Try this at home: An interview with Chef Richard Blais of The Spence Atlanta

Richard Blais loves to play with food. His creativity has been on display for some time now, and with the release of his first cookbook, he brings that creativity to the home cook. The main point of the book: Play with your food. Especially since there’s no one around to tell you not to!

“But why not play with our food … and then eat it?”

It’s a question asked in the forward (by Tom Colicchio) to the new cookbook, Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate by Richard Blais. We are told constantly as children to not play with our food. Well, why the heck not? Having fun with your food is what makes it so much more than just fuel for your body. Granted, the fuel aspect is kind of important, but it’s also kind of boring! Taking the time to play a little with our food through different recipes and techniques might just make us enjoy it that much more.

Richard Blais loves to play with food. His creativity has been on display for some time now, and with the release of his first cookbook, he brings that creativity to the home cook. The main point of the book: Play with your food. Especially since there’s no one around to tell you not to!

I had the chance to speak with Richard recently. We touched on how he got his start in the business, what it was like working on his first cookbook, and a personal food memory.

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Foodie Journal: When was it that you really discovered that
you had a love for food?

Richard Blais: Well, I remember I played hooky as a kid
and I was in my kitchen making a bologna and cheese and potato chip sandwich. I
was just a kid obviously, and while I was making the sandwich I was talking out
loud to myself, sort of pretending like I was Julia Childs or Jeff Smith or
whoever it was that my mother and my grandmother would watch on TV at the time.
So I think that is the first moment I can remember being like, “Wow, I really
like doing it, I like talking about it while I’m making it,” even though at the
time it was just a sandwich and I’m sure it was awful.

FJ:  When was it that you first had exposure to
restaurants?

RB: I guess the term restaurant is up for
debate, but my first job was at McDonald’s. And I’m always pretty happy to talk
about that, because again it was when I was 14-years-old. I had a very
prestigious position at McDonald’s – I was the poissonier, which means Fish
Cook in French. Even for a fast-food restaurant, being the guy that handles the
one seafood item, it’s pretty prestigious. But, seriously though, humble roots.
I’m always proud to talk about the fact that I started at McDonald’s and
climbed up from there.

FJ: Was it the prestige of being poissonier that
led to you wanting to make a career out of cooking?

RB: [LAUGHS] No. I just always worked in
restaurants. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself growing up. I
always played sports. I played baseball since I was 6-year-old, and I thought I
would end up being a professional baseball player! Really, though, I was always
cooking, and I slowly progressed from McDonald’s to little mom and pop stops,
then to Italian joints, then to a little French bistro. Even then I still
didn’t really know that that’s what I wanted to do. So I worked at a steak
house and there were a couple of other cooks at the time, and a lot of these
cooks had gone to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and I realized this
was more than just an hourly, grinding job. Those positions certainly exist in
our industry, but if you wanted it, there was actually an art to it and some
serious craft to it and that’s when I decided to go to culinary school.

FJ: How do you feel your experience at the CIA
helped you in your career?

RB: I’m a big fan of culinary school in
general, of course the one I went to I think I certainly is one of the best, if
not the best. I loved culinary school because their in-field training is. Some
might say that it isn’t a realistic experience. It’s not as fast-paced as a
real kitchen, and you’re not going to be one of ten students and four cooks
hovering over a pot talking about soup or discussing a carrot, but that’s why I
love culinary school! You could actually go to the library and find 50 people
that were actually studying the history of French cuisine or a carrot or a
certain type of braise. It was nice to have the time to really dig in to things
a bit more.

FJ: For you heading up a kitchen, how important is
it for you to be a teacher?

RB: I think it’s the most important thing. There
are a lot of life lessons that you can teach in the kitchen. I think it’s
really important because, especially in this day and age, there are a lot of
people who aren’t necessarily going to culinary school or starting off in this
career for the right reasons. They want to be rock star chefs, they want to be
on TV or they want to be mad scientists. Some part of this new generation has
lost track of the classics, and of just cooking great food. Being hospitable,
and knowing really why we cook, which is to make people happy. I think that can
get lost sometimes.

