Chef Richard Blais had his first taste of culinary deconstruction at McDonald’s, serving the Filet-O-Fish sandwich without its top bun (an improvement, he was certain). Although it was a small step for the fast food poissonier, it was part of the path that would eventually lead him to victory on Bravo’s “Top Chef: All Stars” and ultimately to founding his own innovative culinary consultancy company.
Not that it was quick journey from the golden arches to nationwide exposure. Blais’ developing passion for food and the service industry first led him to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he spent time between semesters studying at The French Laundry alongside then rising-stars Grant Achatz and Eric Ziebold. Upon graduating from the CIA in 1998, Blais ventured to New York to work with Chef Daniel Boulud at his renowned flagship, Daniel. His professional compass pointed him to yet another culinary luminary, staging briefly for Ferran Adrià at el Bulli.
In 2000, Blais relocated to Atlanta to oversee a local seafood concept before opening BLAIS to local and national acclaim. The chef’s creative approach to cooking and cuisine at BLAIS led him to found Trail Blais, a forward-thinking culinary company that has consulted on, designed, and operated some of Atlanta’s most popular eateries, including multiple outposts of Flip Burger, HD1, and the forthcoming The Spence. Beyond his Top-Chefdom, Blais has appeared on the Food Network, Discovery Science, and CNN, as well as in numerous publications including The New York Times, InStyle, and Food & Wine—all while serving Atlanta some of the most creative food there is.
Interview with 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Richard Blais
Antoinette Bruno: How did you go from “Top Chef” molecular gastronomy to creative burgers?
Richard Blais: It was really all by accident. Flip came about by me answering a Craigslist ad for someone wanting a creative hamburger joint. My first job was at McDonald's. Chefs can frown about simple food; really that’s the image, it’s not the food’s fault. The microwave is a good example.
AB: How can a chef get out of the kitchen and learn how to run a business?
RB: When you travel enough and eat enough you can put yourself in the guests’ shoe. You really have to do a little pole work, hopefully we're all cooking because we all want to make people happy. It’s about the guest experience, and you need to put chefs in their shoes.
AB: So what’s your customer service policy?
RB: If it’s pouring rain, walk guests to the car. If you hear someone say they love the dish, send them the recipe. If a guests wants to talk to me, even if I’m not there, call me on my cell. Some guests want to be talked to a lot, some guests want to be left alone, it’s finding that out. It’s really about ultimate guest satisfaction, delivering the on the guests’ needs, looking for opportunities to blow people away.
AB: How do you motivate your team?
RB:Really the only motivation is through deliciousness; cooking great food that people want to eat again. I want them all to achieve what they all want to do, and I ask then all what they want to do in 5 years. I don't care what the answer is, I can help them all get there as long as they tell me what they want.
AB: You had a rough end to a restaurant relationship with Concentrics [restaurant group], but now you’ve partnered with them for The Spence. Tell us about the project.
RB: For The Spence, I’m rejoining forces with old partners. I worked for Concentrics as executive chef a long time ago. I was the chef at One Midtown Kitchen and was fighting some food cost issues. I was just starting to get my name out there on the national scene. A couple of restaurateurs and partners later, I realized how great a job Concentrics does. We didn’t have the best of break ups, but it was a long time ago, and I had an idea and here we are again. I needed to go out and spread my wings and get my name out there. It’s kind of like making up with your ex; we got back together.
AB: Tell us about mending those chef-partner break-ups.
RB:Chefs always have bad break ups with business partners. My advice for young chefs is to look in the mirror and figure out why you had a bad breakup. Was it because your food costs were out of control or because your partner didn’t want you buying fresh ingredients? I was much younger, still trying to do things just to prove I could do them. I wasn't the best of business people, and our breakup was about me wanting to make a name and make more money. I went and did what I wanted to do, and now I'm back ready to do what we wanted to do from the beginning. We want to put out tasty food that people want to eat. I realized it’s not about me, it’s about the guest. A lot of chefs go through that; it's still a business and as a responsible chef you have to run it as a business.
AB: Where will we find you in five years?
RB: I’m going to slow down my travel a little bit around the opening. I flew 170,000 miles last year. So I’ll be there, if you are looking to say hi to me, I'll be in that kitchen.