“I always have an oyster shucker but it’s really a railroad tie. My wife had it made for me. It would also be a good weapon if a zombie apocalypse broke out,” says Richard Blais, chef and Top Chef winner-turned-judge. I guess we know who we want nearby should the Walking Dead ever leap off the screen and into reality.But all kidding aside, Richard Blais, perhaps the most famous name to come out of the hit culinary competition show began his career in the culinary world long before his first quick-fire challenge. His pedigree includes studying under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and working with a young sous chef there named Grant Achatz; but that is only the beginning, he also trained at Daniel, Chez Panisse, and el Bulli.
On his own, he has opened restaurants in Atlanta and, most recently, Juniper and Ivy in San Diego. We had a chance to find out from Blais what inspires him in the kitchen and his most recent food fascinations.
The Daily Meal: Where do you draw inspiration from when you are creating and cooking?
Richard Blais: Everywhere to be honest. It’s more of being open to inspiration than finding it. When I was at the 2016 International Home + Housewares Show with BLACK+DECKER last week, I found inspiration all over the place. For example, I see a brush and wonder about sauces; or walk along the ocean when I’m home and taste the salt air. I think being open to inspiration everywhere you go is what’s key.
Now that you have been on both sides of the table for Top Chef, is there more pressure when judging or cooking the food on television?
It’s the same level of pressure, but a different type. Not more. It’s basically like going from the kid’s table to the adult table at Thanksgiving. What am I supposed to talk to Padma or Tom about? Judging is easier and more fun, but has its own set of challenges and pressures.
What do you look for when judging a dish?
Salt. Then technique, flavor contrast, textural contrast, temperature contrast, if the dish fits the theme of the challenge and a sense of authorship. But mainly salt.
What kind of food or a specific dish are you currently obsessed with cooking/eating?
Pot roast. Obsessed. But it changes every two days or so. Besides that, I’m currently on a ramen kick. I also think bowls are cool — acai bowls, grain bowls, and the like — dishes that are super unpretentious and feature a ton of delicious stuff.
I think often, cooking is about constantly discovering new things, new ways to cook/present something, and push the boundaries. Can you tell us about one time when you had a real "aha" moment in the kitchen that has stuck with you or inspires you?
It’s not a technical thing; it’s the power of observation. Looking at something closely, you see these really cool synergies. Look at a watermelon next to a piece of tuna, they look so similar and work together well. I think nature gives you these answers. Another example, a lychee it looks like a raw lobster tail, and those things work together. Being observant to the things around you is key.
Angela Carlos is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Find her on Twitter and tweet @angelaccarlos.