Top Chef All-Star contestant, culinary modernist, and owner/operator of the mini-chain of Flip Burger Boutiques has a new TV show, Blais Off, premiering tonight on the Science Channel. Here now, an interview with Blais conducted by one of his biggest fans, comedian and Top Chef recapper Max Silvestri:
- Host Chef Richard Blais using liquid nitrogen to cook basil for his scientifically engineered pizza.
- Host Chef Richard Blais measuring out ingredients for his scientifically engineered burger condiments.
- Host Richard Blais adding gellan gum to his homemade ketchup mix to create sliceable ketchup.
- Host Chef Richard Blais and owner of Patsy's Pizzeria in East Harlem, Frank Brija, standing in front of Patsy's famous coal fired oven.
- Host Chef Richard Blais walking Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours, through his scientific dough making process.
- Host Richard Blais pouring his pizza dough mix.
- Host Chef Richard Blais with owner of Patsy's Pizzeria in East Harlem, Frank Brija, learning how to make Patsy's pizza dough.
- Host Chef Richard Blais' scientifically engineered burgers, ready to be served.
- In Royale's kitchen, host Chef Richard Blais blowtorches his burger.
- Host Chef Richard Blais' scientifically engineered burgers being blowtorched in order to create a maillard reaction.
- Host Chef Richard Blais holding up his sliceable ketchup.
- Host Richard Blais chomping down on his scientifically enhanced burger.
Hi Richard! Max Silvestri from Eater here.
Hi Max. I'm a fan of your work. Go easy on me.
I promise I won't make any animated GIFs of you over the phone? I'm a big fan of yours. Tell me about your new show on the Science Channel, Blais Off.
Blais Off is basically tackling iconic American traditional food and seeing if science and technology and a little bit of creativity can hopefully make them taste better, and if not, at least make them more interesting. It's almost a 101, 102 course to creative cookery. A lot of people think of hyper-creative food as eucalyptus air and olive soil, but when you do it in the context of pizza and burgers, it makes it fun.
The show is set up like a competition, in that you face off against chefs well-known for producing definitive versions of these American classics. In the two episodes I saw, you challenged Royale's bacon cheeseburger and Patsy's plain cheese pizza, both here in New York. I mean, you are certainly not going out each week assured that you are going to beat these people.
I would say that with any experimentation it's going to be a lot of failure. I'm quite familiar with it, and it's something you have to be able to absorb to be truly creative. We don't know if it's going to work in the lab, a lot of the stuff, and even if it works for us, who knows what people in the street are going to say about it.
You have such an enthusiasm for your avant-garde techniques that at times it sounds like you are proselytizing. Do you think these techniques are within reach of regular home cooks?
Oh, for sure. That's the primary reason why I do anything on television. I'm a kid on Christmas morning who just opened up his toys. I want to run it next door and show my neighbor and let him ride my bike. I don't think every Joe Cook in America is going to be using liquid nitrogen and cooking sous vide tomorrow, but it takes time.
I'll actually say I was a bit surprised by how restrained your dishes were. Yes, you had fried frozen mayo and sliced ketchup and exploding mozzarella balls, but both your versions looked like a burger and pizza, and no one would mistake them for anything else. Did you hold back?
From experience, you have to deliver. There is a competition aspect to the show, and to win over the masses, you gotta start at a certain point. I hate the word deconstruction, but we could have presented something that had none of the traditional flavors of pizza, didn't look like it. That might be neat for novelty sake, but I want people to enjoy food. That's one of the issues with hyper-creative cooking: that's really interesting or cool, but do you want to eat it again? Do you want to go to that restaurant next week, and not just for your anniversary next year?
It seems like the chefs you're challenging are pretty suspicious. They are proud of the way they do things, and when they see what you're bringing into the kitchen, they don't quite seem convinced.
These people are serious about what they do. It's not a hatred, but there is this animosity toward creative cooking. For some reason, people that like simple beautiful food can't stand altered, creative food. It's like East Coast/West Coast hip-hop wars. I'm sorry, I know that might be a reach.
No, no. Not at all.
It's Biggie versus Tupac. You can't have beautiful simple food AND creative food?
Are you saying you're worried for your life? Because their story ended badly.
Well, I was trying to find a quick ride out of both of those restaurants. Not fearful for my life, but New Yorkers are New Yorkers, and it was an intense atmosphere for sure.
You've got three Flip Burger Boutiques. The South has an even closer connection to its food traditions than New York. But people have embraced the things you're doing down there. Do you find some resistance?
In general I find resistance to the things that I do. But knock on wood, we've been wildly successful. We have a Flip Burger in Birmingham, Alabama, and it is a different clientele, and there is a lot more tradition. It's harder to do new things, but they've embraced it. It's a good sign. We're gonna do DC next year, and it's almost the reverse of ‘if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.' If you can do it in Birmingham, Alabama, you can do it anywhere.
Let's talk Top Chef. What was it like going back?
Very intense. The whole experience the first time around was very humbling. It really grounded me as a cook. Going back was that same sort of humbling, educating experience. But also a lot of fun. I love playing the game. My biggest regret the first time around wasn't not winning, it was, “oh man, there's no game tomorrow?” It's kind of competitive like a sport, but there's no next season. “Aw, we'll get ‘ em next year.” So it's amazing to come back and play again.
Did people play the game differently this time around?
People came back with more to lose than the first time. No on really knows you the first time around, and then you do well and people start to know you after the show. Some of these people, myself included, have changed their lives dramatically. Coming back, you hope you don't lose all that. You've talked about it in your recaps, but for example people that were funny are now serious. Now you know more about TV.
I'm sure that after watching yourself on TV, you maybe come off differently than you realize. It's like listening to a recording of your own voice. It must be sobering to see how you appear on television stretched over many weeks. Maybe this season is a chance for some people to fix that.
For sure. I can tell you that, even physically, I was like, wow I need to jump on a treadmill. I just had to watch myself on TV--
You look great, by the way.
Aw, thanks. At the end of the day though, I don't think you can change someone's personality through the editing. The integrity of the production of the show is just so intense, so amazing. To see all the people involved in making that show happen, and how real it is, you are who you are. If you're going to sit in front of that camera and not say how you feel, you're cheating the customer, the viewer. You can't sit there like the star athlete and say, “thanks to my offensive line, we did great today.” If you really think you did great, you have to say it.
Can you give us any hints as to what's ahead this season?
I obviously can't say anything about what you haven't seen yet, but I can say you can expect the same sort of intensity you saw in those first few episodes. It's weird. I'm a fan of the show, and I'm a viewer of the show, and when I came back, I said to myself, “wow, these first few episodes are gonna be unbelievable.” And they were. That's not going to stop this season.
We're not just up and coming chefs now. Some of us have giant egos, some more than others, and there is going to be a lot of talking back, a lot of bravado.
Your new show is called Blais Off. What's the best pun on your name you've heard in your lifetime?
I will tell you this, and not just because you're on the phone, but “Blais well with others?” You continue to bring up ones I've never heard before. My favorite? I will tell you that when my first restaurant that got reviewed, it said “Blais of Glory.” Obvious.
But hopefully it's not DOWN in a Blais of glory. We'll try to stay away from that.
This interview has been condensed and edited in the style of Debbie Solomon.
Video: Sneak Peek at Blais Off