FJ: You’ve had the opportunity to work in some
high-caliber restaurants. The French Laundry, and El Bulli just to name a
couple. How did working in those kitchens impact you? Is it something that
every chef should try to do, if they can?

RB: Yeah, if they can. Not everyone can work
for nothing or barely anything; throw on a backpack, and head out to work at a
three- or four-star restaurant. But, if you can do it, everyone should. Although
the CIA taught me many things, I didn’t feel like I understood what it took to
be a chef until I left the French Laundry, and that was really just internship.
So, the highest level you can go for as long as you can endure it, I definitely
would recommend it. It’s not just the food. You learn about professionalism. Plus,
surrounding yourself with others that are aspiring to be the best pushes you to
do better. It’s really helpful.

FJ: Your first cookbook just dropped. What was it
like going through the entire process of actually putting together your first
cookbook?

RB: A lot more difficult than I though it would
be. Hats off to the people whose main focus is publishing cookbooks or anything
about food. It took two years all in, some of that was just business and delays
and getting the timing right, but it was a lot harder than I thought. It’s not just
about transcribing recipes. It’s aimed at the “Cooking Class 102” home cook, somebody
who does know a little bit about cooking. But, it’s not a coffee table sort of
cookbook.

For me it was challenging to come up with recipes,
or try to deliver recipes, that, you know, Mary in Kansas can pick up and cook.
It sounds weird, but up until the last two years, I’ve never cooked from a
cookbook myself. I mean, I look at the pictures. I look at ideas. I get the gist
of something, but I never really used a cookbook. I know many people do. So the
difficult challenge was making sure things weren’t too difficult, but also
making sure that the book wasn’t overly simple either. There’s an edge to the
book, with the photography, and the fact that we have a lot of add-ons that are,
“Hey, if you want to take it to the next step, try this.” So, it was a
challenge.

FJ: So the final question is pertaining to food
and memories. Do you have a favorite food memory that you can think of that you
would like to share?

RB: Sure. It’s an experience that I mention in
the book, actually. My 4-year-old, when she was 1-1/2, I cooked a poached egg
with asparagus and hollandaise, had woken up early in the morning and had
plated this thing carefully. She likes eggs. She likes asparagus. I thought it
was simple! She just hated this dish so much. Then the next day I was like,
“Why didn’t she like the dish? It had a lot of finesse.” As a parent, anytime your
kids don’t eat the food you give them, or don’t eat your food, especially, it
bothers you. So the next day I relaxed a little bit and I did the same
ingredients, but scrambled the eggs hard, threw the asparagus in the oven and
almost let them shrivel up and wrinkle, and made vinaigrette instead of
hollandaise. She loved it!

It was really an impactful moment for me as a chef
because I realized that beautiful food and delicious food aren’t necessarily
the same thing. And, I hate to say it, but that was the point where I matured
as a chef. It was only a couple years ago, but it was then that I realized,
“You know what? Who cares if the asparagus isn’t green?” Now you see
restaurants all over the country doing charred vegetable that are almost burnt.
Thinking about Mexican cuisine and the fact that a lot of their sauces, they’re
literally burnt. Scandinavian chef’s now are doing charred leaks, or ash of
this, but all of those things sort of came to me in just that one moment with
my little girl. So that was big moment for me.

Richard Blais helms The Spence, located at 75 Fifth St. NW in Atlanta, in partnership with the Concentrics Restaurants group.

From science to sizzle: A conversation with Chef Patricia Yeo

While many of the people I’ve had the opportunity to speak with were bitten by the cooking bug early on, I’m discovering more that started down one path in their lives only to realize they belonged on a different one. Take, for example, Chef Patricia Yeo. Many know her as an extremely talented chef, more so now after her run on season 4 of Bravo’s Top Chef: Masters. Patricia’s first path, thanks to her education, was science. She excelled at it, enough so that it led to a doctorate in biochemistry, and in all likelihood a long career in a laboratory. Who would have imagined that a cooking class would change all that.

I had the opportunity interview Chef Patricia, during which we talk a little about her love of food, her views on the industry now, and what’s on tap for her as she leaves Boston in her rear-view.

