer food that people have a thousand great memories of: pizza, tacos, hamburgers, chicken wings.
There’s so much nostalgia that’s built up. That factors into all of it. If you can make someone remember their first slice of pizza – and if we’re talking about pizza, what makes a great New York City slice? Is it the water or is it the air? If you can get that nostalgia going with people, that comes into play for sure.
I would say all the creative chefs who may be in this genre, whatever you want to call it – molecular gastronomy – are pretty traditional. I like to actually consider myself a traditionalist. We may re-engineer a slice of pizza, but that fact that there’s tomato and cheese and bread in there is important.
KK: Traditions figure so heavily into the holidays, and for a lot of people, it’s just not the holidays with a particular dish. For you, what is that?
RB: It’s eggnog – that flavor, those spices, the nutmeg and that texture. So, if we’re going to re-engineer eggnog, make it more exciting, make a difference, change the temperature or texture of it – at the end of the day it may not look like eggnog, but when people taste it, we want them to say, “Wow! That’s eggnog.”
Get Richard Blais' Scrambled Egg Nog with Bourbon recipe from T.J. Homes' blog
When we’re talking about holidays, we’re talking about large roasts. I’m that kind of guy – I’ll cook the turkey or handle the roast beef or leg of lamb or the ham. This year, I sous vided the turkey for Thanksgiving and we’ll be doing some sort of sous vide goose or prime rib for Christmastime. Even though it’s not a traditional technique, you can still do traditional food. That’s what I love. I use science and technology and make them better.
KK: We recently hosted a Secret Supper in Atlanta with Linton Hopkins, and it ruffled a lot of feathers, people saying that because of the way he cooked the food, it wasn’t Southern. People like you and he and Sean Brock are doing interesting melds of technique and tradition. What do you want your place in culinary history to be?
RB: I want to be the guy who bridges the gap. I want to be the guy who takes the creative element of it and makes it accessible to the everyday person. I want to open up restaurants that are known as being hyper-creative, but are also places where people want to eat every day. To me, that’s where you really make a mark. Starving artists starve for a reason. I want a lot of people to show up in my restaurants and hopefully watch these TV shows and get excited about it and hopefully eat better.
I also want to make the point that there’s not a separation between beautiful, simple, organic farm to table food and what I do. I just go farm to liquid nitrogen tank to table.
KK: What do we have to look forward to on Top Chef All-Stars?
RB: If you’ve watched and liked the first few episodes and felt the emotional intensity – it really was like that. I walked away from the first episode and thought, “I really can’t wait to watch that on TV.” Filming my first season and a lot of Iron Chef, I’d never really had that feeling about a season as I do now. I hate to sound like a silly sports guy, but every week is like the playoffs. Every week is lots of emotion, lots of intensity and some unbelievably, ridiculously hard challenges.
Everyone that’s on that show is a great chef. There’s a game to it, and there’s a mentality to being able to cook under circumstances that are difficult. Different challenges present hurdles for different chefs.
KK: It sounds dorky, but as much as I love Stephanie Izard, I cried when you didn’t win. I cried when Dale Levitski didn’t win. There’s a tremendous emotional investment that goes into it, and I loved that you all comported yourselves with grace and acted like adults.
RB: Aw, that makes me feel bad, but for the record, I cried, too. Hey – you’re a professional and you’re competing against yourself and it would be silly not to respect the people you’re competing with. A kitchen is a team sport. You see it all the time on the show. People say, “Why would you help that person?” That’s just how you work as a professional.
Blais Off premieres Friday, December 17 at 10PM E/P on the Science Channel
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