June 18, 2008

Blais of Glory

Chef Richard Blais

If you’re into food, there’s a good chance you’re a fan of Bravo’s Top Chef. The Season Four finale aired last Thursday. It seemed as though Chef Richard Blais (pronounced “blaze”)—the faux-hawked chef from Atlanta known for his creative and whimsical dishes—was preordained to take the Top Chef prize.

That didn’t happen. The poised and talented Chef Stephanie Izzard won the title of Top Chef instead.

But the real surprise of the finale wasn’t that Chef Blais lost. It was that this normally unflappable chef confessed at the Judge's Table that he, in his words, "choked."

Chef Blais, who recently became a father for the first time, sat for a telephone interview with me the day after the finale aired to explain what happened.

Not sure if Chef Blais, or any of the other Season 4 cheftestants, will be in Philly for the Top Chef tour on July 9. However, Chef Blais revealed that he will be in Philly in September for a James Beard dinner at Tangerine.

Many thanks to my friend, Atlanta food stylist and food blogger, Tami Hardeman, for helping to set up the interview. Also thanks to Broderick Smylie for giving me permission to use his photo of Chef Blais. Photo copyright Broderick Smylie 2008.

The full interview after the jump.

PhilaFoodie: Chef Blais, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.

Chef Richard Blais: Of course.

PF: So, I guess the first question is: which is tougher—competing on Top Chef or being a new father?

rB: Well, so far, being on Top Chef, I would say, is definitely tougher than being a new father. It’s been nothing but sheer joy so far. That’s a pretty easy question.

PF: Congratulations on the birth of your daughter.

rB: Thank you so much.

PF: Let’s talk a little bit about last night’s finale. Although Stephanie got to pick her sous-chef first, you picked Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill, who is known for helping to pioneer the same farm-to-table model you’re applying at your new restaurant called HOME in Atlanta. Were you glad to get Chef Barber?

rB: Oh, yeah. I mean, honestly, you walk into that situation and you have three tables full of amazing ingredients and you have three unbelievable chefs. So, regardless of what chef you worked with, or what table of ingredients you got, you were going to be in pretty good shape. Certainly, I picked Chef Barber essentially because of the whole farm-to-table thing and because it’s something that I’m certainly behind. And also because I think it’s a good contrast to some of the creative things that I do.

PF: On the show, you mentioned that each contestant was allowed to bring one special ingredient to the finale, and you brought a tank of liquid nitrogen. How did you get the tank to Puerto Rico?

rB: Actually, the Top Chef production company managed to get the tank to Puerto Rico. I’m doing a demonstration in Jamaica in two weeks and I’ve brought it to some other far-away places as well. You know, it wasn’t a big enough tank, to be quite honest. It was a really tiny, little, small tank of liquid nitrogen. It was like a soup thermos of nitrogen. But yeah, somehow they managed, with me giving them some contacts, to make sure that there was a little bit of nitrogen in the kitchen.

PF: Why only one special ingredient this year?

rB: Actually, it was still the same set up from Chicago where you could bring other ingredients. This was one specific, very special ingredient that pretty much no one else could use. That was just specifically for that last episode, that last challenge. So, every contestant still had a small bag of other ingredients at their disposal as well.

PF: What special ingredients did Stephanie and Lisa bring?

rB: Stephanie brought, I believe, a ricotta cheese she used for her dessert, a specialty cheese. And Lisa, I want to say that Lisa brought some specialty Asian ingredient that, to be honest with you, I can’t remember.

PF: Some fans of the show are probably still in shock this morning about the finale. Many believed you were favored to win. You’ve had some time to reflect on the finale. Looking back, what happened?

rB: I think the best way to put it was that I kind of set the bar pretty high and wasn’t capable of getting to that bar on the last show. I think one of the things that I was strongest at during the contest was conceptualizing and working within each challenge. And, I think, quite honestly I had a hard time wrestling around “cook the best meal of your life.” It sounds simple enough but it’s something that, as you saw play out last night, it’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever serve a meal and walk away from it and say, you know, that was the best meal of my life. So, I mean I think it was a little bit of, you know, you’ll probably, or maybe not, be familiar with the concept of writer’s block as well. So, I think a little of it was certainly that, coming up with a game plan. Something that most artists have is, when and where does inspiration strike? Although, eventually, the theme of the dinner did strike, it just never came together certainly for the expectations of myself, most importantly.