Patricia Yeo – Photo by Felix Cutillo

Foodie Journal: When was it that you really discovered you had a love and passion for food?
Patricia Yeo: I grew up in a large Chinese family. Food and cooking was always a part of my life.  I realized I liked cutting and dicing as an undergraduate at the university of Oregon. I’d cook and my three room mates, all guys, would clean. I think I got the better end of the deal. It wasn’t until much later that I thought of it as a profession.

FJ: How did you end up getting your start in the business?
PY: Pure luck!

FJ: Could you envision yourself doing anything besides being a chef, or at the very least being involved in some way with the food industry?
PY: I did not start cooking professionally until I was 30, so yes I did want to achieve other goals.  I still may!  They have changed since I was a starry eyed 20 year old when I wanted to discover the next wonder drug for cancer.  Now they are not so lofty.

FJ: The food industry is more popular now than it ever has been, causing a lot of people to think about it as a career choice. Is there any advice you’d give to someone just getting started in the food industry?
PY: The Food Network and shows like Top Chef have made cooking seem really glamorous. It isn’t.  For ever hour of celebrity we achieve there are as many years of hard work.  You sacrifice time with family and friends, personal time and your own physical and sometimes mental health.

To anyone thinking of going to culinary school I would say spend at least half a year working in the industry.  School isn’t for everyone.  Some people are autodidacts. They learn from watching, reading and doing. It depends on who you are and how disciplined you are.  If you are one of those people, use the money you would use for fees to pay for our living expenses, work for a chef you respect for free, and learn as much as you can.  In the long run you are better off because you have practical experience, you have started building your resume, and you don’t have school loans.  On the other hand some people like the structure of school.  I guess I am saying there is not one single path to reaching your goal, especially in the world of food and hospitality.

FJ: Maybe the one downside that comes from how popular food, restaurants and chefs have become is people looking for a fast track to becoming rich and famous. Everyone wants a shortcut! To me that seems detrimental  Can you speak a little about why the traditional methods, like stages and mentors, are better for the industry?
PY: That is the best joke! This is not a business where you become rich and famous.  For every successful chef there are 1000 times as many struggling cooks and chefs.  Don’t get into this business searching for money, fame and celebrity.  The most successful people in the business do it because they love it, the rest just follows.   As a chef, having credibility is your best asset. The only way to do that is to know how to do things and not be afraid of doing everything in the restaurant.  It takes years!  There is no fast track in this business. You are more likely to become  rich buying a lottery ticket.

FJ: It’s been reported that you’re going to be leaving the Boston area, heading to Chicago. Can you tell us what’s next for you?
PY: I had a lot of fun and met some super wonderful people in Boston. However, I need a larger playing field.  I am going to focus on restaurant development.  I still love the adrenalin of working the line and being in the kitchen, but physically it is getting impossible. This is the best of both worlds.  I am still involved in developing menus, and the culture of the restaurant, but I am removed from the daily grind of getting to work at 7 am and staying until 10 pm.

FJ: Now, for my favorite question. Anyone that loves food has really fond memories and experiences where food was involved. Do you have a particular food memory that you’d like to share?
PY: I’ve had far too many food memories; my favourite by far is a meal I had just outside San Germignamo in Italy.  Cooking professionally wasn’t even on my radar at the time.  It was a lunch at a tiny restaurant. There was no menu.  We were served a simple tomato and bread soup followed by rabbit stew.  Our very rustic red wine was served in jelly jars.  I am not actually sure if it was the food or the romance of being in this little restaurant. It was probably a combination of both.  It is never just the food exclusively, the company, your surroundings, the wine all combine to form these memories.

Chatting with a master: An interview with Chef Clark Frasier

There’s nothing quite like New England. Mind you, I am biased due to living here my entire life, but there is something really special about this region. It’s historic. Quaint.

A friend of mine constantly trumpets the virtues of the most northern state of the northeast, Maine, and with good reason. It’s beautiful, with scenery for all tastes. From a culinary standpoint, Maine is an amazing place for seafood, it’s crown jewel being the Maine lobster.

But, there is more to the Maine culinary scene than meets the eye. On the outskirts of Ogunquit, you’ll find one of the finest restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Arrows, the flagship restaurant of James Beard Award winning Chefs, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, is enchanting. The grounds, which include a garden that falls just shy of an acre, make you feel like you’re stopping by a friend’s house.

