Richard Blais grew up on Long Island and found culinary direction in Manhattan, where he worked for chefs like Charlie Palmer and Daniel Boulud. He now runs several locations of FLIP Burger throughout The South, The Spence in Atlanta, and Juniper & Ivy in San Diego, which is where Blais and his family live. He’s also found considerable success on “Top Chef,” taking second place on Season 4 before winning “Top Chef: All-Stars.” On August 23, I met Blais at LA Food & Wine, where he shared insights into his background and approach.
Josh Lurie: Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
Richard Blais: The closest thing that was going to be a career, was hip-hop artist. Lyricist. I was kind of Eminem before Eminem was. Seriously. That was something I was into. Professional athlete, long before that, but that was never going to happen.
JL: In what sport?
RB: By skill, it probably would have been lacrosse, but at that age, that was before there was even a professional lacrosse league. A non-paying professional sport.
JL: So you would perform hip-hop?
RB: I would produce things in my basement and have some friends around. Somebody’s got some freestyle from me on a tape somewhere, buried in the basement.
JL: What’s the first dish you ever remember cooking, and how did it turn out?
RB: We’ll start with awful, and it was fresh fettuccine pasta. I’ve always loved Italian food. One day, when I just learning how to cook and still living with my parents, I was like, I’m going to buy some flour and eggs and go for it. I had no pasta machine, never made fresh pasta, and it was like Lucille Ball in the candy factory. It was just a mess. There was flour everywhere. It was a disaster.
JL: What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen, not McDonald’s?
RB: My first super professional, “Wow, I’m in the big leagues” moment, I staged at Aureole in New York. I remember just being amazed at how many young chefs were there, and how serious everything was. I’d worked in local places, but that was my first day in a big city star chef’s restaurant. What I needed was that fever, and that sort of camaraderie, and to see food. Especially at the time, Aureole was the #1 Zagat rated restaurant in New York. It was a big moment for me.
JL: What does a dish have to be to go on the menu at Juniper & Ivy, and how would that differ from your other restaurants?
RB: At Juniper & Ivy, we like to say it’s a “left coast cookery.” Left meaning two ways. Obviously we’re on the West Coast, so left coast. All of our food comes from Baja to Vancouver, maybe a little bit out towards Hawaii for seafood, but everything’s West Coast. That’s different from my restaurants on the East Coast. Then left, sort of in the political sense that it’s a little bit more progressive. We’re garnishing with unique ingredients, but at the end of the day, it goes on the menu if it’s delicious and we eat it and are like, “Wow, I want to eat it again.” That’s the ultimate goal. It’s not, “Wow, that’s so interesting.” “That’s a beautiful picture.” “Wow, that’s a great technique.” It simply has to be, “Wow, I want to order that again. I could eat that tomorrow.”
JL: What was the most recent dish that you developed, and what was your inspiration?