PF: What would you have done differently, if anything?

rB: I guess in retrospect, if you really think about it long and hard, which, of course, I have other things going on, but I guess I really didn’t want to come into that last challenge and say, hey, here are the four or five things that I’m going to do if presented with just a last challenge that has no limitations. I guess it would be easy to say, like, probably some of the other contestants, I’m pretty sure that some of the things that were prepared on their end were practiced and were things that they were a bit more familiar with. Or certainly maybe their style plays more into, hey, I’m going to be doing this and I’m going to prepare for it in a certain way. And, you know, maybe, unfortunately for me, maybe it ends up coming off as bravado, but my style is really kind of wherever the wind blows. It’s very “of the moment.” It came together for, whatever it was, fifteen episodes and seven victories prior to that and just didn’t come together that day.

PF: The show made it seem as though the pork belly was to blame. Do you think it was any one dish? What are your thoughts?

rB: No, I mean, I think, quite honestly, I think one of the issues with the pork belly that is, and again I didn’t see every second of the episode yesterday, but one of the issues with the pork belly was the fact that the episode prior I did a pork belly that pretty much was the highlight of the night or definitely, as far as the show that aired, was the dish that won it. And I think that was one of the difficulties was that this was a different piece of meat. This was from a much larger, getting into the specifics of it, this was from a very, very large pig, this belly. The belly that I used the episode prior was very lean. The pork belly that I cook everyday in my restaurant is very, very lean. And it’s a different animal. So, you know, I’ll be honest and I’m not saying this in a defensive way, all of the food that I did was very, very tasty. There were no major, major errors. I think a lot of it was comparing to a standard that I set that I unfortunately couldn’t get to that day. So, the pork belly, in particular, well I just did it, literally, you’re watching on TV, I just did it [inaudible] for them and they loved it. It was a different piece of meat. It was a different preparation. Sometimes it’s great to sous-vide a short rib, sometimes it’s great to give it a traditional braise. This belly because of its size had to be treated differently. So it yielded a different effect than the belly that I cooked the day prior. Does that make sense?

PF: One of the dishes you’re famous for in Atlanta is a foie gras milkshake, I understand. Did you consider making one of those?

rB: Famous or infamous? As far as the foie gras milkshake, it’s something I did at my namesake restaurant [Blais] in 2004 and people had a hard time wrapping their heads around it. It’s a delicious milkshake and it works really well with a cheeseburger. So, I definitely wouldn’t have brought it out unless…. It would have been more likely to show up at Soldier Field in one of the earlier episodes than it would have been last night.

PF: After reading about it, I’m dying to try it.

rB: It’s tasty. It is quite delicious. But, again, you know, one of the things that, and maybe, I hate to say I wasn’t creative enough because I’m pretty sure that, I mean, I didn’t even have bacon as an ingredient, I had to engineer bacon for that ice cream yesterday. But maybe I should have pushed it a little bit. I don’t know if it came across in the episode, but I was very much trying to tell a story about my journey as a chef, from being there in Puerto Rico to my classic French training with the second course to kind of an homage to one of my mentors at the [inaudible] and then really bringing it back to Puerto Rico and then to the creative side of things with the last so, there you go.

PF: You cut out there just for a second, you said an homage to one of your mentors at where?

rB: Be the Bacon is something that you can find in a lot of Thomas Keller references. And it’s something that, having worked with him, even though it was an apprenticeship, having walked away from the French Laundry is when I said to myself, I’m a chef. So, anytime I can play off of a Kellerism—Be the Bacon or Sleep is Cheap—these are just things you might hear in one of Keller’s kitchens. Or whether it’s a specific dish, like Oysters and Pearls, which is a dish I play on in my restaurant right now and have for years. If there’s anything I’m disappointed about was what didn’t factor into the judgment enough was that there’s no one else who could tell a story like that. There’s no one else who was looking at food that way. And, you know, it’s kind of, that was the disappointing part, to have all of these great chefs there and then…. If you read Ted Allen’s blog this morning there’s a little more insight to it. But I wish that would have factored a little bit more into the decision.

