Atlanta's own Richard Blais has three current restaurants— Flip Burger, HD1, and the Spence— and just as many seasons of Top Chef under his belt. He also wrote a cookbook, Try This at Home, which happens to release today, covering everything from umami ketchup and ranch caviar to sous vide eggs and macaroni and head cheese. The chef will be signing copies of the book at the Phipps Plaza Sur La Table at 12 p.m. on Saturday, March 9, and at the Georgia Tech Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 11. Below, he talks about liquid nitrogen, getting over his hatred of Southern food, and the point of plating.
In the foreword, Tom Colicchio says that one of the things that sets you apart as a chef is that you 'play with your food.' What started that?
I don't think it's really something that I think about— it just happens. We try to look at things in new and different ways, to put a lighthearted spin on dishes, and our food is the result of that. With the book, we want people to have fun with cooking just like we do.
You plan dishes out on paper before you even start cooking. How much does a dish change from the first time it's down on paper to when it finally makes the menu?
Oh, they change all the time. Even once they're on the menu, they're not final dishes— I'm always tinkering with them and changing things. There are very few dishes that I can truly say are completed.
When you came to Atlanta from New York, you didn't like Southern food. What changed?
I came down from New York with a chip on my shoulder. I was a stubborn Yankee— I had all these preconceived notions about Southern food, but once I got down here, I just got over it. At first I just didn't know any better— I say in my book, I liked polenta, not grits, but now, I love grits. I love pimento cheese— and what's funny is that if you go to Brooklyn today, pimento cheese is huge.
You say that you don't love plating, but you serve many dishes in innovative ways: octopus in a bell jar, smoking cocktails, soup from a can. How is that line drawn?
I think [plating] has to be useful and enhance the dish in some way. You have to think about the food first rather than how you want it to look. If a chef says, I want to do a dish that looks like a sphere, okay, that's great, but first let's think about the how it tastes, not the color or shape.
In one recipe for the book, I make a malt vinegar jelly to put on a filet of fish sandwich— that came about because I hated how soggy fish and chips got. With the jelly, we're solving a problem without sacrificing taste.
Did you have to think about putting recipes that involve liquid nitrogen into the book?
Richard Blais without liquid nitrogen... Richard Blais without nitrogen is a song that people could sing. I feel like it's expected from me, that it's a part of who I am now— When I do chef demos around the country, people always say, okay what can you do for us with liquid nitrogen? So I had to do it, but it's in the book as "an extra," a version 2.0 of the recipe that people can utilize but don't have to if they don't have the equipment on hand.
Your first job was at McDonald's. Do you feel like things would have been different if you started with fine dining instead of fast food?
Probably. I want to make sure that my restaurants are accessible to everybody. My first job was at McDonald's, I grew up eating blue-collar food, I didn't spend time as a kid in my grandmother's Italian kitchen with her smacking me with a spoon and telling me to be traditional, so I feel like I have more leeway to experiment and create.
Are you serious about opening an English muffin pizza food truck?
I'd love to do it, but probably not in Atlanta. Atlanta's a great town, but for food trucks, I'd maybe want to be in Portland or Austin. We have a couple ideas— English muffins, bruschetta... I'm not sure how feasible they are, but if you know any investors, send them my way.
· First Look: Richard Blais's Cookbook Try This at Home [-EN-]
· All Coverage of Richard Blais [-EATL-]
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