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.

Telling it like it is on Top Chef: An interview with Hugh Acheson

I’ve written plenty about my love of food, and of cooking. Tied in to that is my love of watching others cook (yeah, I’m a voyeur like that!). So, like many a foodie, I am a fan of televised food competitions. My hands-down favorite is Top Chef, on Bravo.

Now, I know that what goes down on Top Chef isn’t really in-line with what goes on in a real kitchen. It’s likely a rare situation in a professional kitchen where a chef is asked to prepare a dish using mystery ingredients. “Oh, and by the way, you can’t use any cooking vessels either. Just this aluminum foil!” (I still want to know who the evil mind is behind these challenges. Looking at you, Lakshmi!) But, that just makes the dishes they turn out all the more impressive. As is always the case, though, it isn’t just about food. Top Chef is about people, and that is just as much part of the reason we watch as anything else.

One of my favorites on Top Chef has become one of the judges. Chef Hugh Acheson brings with him an impressive resume. He’s authored a James Beard Award Winning cookbook A NEW TURN IN THE SOUTH: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen and was awarded the James Beard Foundation Award for  Best Chef Southeast in 2012. He was named Best Chef in 2002 by Food & Wine Magazine. Not only is he a judge on Top Chef for the second consecutive season, but he’s gone through the ringer himself, having competed on season 3 of Top Chef: Masters. It doesn’t hurt that he comes across as a pretty genuine person, who gives a damn about good food.

I had the opportunity to check in with Hugh and find out a little more about how he got his start in cooking, what goes in to being a judge on Top Chef, and the simple secret behind southern grits.

Hugh Acheson - Photo by Rinne Allen
Hugh Acheson – Photo by Rinne Allen

Foodie Journal: When was it that you realized that you had a love and passion for food that would lead to you becoming a chef?
Hugh Acheson: It was in high school. I wasn’t very good at school, but when I was working I was really relied upon and cherished. I realized that it was something that I was quite good at.

FJ: Where did you get your start in the business?
HA: I started like many of us do… washing dishes.  I began at the Bank Street Cafe in Ottawa at age 15.

FJ: I know you spent a couple of years when you were younger living in the southern United States, but you’re originally from Canada. What was it about the south that made you decide that was were you want to set up shop?
HA: My wife is from the South, and I have fallen for the cadence of life down here.

FJ: What’s your favorite southern ingredient?
HA: Grains. There is such an abundance of great grains. Farro, grits, amaranth, cornmeal…

FJ: You’ve been on Top Chef: Masters, and also serve as one of the judges for Top Chef on Bravo. How do you approach judging on the show? What does it take to make a successful dish in your opinion?
HA: Judging is fun and easy. Sit and eat and comment. That ain’t hard.  To succeed at the show you have to bring great technique and once in a while make us, as judges say, “WOW. How did you do all that in that amount of time?”

FJ: Is it ever tough to call someone out when they put out a crappy dish?
HA: Not really. It’s food. It’s either Great, good or no so good.

FJ: One of my favorite comments from this season so far, “As a guy who makes grits pretty much every day of my life, those grits suck.” I think what made it so great was just how non-chalantly it came out. What’s your secret for making good grits?
HA: Add the grits to cold water and slowly bring up to a boil. Then simmer and cook them a long time. Finish with butter and a hint of cream.

FJ: Now for my favorite question – pretty much every food loving person has food memories to go with it. What’s your favorite food memory so far?
HA: Making tomato sandwiches at my cottage in Canada! It’s a simple one, but it’s a great one.

Chef Hugh Acheson is the chef/partner of the Athens, Georgia, restaurants Five and Ten and The National, and the Atlanta restaurant Empire State South. He is also an active supporter of Wholesome Wave Georgia, an organization dedicated to increasing access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food at producer-only farmers markets in Georgia.