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Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Top Chef All-Stars" Winner Richard Blais: "I wanted this really badly"

There are some times when it’s just impossible to be objective. And today was one of those for me as I got the opportunity to personally congratulate Richard Blais on his “Top Chef All-Stars” win.

Don’t worry. I asked him a couple of questions too…

Of course, I wasn’t the only reporter on the phone, so maybe I shouldn’t have also confessed that I’ve teared up all three times I’ve seen the ending. But I couldn’t help myself. Blais is my favorite “Top Chef” contestant of all time, and definitely my favorite non-“Idol” reality show contestant of all time. He might even be edging out some Idols after his conference call today…

Here is our conversation with Richard, almost in its entirety. I just took out some questions about specific cities and their restaurants…

What did your wife say to you on the phone when you called her?

“She pretty much just said OMG and congratulations. I’m not really sure. It was some kind of combination of joy and surprise. It was really early in the morning so that probably caught her off guard a little bit.”

Before Padma said your name, did you still think it was Mike who won?

“Throughout the season, I’m just expressing what I think restaurant chefs are feeling when they’re awaiting a critique or a review in a major publication. I think I’m just constantly analyzing what could have gone wrong even if something might be good in the end. But I was prepared, certainly, to shake Mike’s hand and say congratulations if that was the case. It was definitely up in the air but as you’ve seen, I kind of expect the worst and am just happy with a good outcome.”

Why did you make the decision to switch out the Captain Crunch ice cream?

“Definitely the Captain Crunch ice cream is something that I’m doing in my restaurants right now. We actually do a Captain Crunch milkshake. But I thought, you know, when you’re kind of in the menu planning, which was only an hour the day of, and then going into the event I just thought the foie gras thematically fit the restaurant I was building a little more than the Captain Crunch. It really wasn’t over which is more delicious than the other. I just thought the foie gras and the Tongue and Cheek theme fit a little bit better.”

What are you going to do with the $200,000?

“I think that the show is set up so when you win this prize you use it to better your career and move forward. That’s what I’m going to do with the majority of it whether it’s invest it in the restaurants I’m operating or find new investments to perhaps someday to do a Tongue and Cheek in a big city market or something like that. And I think a portion of it is going to go to some real world uses like education for my kids.”

Did you think at any point during the finale that you were playing it safe?

“I think collectively that the menu was far from safe, but I think that unfortunately I sort of, you know sometimes my own reputation gets in my way sometimes. I think people expect laser beams and liquid nitrogen all the time and one of my goals of the whole entire season was to try and sort of prove that although I enjoy playing with some modern techniques and I will definitely use technology and science if it makes things better, if I have a sauté pan and a spoon and some salt and pepper and some butter, I can cook as well. The beef course is where they said it was a little safe and I’d agree with that. Under the circumstances of having only a few hours to build a restaurant I don’t disagree with that. But that being said, it certainly ended up being delicious and well executed.”

Is it important for you to be a good guy as well as to be a fierce competitor?

“I don’t intentionally try to be a good guy. I guess that just happens. But I love what I do, I love sharing information. I’m kind of like a kid on Christmas morning. If I have a new toy to play with I want to share it with my neighbor. And I think a lot of that probably comes from wanting to share information. A restaurant kitchen and a chef in the real world works with a big team and there’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of sharing and that’s how you make a great restaurant. So, I think I bring a little bit of that to the game. But it’s always a big honor to read any of these interviews and hear one of my colleagues who I admire and learn from everyday say that they were rooting for me. It’s an honor to hear them say that.”

Did the judges tell you what it was that put you over the top?

“I have to be honest that I’m saying this after reading Tom Colicchio’s blog this morning, so that would be where I’m getting this information from, but it’s just that it was the overall experience. That maybe thematically my food kind of fit in a little more than Mike’s did. The whole meal in its entirety may have been a little more cohesive than Mike’s. I’m kind of paraphrasing what Tom said in his blog I’m sure but the differences between the courses, I think he said something like I won the first course by a long way and Mike won the meat course by a small margin. So the distance between winning and losing on some of the dishes may have favored me a little bit.”

