Richard Blais

Richard Blais sheds some light on his personal and professional relationship with Eli Kirshtein.

on Nov 18, 20090

Eli Kirshtein is 25 years old. He wears t-shirts perhaps a bit too tight for his frame. His white clogs, were, well, once that color. He runs awkwardly, like a newborn foal. His hairstyle is somewhere between Crash bandicoot and the Wisconsin badger. He lives in his parents’ basement. And his comedic presence: a ratio of three parts “I’m smarter than you” and one part “I just put my foot in my mouth” gives him a very George Costanza-esque television personality.

That’s what most of you know about Eli. In reality, I know him much better.

Eli showed up at my doorstep, as an aspiring chef, when he was 17 years old. At a time when I was just figuring out how to run a kitchen, a time when no one knew me from “atom.” Before molecular gastronomy was even a term used, Eli wanted to learn from me. He was my first. That sounds weird. But he was the first person I ever hired that was there to work for me … not a paycheck.

That first year was memorable.

Most notably, was the time we were cooking for a critic we identified in the dining room, and Eli almost sent out some badly cooked shrimp. I’d never yelled at anyone before or since like I yelled at him that day. So much so, that a manager wanted to send me to the hospital because veins were visibly pulsing on my neck for many minutes even after the moment passed. 

And speaking of hospitals, one afternoon while I was in the office, Eli came in sucking his thumb, mumbling something. Turns out he was mumbling about cutting his thumb. I put him in a car with a blood-soaked towel with one of our captains and sent him off to the ER. As they were pulling away, he told me to check his cutting board. Odd? But there amongst some chiffonade red-stemmed Swiss chard lay the tip of his thumb, nail, flesh and all. Not knowing what to do, I put it on ice and in the fridge on his station. Hours later, when he finally came back, I think I dared him to eat it.

And while he didn’t take me up on that dare, I once challenged him to down a shot glass of fish sauce. He slurped it back like Patron, while the rest of us gagged. 

And when I got my first executive lesson in corporate downsizing, it was Eli, the youngest and most capable of absorbing the loss of his job (he was in high school) that I had to let go. I told him the decision was strictly business and about labor cost. That it had nothing to do with him, or certainly his passion or skill.

His response?

I’ll see you tomorrow, Chef. Unpaid. Tomorrow, turned into years. Paid of course. 

From there, the story gets much better for Eli. He heads off to the Culinary Institute of America. He works, unpaid again, in any New York City restaurant that will have him. Alain Ducasse, Daniel, Le Bernardin. And he returns to Atlanta to become a leader in the town he loves. But winds changed and Eli followed me on the worst career move of my life, to work with me in Miami. He sleeps on my couch, or wherever bourbon lays him down that night. My career is half a mess but Eli is always there, right by my side.

For our daily lunch at one of our restaurants he would ask me to name a chef and a year and he would make a dish they would have produced, during the time frame. Tower of portabello and duck confit: Alfred Portale ’91. Short rib on celery root puree: Colicchio, Gramercy Tavern, ‘98. Poached halibut in a nage of chanterelles: Eric Ripert, ‘94. “Pre Gilbert LeCoze’s passing!” He would exclaim.

Did I mention Eli was, maybe, 22 at this point?

61 comments
di
di

thanks, Richard, for sharing about Eli. I had alternate feelings about him, he was funny, but sometimes mean spirited too. Your stories swayed me to liking him. I know we don't always get a true view of cheftestants, because of time. Anyway, hoping good things for both of you in the future.

Ex Pat Georgian
Ex Pat Georgian

Loved the blog by Blais. However, I didn't think that Eli came off as George Costanza. He was by far my favorite contestant to watch. Eli actually said entertaining things, and he showed a great deal of passion on the show. In addition, he also seemed like a very genuine person, and appeared to be well liked by the other chefs. That is why it was so sad when he had to go. By comparison, it won't be nearly as sad when the remaining chefs are cut because you can't relate to any of them on the level you could relate to Eli. Plus, its a TV show. You would have to be kind of naive to actually judge someone by how they are presented by editors. The best chef may not have left this week, but the most likeable one did.

SassyKatF
SassyKatF

I have been a fan of Top Chef since season 2. (I lived in an area where there was no cable/satellite services available). I love watching these folks being given a task, figuring out the fastet and best way to complete the task, then going to it! I know I could NEVER stand the pressure that those people are under. I really hope Kevin takes it all, but I was so sad to see Eli eliminated this week. I'm not sure it was deserved! But then, I wasn't there, I didn't see his dish, nor taste anything, so who am I to say! Good Luck Eli! You really deserve it. Just watch how you treat people. While I'm not sure why you were hostile and rude to Robin, more than likely you had your reasons!

Birdgherl
Birdgherl

Oh Blais, if only you were a vegan, you would be PERFECT.

BUSH
BUSH

Richard- You and Kevin have shown the world what a true gentleman acts like under pressure. You both handled yourself so well, and I still liked you both at the end of the season. (I'm sure Kevin will continue to be his laid-back self until the end) May you continue your succesful career for a long time to come! PS The fried okra at Flip Burger is to die for!!!

nursejeanne
nursejeanne

To Momofo: I think Richard used "atom" instead of "Adam" as a little nod to all of his scientific cooking.....just a thought...Is that it, Richard? Also, to Eli's Mom: You are the first Mom I have seen write a blog entry and I for one am VERY happy you did! You should be so very proud of Eli! As a Mom myself, I know the joy you feel and I am hapy to see you put it in print! Kudos to you, Eli and Richard!!

capassar
capassar

Thanks Chef - I love Eli and his chutspa even more! This year I begin my food pilgrimages in search of Top Chefs - and will no doubt find myself in Atlanta (Florida?).

LeeAnne
LeeAnne

What a sweet story, this showed me how food is such apart of the chefs lives, I love to cook, but wow Bravo really get the best chefs out there, I sorta was surprised Eli, went home I thought Mike V. really messed up and that he may have been the one to go, I'm looking forward to the finals, hoping Kevin will win in but am pretty sure it will be one of the brothers, hopefully Brian!!

Sherri L
Sherri L

Thanks for a great blog. You are definitely a Top Chef. I felt Eli was #4 or #5 (maybe even #3 on occasion). He is extremely talented (and a true friend to you)and it really showed in some of his dishes.

RLB
RLB

Richard, it speaks well for both Eli and you. What a great blog, as usual.

mayor mccheese
mayor mccheese

LOVED you 2 on iron chef, def. 2 faves on top chef...demand your own show!!! good job eli!!!

Harriet
Harriet

I was not/am not a fan of Eli's,however, I am a HUGE fan of Richard. Therefore, I will rethink my opinions of Eli in a more gentle fashion. Richard is grace under fire. If he thinks that Eli is great then perhaps he is.

I do think that a little more maturity and a little less mouth would be a grand addition.

BGirl
BGirl

Silly, Richard! You should have taken Eli's thumb tip immediately to the hospital for it to be reattached!

Bravo Top Chef Lover
Bravo Top Chef Lover

Look at this young man now and think about what he will ultimately become. Wow. So impressed. He may be young, but he has a long and great career ahead of him. He has been fun to watch - he will be missed. Richard, your insight was neat to read. You are truly generous to share your experiences with Eli with all of us. Makes us all like him even more.

Murphy
Murphy

I saw Richard Blais on Iron Chef a while ago, and Eli was one of his sous chefs there.

Supporter
Supporter

Thank you for sharing this. I liked Eli throughout the entire show - I thought his honesty and passion were right on and I'm glad the editors let us see his whole person (I like his wit and think it fits perfectly with someone who would write "don't know me from atom!"). As others have said-what a great Top Chef season this is, down to five stellar contributors. Congrats to the final five and Richard thanks for your enlightening blogs.

aimee
aimee

wow, i really enjoyed reading that. what a great testament to friendship and sharing a passion. although i am just a server, not a chef, i love the industry so completely. i believe you have to be an artist, and i love to be a part of the dance. thank you. and if you have any pull, lol, i totally want to try out for top server....hint bravo!

Aud
Aud

Wow, such a nice message and I love the Eli's mom commented. I'd be proud too, at 25 I was in grad school, he's accomplished so much. momof6 "atom" was a play on words.

aViewer
aViewer

Damn, I love this. This is the best of Top Chef - excellent chefs with great values. Blais, we are all so lucky to have met you. Eli, it's so cliched but you rock. Eli's mom - even more proud of you for supporting your son.

Thanks to all of the top chef contestants for choosing your passion over the safety of a boring career. Your passion is beautiful art we get to enjoy. Now, will someone pass me some of Kevin's lamb...

PeachPie
PeachPie

Wow. Had no idea from your recent blogs you even knew Eli.

Thank you for sharing that. It makes a big difference in how I view him (not that I didn't already think he was extremely talented).

bravobravofanny
bravobravofanny

people are so so critical and IT MAKES ME MAD.eli is a great contender. thanks for completing the circle

Steve in MD
Steve in MD

Great read Richard. (Still upset you didn't win, grr.) Shows how some people have a great compassion in their craft and will go all out to succeed. Not sure if it was the editing, but he really looked liked an a*hole to most viewers. Now you've humanized him. Take care.

Nichole in SF
Nichole in SF

Eli was a tool who was overdue for getting booted from the competition. His behavior towards Robin and his throwing Ashley under the bus told me everything I needed to know about him. Good riddance.

mmc
mmc

A lovely story from a nice man about a friend. I think Eli should be proud that he made it so far. A great accomplishment for such a young man.

calif gigi
calif gigi

I have to admit I shed a tear when Eli got eliminated & now reading your history with him I again shed some tears. What a loyal friend he has been, I know in your business it can get cut-throat so this is a testimony that friendship can endure. By the way I loved seeing you having so much fun on the reunion show that Fabio hosted.

Eli will go far, he is an excellent chef, hey maybe Kevin will hire him.

Fran O
Fran O

Unbelievable. You should write novels. I was so eager to read more about Eli. Thanks!

BD
BD

What a delicious read! I'm so proud of all my Atlanta chefs. Each of you have shown real class and generosity while in extremely stressful circumstances. The beautiful of bond of friendship and love between brothers of different mothers was so satisfying to read, that I feel like I just ate my favorite dessert. Once again Blais had left me feeling better than I did before our encounter. Bravo!

AD
AD

I'm glad you like Eli, but it hasn't changed by opinion of him. I'm not sure this blog was appropriate; it sounded like a eulogy.

ed
ed

It was nice to see Eli get a good edit on his last show. His comments about you as well as his classy exit has done a lot to redeem him in the eyes of viewers this season. Richard you are a badass blogger and a great chef. Momof6 Richard made a pun when he posted "don't know me from Atom" since Blais is known for molecular gastronomy. The man is just too smart and clever for his own good.

George
George

Blais...I love your reading your blog each week and I know you're a personal friend of Eli's, but I would have liked to get a little more of your perspective on the entire episode. An entire blog dedicated to Eli was a little hard to stomach (no pun intended).

JAM
JAM

Awwwww Blais, you made me shed a tear! It was tough for me to see anyone leave this episode, this is the only season of Top Chef where I didn't want anyone of the 5 remaining contestants to pack their knives and go. While I did not like how Eli treated Robin this season, he seems like a genuinely decent-down-to-earth kind of guy who knows how to cook, and your blog made me like him even more. Have to visit Atlanta soon and dine in both (and KEvin's) your restaurants.

janet (spinnyboo)
janet (spinnyboo)

thank you for sharing this via your twitter --- we are weeks behind in Top Chef so it was nice to read a little ahead and assume he is still around for a while. great article! great chefs from atlanta!!!

multishroonery
multishroonery

That was like the nicest thing I have ever read. Not only are the Atlanta chefs talented, but humble and kind. (Did you see Kevin G. give Jen a wink when she won the quickfire last night?) You make our city burst with pride and we are awe of your craft. Well done!

Liz4
Liz4

What a great story! It took me awhile to warm up to Eli. I feel like I know him after reading your post. What a great kid! Thanks for sharing this post.

Steve A.
Steve A.

Thanks for you comments, it is easy to see the contests in one light b/c of editing, but you remind use that the chefs at this level have a very deep and personal commitment to their craft. Eli does seem like someone that I would hire (if I ran a restaurant), which says more about him than me and is probably one of the highest compliments you can pay somebody.

julia
julia

Once again a great blog...regarding Eli..you obviously have affection for him but I found him to be very hostile and rude towards Robin, to the point I was hoping he woudn't make it to the final four. I hope he learns from watching himself on Top Chef.

Thomas L
Thomas L

Eli could be grating on the show, but I suspected it had to do with his age and the pressure (and of course editing). This post makes for a much more rounded picture, and definitely make's me respect Eli a lot more! it shows his true drive to learn. Dedication, loyalty, intensity. Glad you posted.

Scotchfyler
Scotchfyler

What a beautiful read! Thanks for sharing Eli's background and allowing us to understand him on a more personal level.

Forrest
Forrest

Thank you! Great hearing a little history about Eli. I hope he does well with his career!

AnnDemilio
AnnDemilio

What a great read, thank you for sharing. Such insight into Eli was wonderful, he seemed like such an oddball at times on the show. Being in the business, your relationship is common and rare at the same time, you are great mentor who has a lot to give. Pass it on.

++MIRA++
++MIRA++

ok,im a romantic sap, and this is one of the sweetest things i have read in a long lonnng time. i loved watching Eli on TC especially since he just has fun with food and u can tell. I hated to see him go, but i agree, the best is yet to come for him. Blais, thanks for this perspective on Eli. It may (i will not confirm) have brought a tear to my eye. you are a best friend indeed, and i think this is what reminds me what passion is all about. peace.

Carrie F
Carrie F

This was a great read. Because it's television the chefs are made into characters, and sometimes it's easy to forget they are real human beings. This has been very insightful, and I'm sure Eli will be a chef to watch in the upcoming years.

Lollardfish
Lollardfish

My wife and I were watching the show and frequently remarked how this was, by far, the best group of five chefs assembled on Top Chef. Eli was impressive.

One thing for sure, there's good food happening in Atlanta.

WGD - Marietta, GA
WGD - Marietta, GA

Great story! Thanks for sharing... People like you, Eli, and Kevin make those of us fortunate enough to live in Metro Atlanta proud! Not to mention the fact that some truly great meals are also created here.

chicago viewer
chicago viewer

Thank you so much for the background on Eli. You were my favorite on your season and he was my favorite on this one. It's great to see how wonderful your friendship/bond is with him. Reminds me of one of mine. The best of luck to you and him.

P.S. Eli's mom - your comment was very touching...brought me to tears (more than when I saw the episode).

Random Atlanta Diner
Random Atlanta Diner

Thanks for this fantastic post, chef! It shows us a side of Eli (and of you) that we would never have gotten from just watching. You're both all class.

Debdoes
Debdoes

Richard, thanks so much for sharing this personal side or your relationship....I had no idea until Eli mentioned you on last night's episode. Proud of both of you guys....thanks for putting Atlanta on the culinary map!

TL
TL

Good for you Eli. I'll swing by Eno soon.

TVKimmy
TVKimmy

Richard, that was...well....that was an amazing story and very eye-opening. It was really enlightening to hear from you about who Eli was and is. I honestly admit to not digging him at all on the show. I thought he was arrogant, snotty, rude and thought his talent was beyond what it was. Now, I would be hypocritical if I said that now all that has changed, but I can say this. After learning more about the man and the chef I will definitely give him the benefit of the doubt, assume some of his asshatery was due to editing and stress and allow that he might be an excellent chef, just not in this context. Top Chef isn't for everyone and there are plenty of great chefs that cannot shine in that situation. So I wish Eli luck and good things in life and thank you again Richard for sharing with us.

momof6
momof6

Lovely, heartfelt post, but fyi, the expression is "I don't know him from Adam," not "atom."