I had a chance to sit and speak with Chef Clark about his love of food, his start in the industry, and his upcoming appearance on Bravo’s fourth season of Top Chef: Masters.

Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier – Photo by Ron Manville

Foodie Journalist: Where did your love of food come from?
Clark Frasier: Like a lot of chefs, I grew up with parents who were very much in to food. I grew up in California, and my parents loved wine, loved to cook, and loved to entertain. We always had a house full of people. I enjoyed all that, but at the time I didn’t see myself going in to the restaurant business. I did work in restaurants from a young age, and enjoyed it. It was a good way to make money. I always enjoyed the strong environment and the camaraderie, but it didn’t really dawn on me that it would be a career choice, though. My parents were academics, so there was always the thought of college and what not. So I went in to Chinese language. I studied the Chinese language and ended up eating my way through Beijing. As an interesting side note: at that time in China there wasn’t really much in the way of refrigeration. You couldn’t get cheese to go with crackers or anything like that. So, I spent a winter eating cabbage! When it got to be Spring and things started to grow again, it was like, “Oh my God, these vegetables taste so great!” I never wanted to see a cabbage again! It was that Spring that kind of awakened that in me again, reminding me of having grown up in northern California. Being able to get at amazing ingredients right when they’re in season. It was a great reminder of how much I loved it.

FJ: So obviously you aren’t making the Chinese language your life’s work now. How did you eventually end up in the restaurant business?
CF: Yeah, when I came back it was like, “Ok. Great. So you speak Chinese. So do a billion other people. Now what?” [LAUGHS] One of my professors was a man by the name of Jonathan Tower and he said to me, “My brother Jeremiah is opening a restaurant in San Francisco called Stars”. At the time I kind of had this vision of opening an import/export business, but he said, “Well, why don’t you go work for him for a little while so you can just pay your rent.” I thought, great! I had always worked in restaurants growing up so why not.

It was an incredibly difficult place to work, and Jeremiah was a difficult man to work for. But, it was such an amazing group of people, and such a ground breaking restaurant. A lot of what we really take for granted in restaurants today really started there. The big open kitchen. The huge bar. The lively bar. You know before that it was kind of always a quiet, white table cloth, continental cuisine type atmosphere. Everything brought in from France or maybe Italy. Very formal. That was fine dining. Jeremiah totally revolutionized that, and threw the rest out the window! Now you go in to a place and everyone has an open kitchen. But, back then it was like, “Oh my god! What’s going on here?” Wide open kitchens. Piano playing during service. You could stop in for a hamburger or a hot dog after a night out at the opera. I mean, no body did that at the time.

FJ: In a tough working environment, what was it that made you want to keep at it and stay in the industry?
CF: Well, the team there was amazing. It was a group of really bright people. A lot of them have gone on to become really well known chefs. The starting team there was just a blast. We’d work all night, and then go out all night and all that regular restaurant nonsense. It was very exciting, and I felt really comfortable. I realized “I like doing this”. When you find something that you’re good at and it just feels natural to you, then you wonder why would you do anything else? Why should I try to become an import/export person? At that point, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

FJ: And now here you are at Arrows, and really it is an amazing set up you have here. You have been here since when? Early 1990s?
CF: 1988 actually. Mark Gaier and I left Stars and wanted to open a restaurant in Carmel. There were a ton of people interested in backing us, but once they’d see the cost involved, at the time it was like a little over a million dollars, things always seemed to fall through. It was really depressing. Well, Mark used to live out here, and he kept on talking about Maine. For me, growing up a kid in California, I remember thinking, “Where the eff is Maine?” [LAUGH] But, he kept talking about it. So, we took a trip out here just for fun, his brothers lived out here. We came by this property completely by chance. Some friends of his actually bought it, and they had been running a couple of restaurants at the time. They called us one day and said, “Hey, do you want to buy Arrows?” We said, “Sure. We’ve got, like, $50 to spare.” So they just said, “Well, if you aren’t really doing anything solid right now, why don’t you just lease it from us for a season and see how it goes? Then we’ll give you the option to buy.” The nice part of being young is that we had the flexibility to give it a try. We packed up the car, raised enough money to lease it for you a year, came out here and that was that. But, there was a lot to do. It was sort of dark and cold.
FJ: Yeah, that’s the trade off of being in this area!
CF: I know, right! But, that was it. So we set to work on it. With every year that passed we made it better, a bit more beautiful.
FJ: It’s really a beautiful grounds you’ve created here. It’s amazing!
CF: Thank you!