PF: At the end of Judge’s Table, Stephanie and Lisa made their case for why they should be Top Chef. But when your turn came, you candidly confessed that you choked. Why? Do you have any regrets about that?

rB: I don’t remember the question that led up to it. Certainly, at Judge’s Table where there is a chance to defend yourself or a chance to present your philosophies or the type of person that you are, to talk about what happened, to talk about what just happened in the kitchen or what happened during that meal, represents the type of person that you are. Some people find it in their best interests to lie or try to deceive the judges and hide certain things. And others go up there and present themselves in a different way. I tend to be a very self-deprecating person. I’m very hard on myself. Like I said, the toughest thing for me was, I’ll never cook the best meal of my life. That just will never happen. There were a number of challenges, all of the challenges, where, up until they say, hey, you just won, I’m up there thinking about the hundred things that weren’t perfect with that specific dish. I think it comes off on the episode as me announcing my, you know, conceding the race, but in reality what I’m doing is communicating with the judges the fact that I’m self-aware that this probably wasn’t the best meal of my life, that it’s OK to say that, and it’s OK to talk about what some of the issues were.

PF: How long were you waiting for the decision after the judge’s table?

rB: It was always hours and hours and hours. That’s the toughest part of the whole competition because there’s nothing really left to do but sit there. Certainly, when there are more contestants in the race the conversation can be a bit, you know, you can find a little bit of a social atmosphere in it because different people deal with stress in different ways. I can’t tell you off the top of my head how many hours it was. But it was not uncommon for it to be three, four, five hours, the whole process of waiting to find out what happened.

PF: What did you, Stephanie and Lisa talk about during that time?

rB: Quite honestly, from what I remember, really, the whole time in Puerto Rico, and not even relative to the last challenge, even the one prior when Spike was still there, you get down to only three, four, five people left, everyone kind of understands what’s going on. There’s really not much left to talk about. When there are more contestants, sometimes there’s bickering about dishes. If it’s a team challenge, sometimes there are things that can happen in that sort of atmosphere. But they call it the Stew Room and there’s really nothing else to do there but stew and/or drink if that’s the route you want to go, which wasn’t the one I wanted to go ever because I have to be on camera. But I don’t remember any conversation that was really relevant, if there was anything. You’re talking about hours of just kind of basically sitting there. I think we all fell asleep to be quite honest, at one point.

PF: You clearly filled the role of the molecular gastronomy guy this season. But your application of these techniques didn’t seem to be as confrontational as, say, Marcel from Season Two.

rB: Right.

PF: They seemed, to me at least, to be a little more focused and integrated into the dishes. Was that Bravo’s editing, restraint on your part, plain old maturity on your part? Or am I totally off base?

rB: Well, I love the three options you gave me there. I think that it’s definitely, there was no editing involved. If anything, Bravo probably, and this is just me speculating, so, of course, it’s good TV when someone starts squirting liquid nitrogen around the kitchen. I think that’s one of the appeals to that factor. For me, I’d like to say that it was more. I think restraint and maturity kind of blend into themselves as being the answer, really. Molecular gastronomy is a word I don’t really like to use, although it came off as [inaudible] more than I ever said it because of sound bites [inaudible]. If you can use technology, if you can use science, if you can use a new technique to make food better in general, then that’s what it’s about. And it took me a while. There was a time when, yeah, I wanted to put everything in little capsules and have people swallowing gumballs that tasted like three-course meals and that’s what I wanted to do, not because it would be a great three-course meal in a gumball but because it would be really cool to say, hey, I just made a three-course meal in a gumball. And I think that’s where the practice kind of gets away from itself. You start saying, hey, look what I can do and start getting away from the reason why we’re all chefs—to cook great, beautiful food, to make people happy and to make it tasty and delicious. Hopefully, mostly maturity and probably a little restraint.

