Dining

The Tastemakers: Richard Blais

Chef and TV star Richard Blais on what 'Top Chef' has taught him
Richard Blais
Photo: Courtesy of Richard Blais

Welcome to The Tastemakers, a series in which we chat with the most talented, connected and influential people in the world of food and drink.

Kicking off his culinary career in the humblest of ways, chef Richard Blais took a job at a McDonald's at the age of 14. "I forgot to put the top buns on the first batch of Filet-O-Fish I ever sent out, so I was being avant-garde well before I knew it was my calling," he says.

After falling in love with the camaraderie of the kitchen and taking an interest in the art and craft of cooking, he began voraciously consuming food television, regularly staying up all night to watch Julia Child. Years later, Blais would take part in a few cooking shows of his own, competing in the fourth season of Top Chef, winning Top Chef: All Stars and returning as a judge for the show's 12th season. Today, Blais runs four restaurants across the U.S., including San Diego's Juniper and Ivy.

We spoke with Blais about the projects he's working on, the lessons he's learned from Top Chef and what he looks for in a perfect dish.

What does a typical day look like for you?

"Typical for me means untypical. Every day is different, namely because I travel so much and work on so many different projects, so it's hard to say what typical is.

If I'm at home in Southern California, it's getting up and making the kids breakfast and/or lunch, depending on how lazy my wife is that day (just kidding, Jazmin). Then I take one or both of them to school. Usually, I'll follow that up with an hour of running or working out while reading the day's first emails and texts from my East Coast squad. Yes, I have a squad. It's fairly deep, but we don't roll deep.

After that, I'll drink some coffee and work on recipes for my upcoming cookbook (coming May 2017) or for a new restaurant or a brand I might be working with. I might have a script or a TV show outline to review, an upcoming event to go over or travel logistics and restaurant issues to address. And then I'll try to pick one of my kids up from school and then head into the restaurant for service."

What's the most exciting thing you've worked on in the last year?

"A small cameo in a feature film? Two new TV shows? A brand-new restaurant and a new book . . . it's kind of hard to say which is the most exciting. OK, it's the feature film."

When you're judging a meal, whether on TV or not, what are a few criteria you look for in a great dish?

"Salt. Then technique, flavor contrast, texture contrast and temperature contrast. Then individual sense of authorship, artistic value and the appropriateness of that dish for whatever the arena is.

But mainly salt.

The tough part about critiquing anything is explaining why you are making that critique. Food is so personal, and so is judging. So it's crucial to let the cook know why you are critiquing an element, and for that matter, why something is great as well.

In restaurants, it's a little easier, because the themes are outlined a little more, and the response of 'It's just not my style or the style of this restaurant' is OK and understandable. On a show, you have to really be cognizant about listening and receiving someone else's ideology. And I'm always more open to someone else's way of thinking when their ideology includes salt."

Who are a few people you really admire in the food industry?

"Alton Brown, Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri, Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse . . .

To be a chef, writer, critic, etc., and do that well, and also be capable of entertaining and delivering a performance takes a special set of skills and talents. As a younger chef, I remember scoffing at the likes of an Emeril. How naive. These people are incredibly talented in multiple ways."

Which dish that's currently on one of your menus are you most proud of?

"That's too tough. We do a steak tartare 'carne cruda' at Juniper and Ivy that's been on the menu for two years. It's delicious, but usually you get tired of a dish after a few months, even if it's popular. This one, every time I look at it, every time I taste it, I still love it. It's a perpetual honeymoon. That's very rare.

The same can be said of the beef-fat french fries with smoked mayonnaise at Flip. They're timeless. The real Jackie O of the menu."

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What are a few things you have learned from your experiences on Top Chef?

"I'll give you the short answer, because this could be a novella. One, how to take criticism. You stand in front of people you respect, doing something you care so intimately about and just take criticism and then take in some more from a few million people. It took me some time as a cook to just remember that no one is perfect, regardless of stars or awards.

Top Chef also taught me that a good haircut can go along way."

What advice would you give to young chefs who are just getting their start?

"You gotta love food. You have to want to cook it, eat it, read about it, look at it all the time. You have to study and practice all the time. You have to be an eternal student. There's not a day that I live that I'm not learning something about food.

Also, buy nice comfy socks and stay physically fit."

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