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Prodigal Sons

Richard Blais uses his own experiences to explain how the Voltaggios were probably feeling having Charlie Palmer as guest judge.

By Richard Blais

I couldn’t sleep the night before. Nervous, anxious, worried. The next morning I was getting on the LIRR, getting out at Penn Station and heading uptown. This was my first “stage” ever. I was a young boy of a chef, not even in culinary school yet. My resume still sported Fuddruckers, somewhere down near the bottom. Somehow, I charmed myself into a few days of free labor. (OK, now I realize that the free labor part had more to do with it than the charm). I was actually going to work in the best restaurant in New York City.

It was the early '90s and the restaurant was Aureole.

That day, I fumbled through hours of prep with ingredients and techniques that were brand new to me. I cut salsify ribbons without knowing what it was at the time. I diced brunoise of summer vegetables for ratatouille that was going to be used for "Ho’s"? Later, a chef named Bingo schooled me on the lingo. It was short for hors d’oeuvres. Who knew? Not me.

I spent most of the day hunched over my cutting board, which sat atop a pile of boxed potatoes. It was tight quarters. Tight enough that I learned you have to knock on the walk-in door before leaving the walk-in to avoid a tragic scene. A somewhat typical New York City, and I’m guessing submarine, kitchen practice. But new to me at the time.

I ran up and down the stairs that day like a firefighter in training. Good exercise for sure, but not great in my first pair of Swedish clogs with wooden heels. Or while hauling sheet trays filled with various mis en place on every round.

I spent a few days that summer traversing those stairs, learning about big-time kitchens; the language, the way to move and behave in a high energy, busy, fine dining restaurant. How to find a sous chef you admire and to latch on for dear life. How to navigate the subway system ... eventually. Once, I ended up in Brownsville, not the Upper East Side.

I still have the menus from those days. My favorite, the cover of the pastry menu, which featured a pastry chef walking through a park while it’s raining chocolate fantasy, pudding, ice cream cones, and spun sugar chandeliers.

So, it was good to see Charlie Palmer on Top Chef tonight. Everything Michael says about him being an American pioneer is more than accurate. And it reminded me of the first time I had the opportunity to meet him, as I delivered the next batch of potatoes to be shredded on the mandolin for Aureole’s signature scallop sandwich dish. The scene could have best been described as a hobbit delivering a giant’s morning paper.

And as we hear the brothers recount their relationship with Charlie, it reminded me of my experience cooking for Daniel Boulud during my season. Being a Daniel boy, I was both excited and slightly terrified at the challenge ahead. The pressure is palpable. Cooking for your mentor is a stress-filled honor. Cooking for your mentor, while competing in usually less than ideal situations, is a daunting mountain of a challenge. 

Having worked for a chef who is judging an episode sounds like an advantage. It’s not. It’s what I refer to as the coach’s son theory. Of which is personal to me. I was a great little league baseball player, always one of the best on my team. My dad, who coached the team, would bat me seventh (!) to dispel any inklings of nepotism, to keep me grounded, and push me harder.  I’d have to practice twice as hard to get the same recognition of other players, and my mistakes were used as examples for the team. 

Chef Palmer’s interaction with Bryan during the Quickfire reminded me of just that scenario. A gentle chiding, because he can. It is exactly what happens when mentor and protégé meet on a somewhat neutral, and in this case, awkward setting.

And I can understand Michael’s situation as well. I left Daniel to take a shot at running my own kitchen. Everyone has to do that. But the industry peer pressure of leaving such a big time chef, drowned me in guilt for a long time. I came to believe that somehow I let him down. And as with Michael, until my time cooking for Daniel on Top Chef, I always felt like he just didn’t like me....

I won that challenge, which you may have seen.

What you didn’t get to see was my goosebump-covered arms, and near tear soliloquy expressing my thanks to Daniel. Not for the verdict. But for being one of the reasons I stood in front of him on that night.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Catch up with me on twitter @richardblais and on my blog.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

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