PF: Which contestants on the show will you stay in touch with, if any?

rB: There’s a few. Me and Dale communicate from time to time. Me and Ryan have talked from time to time. Spike and myself, Antonia. There’s no one from the show, quite honestly, I mean, even Lisa sent me well wishes when my baby was born. It is also a television show and it is a competition and I think people are a lot more friendly, I think you’ll see in the reunion show that everyone understands [inaudible] what happens and everyone gets along pretty well. I’d like to stay in touch with everyone.

PF: What lessons have you learned from Top Chef and the finale in particular?

rB: The biggest lesson just from the whole effort is just to always keep challenging yourself. Never really kind of settle for being a decent sized fish in a small little tank. Or, never really, I think it’s real easy, especially right now for being in, not the biggest market in the world, being in Atlanta, to just think that you’re better than you are sometimes and to always challenge yourself. I don’t regret taking that personal challenge. Some people thought it was a risk or crazy for me to go do it. But I learned so much, whether it was from contestants or from the travels that we made or whatever. So, just continuing that effort. You always say as a chef that you always learn every day and that you’re always trying to keep learning. But, you know, quite honestly, it’s real easy to stop cooking as much because you’re the executive and to slow things down and start living a better life and, expecially once you start getting some notoriety from being on television, to really start being more of a quasi-celebrity than being a chef. But what the show brought back to me was reigniting my drive as just a cook, not as just a chef or TV chef or a popular chef. And what did the finale teach me? I mean, the finale, more than anything else, probably taught me a little bit more about when it’s very important to [inaudible] restraint in what you’re doing because there were plenty of dishes I could have done just on the moment that I had done before. None of those dishes [were ones] I have ever done before. To me, playing the game was the joy of Top Chef. Actually going into a new situation every day and just cooking something like you’ve never cooked before. Also, great chefs do the same things. Thomas Keller’s got the same dish on his menu at both restaurants, at Per Se and the French Laundry, and he’s not taking it off. And if you look at the old school great chefs there are dishes like that never get removed from their menu. So, again, what I learned was probably, even though I may be over it, even though there might be a dish or a technique that I’m just done with I’m just tired of, the fact is that, most of the world, even like the liquid nitrogen. Eric Rippert had not seen that technique before. How unbelievable was that? To me, it’s old hat. And he’s one of the best chefs in the world. Sometimes go to your bread and butter.

PF: Last question, have you ever been to any Philadelphia restaurants or do you any plans to come to Philadelphia in the future?

rB: I actually am doing an event and it will be the first time, I’ve been to Philadelphia only once in my life and it was way before I knew much about food, so I’m excited to be there. I’ll be there in September. And I think it’s a James Beard dinner and I think it’s going to be at a restaurant called Tangerine. Is that correct? A Stephen Starr restaurant? And it will be, I think it’s called Celebrity Chefs on Tour or something ridiculous like that, and I only say that because I don’t think I’m a celebrity. But I’ll be looking forward to getting some recommendations from you.

PF: You bet. Those are all the questions I have. Thanks so much for your time.

4 comments:

E said...

David,

Great interview! I was so excited to hear that Season 4 would be going on tour and stopping in Philly, until I tried to get tickets and they were already sold out! Now I'm just said.

Richard and Stephanie were my favorites from this season, so it was great to hear Blais answer some pointed questions from one my favorite local foodies.

tami said...

This was worth the wait :)

Thanks for the interview that continues to show rB's integrity, humor, honesty...and clearly, his mindset as a chef.

So happy you got a chance to do this!

- tami

ulterior epicure said...

Everyone keeps saying that it was Blaise's competition to loose. I never saw it that way. I knew it would be between him and Stephanie from the start. Of course, I lived in Chicago for five years, and none in Atlanta, so I admit a bias - not favoritism, just chef-centric. I'm also hyper skeptical of the "molecular gastronomy" sect.

Great post.

hawk krall said...

they were both good but i thought stephanie's food was more consistent... the mini smoker and freeze drying got repetitive after a while.

I was just just happy that Lisa didn't win, after she said that she was above cooking a kielbasa.