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Richard: Cooking Outside the Box

Richard Blais discusses his Willy Wonka inspiration and why he can't go unnoticed in Central Park anymore. Let's start with the Quickfire. Were you intimidated at all when you saw that Daniel Boulud was the guest judge? Where had you worked with him previously?
I wasn't intimidated by Daniel. It felt more like having one of your parents over to your new apartment -- does that make sense ? I hadn't worked for him in 8 years, and I didn't think he would remember me as I was just a line cook, and I was more nervous that I might be embarrassed by a chef I admire and worked for. I worked for Daniel, at Daniel in 1999-2000 for 9 months. I left him to take an executive position in Atlanta.

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Watch Top Chef on Bravo and next day on Peacock. How important is technique in the kitchen? At all levels?
It's crucial, really. A great chef has to be a technician, and an expert craftsman before personal vision and artistry can surface. Its like a designer on Runway not thinking sewing is important! For me the technical quest for perfection is always ongoing. Presently I'm obsessed with scooping one-handed quenelles. It's a classic technique that can be practiced. You should go buy a few pints of ice cream and have a quenelle party! Technique also is a way for a chef in a competition like this to separate himself. The whole group of us were making turned vegetables one night to see who's a badass ... Yes -- we are dorks! I was really impressed with Dale's avocado in the Quickfire. That's what I love about what I do -- you see something impressive, and then you push to achieve that technique. I saw Dale yesterday; I should have challenged him to an avocado turning battle ...
blogs_richard_404_01.jpg you concerned at all with your other teammates, or you knew you would make a good team?
Looking for drama are we? A great chef can make a great team with anyone -- that's leadership. But Andrew and Dale are both passionate and skilled, so there certainly weren't any technical or skill concerns. Of course part of the competition is dealing with a wide range of personalities. Andrew and I are on opposite sides of the chart. I believe Dale picked to be on my team, and that's just a huge compliment, just like last week when a few chefs chose rather quickly to work with me. What an honor ... That made me really want to push, so that no one on my team would go home, and prove that it's a good call to work with me .... Take one step towards me, and I'll take two towards you. Willy Wonka is your favorite movie -- can you expand a little on your relationship with it?
I opened my restaurant BLAIS in Atlanta in 2004. I designed television monitors in the dining room to play live feed action of the kitchen, time lapse footage of vegetables growing, and occasionally movies. So we bought a DVD of the original Gene Wilder Wonka, and it ended up playing a lot. Also it just fits into my style. If I could invent a three-course gum ball, I would -- what a great idea! Did the flavor combinations concern you at all? Or you knew they would work together?
I knew the flavors worked. I have a theory, like hip hip bone connected to the thigh bone etc .... If you know white chocolate works with celery, and you know wasabi works with fish, and you know smoke works with salmon, and that soy works with wasabi, etc, etc. You can connect certain flavors that may seem on PAPER as a risk. Good thing you don't eat paper -- well you can, but that's another [interview]. In the stew room, Zoi and some of the other chefs questioned the flavor of your dish without tasting it -- do you have a response?
There is a camp of philosophy that is against risk-taking and creativity in the kitchen. It occurs in all artistic mediums. its stubbornness and a lack of an open mind. It's a philosophy that says things have been done for hundreds of years one way, so why change. Unfortunately, this ideology is very apparent in Northern California, so for the girls to feel that way is just a by-product of where they cook. When I returned from the Judges' Table, Jenn told me she was talking shit. I can take it. I'm used to it. No worries .... But taste things before you write them Did you get to try any of the other dishes? What did you think of them?
Being the first team I did try everything. All of the food was delicious, and it very much represented stylistic differences amongst the competitors. Do you think someone else should have gone home besides Manuel?
In retrospect, no -- Memo should have gone. At the time I thought Spike should have went. But my view has changed .... Do you blame the leader or the follower -- a classic TC debate. Going back a bit, you also won last week's Quickfire with Chef Bayless -- what was that like? How excited were you that your dish would end up on one of his menus?
Bayless in an intellect, and I was very happy with the dish going on one of his menus -- it's a huge honor ....

How has life been for you since the show started airing?
Let's see -- I just ran in Central Park and a few people shouted out, "Go Chef." I've been in LA, NYC, and ATL in the last two weeks and people are stopping me and routing for me. That's just way too weird, but of course it's a good feeling. Work in other markets has started to present itself.I completely underestimated the reach of the show, and so far it's been an amazing ride ....

Were you a Top Chef fan before? Who were your favorites to watch?
Mildly, now passionately. I liked Marcel and Hung ... sorry ....

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