What did you mean when at the end of last night’s show you said you “willed” the win to happen?

“This is the first I really, I mean, I won. And this is the first time I’ve really done that. I kind of had to teach myself to try and win. When I say I willed it, I mean I never let that out of my mind. That’s what you kind of saw with my high anxiety. I knew what the consequence of not winning felt like and I certainly didn’t want to feel that again. I gave a very strong effort to not have to go through those feelings again. When I say I willed it, I thought about winning. I thought about everything I was doing in reference to how to win. To the point of watching the U.S. hockey team 1980 miracle speech on the plane to the Bahamas, which sounds totally dorky, and that’s me, but I just really, I did. I willed it. I wanted this really badly and I tried really hard to do it.”

How did your cooking change between your season in Chicago and now?

“I think at some point after losing the first time and going through some of my experiences being a chef in the real world and as a restaurauteur, a switch just went off and I just became very tired of trying to keep up with doing food that was so progressive that I was starting to lose a little bit of tract on what food’s all about—making tasty, simple, beautiful food that people want to come back and eat the next day. And I think over the last few years and hopefully what I showed on the season of ‘Top Chef’ this year was that’s my goal. I just want to make food that people want to eat every single day. Not just to say that they had it or not to say that it was a unique experience. I don’t want people to say my food’s interesting any more. I want them to say that it’s delicious and perhaps interesting. But delicious has to be the first thing. And I hope that makes sense. But that was definitely my biggest change as a chef over the last few years.”

How did you avoid letting the pressure get to you this time around?

“One of the good things about failing the first time was I had enough time to really figure out where I failed. And it was very much in the conceptual part of it. I had so many ideas running through my head. The scrolling database of what I want to do doesn’t stop. I kind of made a commitment this time around, knowing where I failed last time to commit to certain ideas or at least to have a sort of mental time clock on of when I have to stop thinking those decisions conceptually.”

What was your favorite challenge?

“My favorite challenge not, well probably because I won, definitely this last challenge. I said in the episode yesterday when we were asked to create a dream restaurant I had goosebumps. It’s something all chefs young and old kind of dream about. If you have a couple of restaurants, you’re always thinking about the next one or you’re thinking about that perfect restaurant or that new place you want to open up. So, to me, the whole idea of that challenge I loved. I thought it was amazing and I embraced it.”

What’s it like to be a part of the “Top Chef” family?

“It is a wonderful fraternity. I’ve met a lot of great chefs and have a lot of new friends, especially on this season here. This was a very talented cast up and down, 1 through 18 and I learned so much from my colleagues. It’s a great family to be a part of for sure.”

Did it help at all to have favorites like Jen Carroll go home early?

“Going in, if you would have asked me who were the two strongest people in the field, it was definitely Angelo and Jen Carroll in my mind. But as it kind of progressed, you started to realize that there was so much talent. And even if you’re like, ‘Oh Jen’s gone, maybe this is going to get a little bit easier,’ there’s still four or five names right behind her that are quite talented as well. And that sort of happened the whole way. And even when you got near the end, Mike Isabella is very talented. It may seem like on TV that he all of a sudden turned this on in the last two or three episodes. I knew from episode two or three that this was a guy who was also in that top tier of people who have the ability to be around at the end. I think you could say it made it easier when some of the talent left, but it also made it more difficult because you realized that anyone could go at any different time.”

During the tasting for sous chefs, was there anyone that you knew who it was and you didn’t pick?

“When we were initially faced with the challenge, you see all these dishes and our colleagues there, you want to try and figure out hey, I can match this dish with that person. That sounded like a great idea, but it was impossible to do that. Even though I think some contestants did try to throw up a flag like hey, there’s tarragon in this dish, I love tarragon. But under the circumstances and at the moment, it was impossible to do. So I just approached it by picking out some specific, aggressive flavors that I was looking for in my own cuisine. I picked the dish that was the spiciest but not too spicy and the dish that was the most acidic, but not too acidic and the dish that was well seasoned, but not over seasoned. And that’s how I got my team.”

Photos Credit: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo