'Top Chef: All-Stars' winner speaks: 'It was important for me to embody the spirit of the underdog'
[SPOILER ALERT! Do not click ahead if you haven’t yet seen last night’s finale!] Last night, Mike Isabella and Richard Blais duked it out for the title of Top Chef All-Star. They each created their own restaurants, which gave them a chance to show Tom, Padma, Gail, and guest judges Lidia Bastianich and Hubert Keller what they’re truly all about. And the honor went to…
…Richard Blais! We chatted with the 39-year-old chef and restauranteur about oyster-gate, his anxiety issues and his bromance with Fabio.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel now that you can talk about your win?
RICHARD BLAIS: It’s a tremendous relief. It’s nice to be able to breathe easily and tell people what happened. It was a little easier this time around because I’m such a fan of the show that I would hate to unintentionally ruin it for someone.
Talk me through that last challenge. Why did you decide on those courses?
Most of it is on the fly, like, here are the ingredients you’re given. I tried to focus on picking out my favorite ingredients. Hamachi is a fish I really love. The black cod has such a beautiful fat content that it’s easy to cook, especially for a lot of people. The whole concept of Tongue & Cheek was things that chefs like to eat, what they like to snack on while they’re in the back kitchen prepping.
Which of the courses was your favorite?
I rarely like my own work, but I did love the amuse. The hamachi, black cod and pork belly were all special dishes to me. With the hamachi, I think I used the word “explosive” in the episode last night, and I think that was an accurate description of what that was. It was an impactful dish.
Did you set out to have a “spy” work the dining room?
People keep using the term “spy,” which I think is very cute for Spike. I think with the hat and him lurking, it’s accurate. But I think in general, the front of the house has to be that liaison between the kitchen and the guests. Feedback is so important. I don’t think we intentionally set him out for espionage. But definitely, you have to listen to the front of the house and what your guests are saying. It worked out very well.
You have a foie gras milkshake at your restaurant Flip Burger, so would you have known to change the foie gras ice cream even if Spike hadn’t given you feedback?
To be honest, I was very happy with the first presentation of it. But as a chef you have to be very aware of what your guests are saying. You have to make food people want to eat all the time. So when I heard Hubert Keller made a comment about it, we went back to a more classic version of the preparation. It was great to have someone who’s such a smart business person like Spike in the dining room to help me understand what was going on.
We saw your insecurities this season. What went through your head during the challenges? Most viewers couldn’t believe that you doubted yourself!
I think the best analogy is what chefs do as they wait for a review from a major publication. That happens for a restaurant chef maybe once a year or once every three years. That’s a crazy week, and on Top Chef, we’re getting reviewed every single Wednesday night, and in reality, every day. So you’re just seeing a little bit more intense version of that. But I think all good chefs do that. They analyze and maybe over-analyze the tiniest details.
Did anyone else give you a pep talk?
Mike thought I was pretty much insane. Fabio was always telling me, “Richie, Richie, don’t worry! Don’t worry!” and was giving me very nice, sweet kisses on the cheek. Maybe my approach is different from some of the other contestants, but I think other people understood where I was coming from.
I think it’s safe to say you were a favorite to win all along. Did you sense that at all?
There was definitely a tremendous amount of support on social media. It’s such an honor to have people root and cheer for you, and to walk down the street and have people say, “Oh you should’ve won your first season,” and “We’re rooting for you this time.” I definitely got the sense that maybe everybody else thought I was a favorite, but internally I never bought into it. It’s kind of what you saw with my anxiety. It was important for me to embody the spirit of the underdog and realize this thing wasn’t mine, that I had to earn it, that everyone was just as talented as me and that I had to push to win. I hope my fans can take this as their victory and the celebration as well. Their support helped drive me towards this. And finally, I didn’t let them down.
Some of our readers said they would’ve stopped watching Top Chef if you hadn’t won. How does a compliment like that feel?
As a fan of the show, it’d hurt my feelings that they’d stop watching, but it’s also a tremendous compliment. But I do love the show and I hope more people continue to watch it.
We saw you help some of the other chefs this season. A lot of people might’ve kept advice to themselves. Why did you want to help?
I feel like I’m an eternal student and teacher. I want to learn every day I put an apron on. I want to share the information I have. It’s kind of like a kid waking up on Christmas morning. I want to share my toys and show them off. I don’t have a problem with letting people borrow them. That’s how a real kitchen operates. It’s very collaborative. It’s very much a team. It’s very hard, even in an individual competition, to say, “Oh, I’m not going to share and teach and learn.”