FJ: Do you feel that what you’ve been able to do here, with the garden and everything you have on site, really sets you apart from other restaurants?
CF: Well, we started the garden in 1992. We started it because we couldn’t find what we really wanted to use in our kitchen. We came from the Bay Area where you could get pretty much anything you wanted, and then we get out here, and it just wasn’t the same. Things here have changed quite a bit around here, but in those days… there were some local folks growing stuff, but it wasn’t necessarily what we were looking for.

The thing about gardens is that you really have to have someone willing to do it, otherwise you end up like other restaurants that say they have a “garden” which ends up being just a weed patch with some herb plants. So there was a person that worked with Mark and was a good friend that said, “Look, I don’t really know a ton about gardens. I’ve taken care of my own garden, so if you want I can give it a try.” So we came out and we rototilled this front portion [by the pebble walkway near the restaurant], and that was the garden the first year. Then we realized we needed to at least double it if we really wanted it to work. Then we tripled it. Then quadrupled it. Then we realized that if we wanted to extend the season we’d need to build a greenhouse, so we did that. So this garden here is probably one of the most densely used restaurant gardens you’ll ever find. It will produce most of the product you see in the restaurant here. And, as we get deeper in to the summer, we can also produce for our other restaurant, MC Perkins Cove. Having the garden really ensures for us that we’re getting great product, and that’s key. So many people ask, “Well, do you save money?” No.
FJ: Right. Just the amount of work that has to go in to maintaining it has to bring a cost.
CF: Exactly. It’s huge labor. We have one guy that is a full-time guy, and he has some other part-time workers that some time become full-time depending on how busy things get.

FJ: So coming up at the end of July is the fourth season of Top Chef: Masters. You and Mark were invited to compete. Mind if I ask a couple of questions?
CF: Sure! Go ahead.
FJ: What was the overall experience like? Can it be likened at all to working in a regular restaurant kitchen?
CF: The pressure on the show is certainly akin to the kind we feel in our restaurant kitchens. That said, at our restaurants we do our best to avoid a lot of the chaos you see on the show. With the right team work, we try to create a smooth, functional flow in our kitchens; we even like to have a bit of fun back there!

FJ: There is an interesting angle that comes with both you and Chef Mark being on the show. The two of you helm three restaurants together as partners – what was it like to now be in a situation where you would compete against someone that you are so used to working with?
CF: At first it was quite strange and a bit of a challenge because we’ve been collaborating for over 27 years! Occasionally we couldn’t resist helping one another out. Once we were on a team together which was a real relief during the competition. The hardest part wasn’t competing with one another, but not being able to collaborate on techniques, taste and simply bouncing ideas off one another.

FJ: Looking forward to seeing it! So now, my final question: we talked a little about your love of food and how you got started. With that comes memories and experiences that people like to think back on. Is there a particular food memory that stands out for you?
CF: There are so many, it’s tough to pick one. My experience with working and living with Mark has actually been really interesting. HIs family is from the mid-west, so going to his mom’s house was always really different. He’s one of seven kids, so it’s very different from how I grew up as an only child. When we’d go over there, his mom would basically kick us all out of the kitchen, telling us to go make drinks or something. So then there would be Mark, myself, maybe one of his brothers and his parents. On the table, though, would be this enormous pile of food and she’d be like, “Do you think six chickens is enough?” [LAUGHS] I’d be like, “Are you kidding me?!” It was really cool, and I enjoyed that a lot!

Chef Clark Frasier is chef/co-owner, along with Chef Mark Gaier, of Arrows Restaurant, MC Perkins Cove and Summer Winter Restaurant. Both will be competing on season 4 of Top Chef: Masters premiering July 25th on Bravo.