Richard Blais On Fusing Foods And Traditions At His New Restaurant - Exclusive Interview

Chef Richard Blais is a jack of all trades in the food industry. Not only is he a chef, but Blais is also a James Beard-nominated cookbook author and co-star of "Next Level Chef," a cooking competition show with Gordon Ramsay on Fox. Blais also owns several restaurants — including Four Flamingos, based in Florida, and Ember & Rye in California, among others — with another on the way. He's known to have fun in the kitchen, often mixing up ingredients and cooking methods, as seen in his first-ever virtual chili cook-off on TikTok, where he paired peanut butter ravioli with Biergarten Chili.

During an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Richard Blais spoke about unusual ingredients to add to your chili this season and why he's such a big fan of Santa Maria barbecue. He also chatted about his newest restaurant, California English, which is set to open in the coming months. 

His deep appreciation for unconventional chili

Let's talk about the peanut butter raviolis and chili that you recently paired together. Why did you think these two unexpected items would work so well together?

A lot of times, it's a happy accident. It's the viral taste trend of the season, the combination of peanut butter and chili. The idea of peanut butter working with things that are spicy is somewhat common, and you see peanut butter in certain cuisines. The idea is that it would work with potentially spicy chili, which I recommend if you're going to do the peanut butter sandwich with chili. That's one of the reasons why peanut butter and chili work so great. Also, texturally, if you put it in your chili, that can act as a thickener. I almost said "emulsifier," but I don't want be too chef-y in this moment.

Speaking of chili, what are some of the unexpected ingredients that you add to yours — besides peanut butter?

I do have a fondness for Cincinnati-style chili. I will go on record and say that Cincinnati chili is the most underrated geographical food or dish in the United States. Many people recently didn't know what it was, but it is a chili that has lots of sweet spices. They're not sweet, but we associate them with sweetness — cinnamon, allspice, chocolate. Those are a couple of things — cinnamon and chocolate, as an example — that I will put in my chili, inspired by Cincinnati chili, that probably sound odd to some people.

Then [I add] depth, whether it's [with] Worcestershire, molasses, or red wine or a stout beer. Those are some ingredients that tend to end up in my chili if I'm fishing around the cupboard looking for the secret ingredient that's not peanut butter.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes people make when making chili?

I'm not going to say "add beans." I host a podcast called "Food Court" — I had that as an episode. There is a devout following of people — mostly from Texas, I've come to find — who believe that beans should not be in chili. How do you feel?

I don't hate it with beans.

You actually just inspired me. This is a real-life moment we're having. Like you said, I don't hate it with beans — I agree with you. But you can add too many beans. Is it safe to say that we decided that beans in chili should be like a chocolate chip cookie? Just enough chips. If there's too many chips, then it's all chocolate. It has to be a pleasant surprise. 

I'm going to start a war within my house because my wife, Jazmin Blais, makes "chili" — I'm doing air quotes! It's really just delicious vegetables and beans, and I don't know if I can call it chili. She's not here to defend herself, which is unfair; she's playing pickleball because she's a hipster.

But it's got to have spices to it. There should be some ground element to it. I like ground beef, or if you're vegetarian, it's fine to grind up some walnuts or mushrooms or some other vegetables. It has to cook for a while — I think it needs an hour of cook time.

Cooking tricks he uses in his restaurants

You make a baked honeynut squash with whipped maple at your restaurant. Do you have any special tricks that you can share with our readers about preparing squash?

I hate to say that it's very simple. For the home cook who might be a little bit intimidated, I like roasting it — whether it's a butternut or a honeynut, split it [and] deseed it. When you're opening a squash, be mindful of your fingers. Use a serrated knife. I do like to roast them. Sometimes we say we love roasting things, but it's just easy. But I do like the roasted flavor.

I like to butter or oil the pan and then [put the squash] flesh side down to roast half. If you've got time, it's not even a bad idea to pop in a whole squash. Make some holes in it like a baked potato, and cook it whole or on the dying embers of a grill outside, which sounds a lot more romantic than it probably is. It's a smokey squash.

Speaking of grills, I see that you do a lot of Santa Maria barbecue. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Do I? I know that we have a grill that people tell me is a Santa Maria-style grill. I'm not an expert on it. The Santa Maria cut, the tri-tip — I live in San Diego and that's our cut of steak — can also can be called Santa Maria steak. We happen to have a grill that's a Santa Maria-style grill. I'm not an expert on it; it's just an open-fire grill. What I am a fan of is open-fire grill and playing around.

I have three grills, and I like playing around with different sizes. Whether you're using charcoal or lump charcoal or wood fire and having fun with all of these grills ... The Santa Maria setup allows you to do that because you can change the level of the grates on the grill. You can hang things from the rotisserie or you can use it as a rotisserie.

Do you normally veer from traditional methods, especially when cooking steak?

Not really. As a matter of fact, the haters on my GrillTok or grill Instagram or whatever get mad when I like to cook in a pan on the grill grates. People freak out when I do this. When I say people, it's three people on TikTok. But they don't understand why I cook in a pan, which is very traditional, but on the grill.

I get the flavor of the grill, but I get the sear of the pan. If you cook something directly on the grill grates, all the juices fall into the grill. I like to keep those juices in the pan. I like to baste in the pan and throw some herbs in there. It's combining two classic methods: cooking on the stove-top, a very traditional restaurant way, but then doing it outside on a grill, which is a traditional grill method. I combine two traditional methods to come up with one untraditional method: grill fusion.

Being good mates with Gordon Ramsay

Can you tell us a little bit about "Next Level Chef"? Will there be a Season 2?

I just got done filming "Next Level Chef" Season 2, so there will be a Season 2. I'm super excited about that. It will premiere immediately following the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is on Fox this year. "Next Level Chef" is on Fox, and we will go straight from the field or the champagne party in the locker room directly to Episode 1 of "Next Level Chef" Season 2.

I'm super blessed to be a part of it. In my media career, I get to work next to some of the absolute legends of our business — Gordon Ramsay, of course. Nyesha [Arrington] and Gordon, my co-hosts on that show, are fantastic. I'm very happy about it, and it's going to be a fun season for sure.

Do you keep in touch with Gordon Ramsay now that the first season wrapped up?

Yeah, I do. I would say we're good mates ... You'd have to ask him. That's one of those weird relationships where I think he's my best friend, and then he's like, "Who's that?" ... That's not the case, by the way. Yes, we're friends. We're mates.

Did he offer you any travel tips when going to England?

Every time I'm with him, it's tips, and I'm learning. I mean this — it's not because he's my boss, which technically he is. But it's that he's a great chef. He's also a great television presenter. You get to learn both of those things. You get to sit next to someone who's been at the top of the hill here.

I pick things up all the time, which is important for everyone. That's why chefs do what we do, because we love learning, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't learn something — like how we came to that conclusion with the beans and the chili and the peanut butter today together.

People want Gordon to comment on the PB Chili Cookoff. He's known for his TikTok reviews, so I'll have to send him one of these PB Chili Cookoff videos.

Will you be involved in "Top Chef" Season 20?

As of this moment, no. I have other projects going on. But it looked like fun. It's a franchise that I grew up with, and some of my favorite people are over there and they do good work.

His new restaurant coming soon

You have a new restaurant coming out called California English. What will be on the menu? How will it be different from your other restaurants?

It's a tough moment when you're four and a half months before a restaurant opens. It is going to be my infatuation with all things from the UK. I've wanted to do a restaurant with that influence for a long time. The restaurant's in California. Of course, wherever the restaurant lives, any restaurant needs to be a big part of that community. It's combining those two worlds.

What I've learned any time I do a restaurant that has an influence from any other place in the world is the idea of fusion. For a long time, we were like, "Fusion's bad." Fusion is brilliant. Fusion is lovely. Look at all the English words I'm using. It is a beautiful thing.

Every culture has a beautiful stew. Every culture has a scone or a biscuit or whatever you want to call it. Every culture has a calzone or an empanada or a Cornish pasty. It's amazing when you get to learn about culture through food and then find the similarities between cuisines.

There's going to be fish and chips on the menu. I'm very excited.

How about the vibe?

I always say upscale casual. I want to cook for everyone, whether that's families at 5:00 p.m. ... I have kids and it's like, "Can we come to your restaurant?" Yes, you can come with anyone. We love kids, and we love families in restaurants. If they come early, they don't want to be there all night anyway. Then whether it's business meetings or date night or social events or celebratory things, the restaurant's going to be upscale casual.

Learn more about California English on the restaurant's website. Follow Richard Blais on TikTok for updates on his projects, including the PB Chili Cookoff.

This interview was edited for clarity.