The winner of Bravo’s Top Chef: All Stars, Richard Blais is known for his wild creations involving liquid nitrogen and blowtorches. A new cookbook reveals another side to the avant-garde chef
My first cooking job was at a McDonald’s in Uniondale, New York. I was 14 and the poissonnier (which means “fish cook” in French). I thought it was prestigious. When I sent out my first batch of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, I forgot to put the top bun on them. So I was being avant-garde well before I knew it was my calling.
Kids nowadays know when they’re 12 that they want to be professional chefs. I didn’t figure it out until much later. In my early 20s, I worked at Ruth’s Chris. A lot of chefs had their names embroidered onto their jackets because they were in culinary school. It inspired me to look into it, which sent me on the path to the Culinary Institute of America in Upstate New York.
I’m pretty intense. When I went to the CIA, it became my whole life. I was learning everything from the history of France to the thousands of ways you can chop a carrot.
I then worked with some big-name chefs, and always took a little piece of them with me: At Restaurant Daniel, Daniel Boulud taught me about hospitality and what it means to take care of people. At French Laundry, Thomas Keller taught me about organization and professionalism. The most important lessons weren’t the recipes.
I didn’t take the 12-year path of following one great chef. I missed a couple of rungs on the culinary ladder, but I moved to Atlanta to run some places on my own, like FLIP Burger Boutique, which really caught on. But I also found out that success comes through failures.
Then one day I answered the phone. It was the casting people for Top Chef. They happened to be in the city. I showed up reluctantly. I wasn’t watching any of these TV shows. I was scared, but as a cook I wanted to challenge myself. I decided to take a chance.
I was one of the first people to popularize liquid nitrogen. When my competitor was running for the salt and pepper and I headed to the liquid nitrogen tank, the camera usually followed me. It ended up working as a strategy even though that was never the intent.
When I lost on Top Chef, it was emotional. It’s not just that I’m competitive. As cooks, we’re emotional people. We want to cook, give you something to eat, and we want you to like it. We just want to make people happy.
Winning Top Chef: All Stars three years later was one of the biggest moments in my life—apart from when I met my wife, Jazmin. She was a personal trainer and I was about 80 pounds heavier. I was dealing with the depression of a restaurant closing and the pursuit of the love of my life. It pushed my fitness into overdrive. I thought, “I have to start taking better care of myself to get the girl.” So, I became a marathon runner—and I got the girl.
Now I run to eat. I’m mindful of that, but I’m a chef so my primary goal is to make delicious food. Moving to California four years ago inspired me to cook a little lighter, as well.
Around the time that I ran my first marathon, in 2013, we released Try This at Home: Recipes From My Head to Your Plate, my first cookbook. At first I didn’t know if the book should be for the culinary geek who loves liquid nitrogen or for that really cool hipster mom who goes into the garage and uses a blowtorch to make a tuna loin. There’s stuff for everyone. I was nominated for the James Beard Award for the book.
My kids are probably my harshest critics—especially my youngest. She has this saying: “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but …” They prefer my wife’s food. I don’t think they realize that people actually pay me to make toast. They just think everyone’s parents are on TV. On playdates, they’ll ask, “What does your mom do on TV?”
Now I’m in San Diego with my family and running three restaurants: Crack Shack, a chicken and egg place, Juniper and Ivy, a modern four-star restaurant, and FLIP Burger Boutique, a more casual joint with four locations in the Southeastern U.S.
This pressure comes from me. I’m focusing on growing the restaurants and creating a couple of television shows. It’s good to have goals. Even if it doesn’t end up happening, it’s important for me to say them.
So Good, Blais’ new book: “It’s about the dishes I cook for my family. The cover is me with some spaghetti and meatballs, which is my kids’ favorite meal.”