Have you forgiven Mike for borrowing the oyster idea from your notebook?
It was squashed — I like that word in reference to food — pretty much right after oyster-gate, as people are calling it. Mike saw a picture and was influenced by it. But if you walk through a museum and then you paint, it’s kind of hard not be influenced. He definitely didn’t steal my recipes. He recognized it right away, and I think it got blown up a little more than it actually was. Now we joke about it. When he won, under the circumstances, it bothered me for a half second, but then I moved past it.
How did this season compare to the first time you were on Top Chef?
The season was longer so it was more of a marathon. The challenges themselves were ridiculously hard. There were times when I would finish a challenge and step back and say, I can’t believe I finished a nine-minute Quickfire or walk into a Target with no equipment and cooked a meal for 300 people. Or trying to dive for the conch. There were a lot of times when just finishing felt amazing. And the competition was much deeper.
Whom did you picture in the finale?
Angelo Sosa is a tremendous talent. He was one of those guys who, during the competition, really got me to push harder. He’s really something unique and special as a chef. Jen Carroll is another person who unfortunately I didn’t get enough time to work with because she went home pretty early. But her reputation precedes her and her pedigree is amazing. Those were two people going in, who I thought, “Wow, they’ll be here at the end.”
Which was your favorite challenge?
It might sound cliché but it was the last challenge. I got goosebumps. As a chef, to be handed the card that says make your dream restaurant is what we, as kiddie chefs, making brunoise of carrots somewhere, dream about when we’re on subways and trains and planes. To me, that was a fun challenge.
You mentioned last night on Watch What Happens Live that the Target challenge was a nightmare. How so?
It was so physical. I’m not sure if it got displayed correctly. You’re talking about a couple 300-yard sprints back and forth. I consider myself to be in somewhat decent shape — I run often — but I was just gasping at the end of it. You’re carrying all this heavy equipment. That was, to me, like, if I just get through this, I think I’ll be OK.
Any dish that you want a do-over on?
Going back to episode 1, when I went over time on the clock. I would’ve loved to seen if that dish would’ve won that first challenge.
Which of the judges made you the most nervous?
Of course my respect for Tom is amazing. Being the resident big-time chef, he’s the guy who leads the way. And for no real reason, Gail Simmons. She’ll tell you that. Standing up there, you’re looking at her and she’s looking at you. In my fanboy-ness, I probably have some sort a crush on Gail Simmons. My nervousness around her has been well-documented. But definitely, she scares me a little bit sometimes.
Your bromance with Fabio was also well-documented.
The Blais-Fabio romance is intriguing for sure. He ended up being my roommate so we spent a lot of time one-on-one that you didn’t see, like both of us sitting in our beds late at night. But I’ll be honest, going into the season, I didn’t know Fabio at all, and I thought he was all personality. I didn’t know anything about him as a chef. And it turns out that his personality, which would be easy to dismiss as fake maybe, is just how he is. He’s very hospitable and generous and he’s a great person. But what I wasn’t expecting was to see what an amazing culinary talent he is. He would cook at home, and that was stuff you didn’t see. Like Fabio’s meatballs are the best meatballs I’ve ever had in my life. He cooks with so much soul and passion. We just hit it off. And when I came back, my wife asked, “Who did you get along with?” I said, “You’re not going to believe this, but Fabio’s my best friend.” That was odd but genuine for sure.
Was there anyone you wish you got to know better?
With Jen Carroll’s pedigree, I remember saying, I certainly want to be her, but I would’ve loved to have her around for 10 more episodes to learn more about how she cooks and about Eric Ripert. The few conversations we had were pretty amazing, so that was unfortunate that I didn’t get that time to spend with her.
What’s next for you? Are you still at Flip?
I’m a partner at Flip Burger. We have two restaurants in Atlanta, one in Birmingham, Alabama, and we’re getting ready to open an unnamed restaurant in Atlanta in the spring — a different concept that’s a little more pig-centric. And then some new projects ahead that I can’t discuss just yet.
If they did a Top Chef: All-Stars All-Stars, where all the winners competed against each other, would you do it?
I’ve already called that in my head, Top Chef Champion’s League. I’m a big soccer fan and in soccer, you have two big tournaments: the UEFA, which is all the runners up and the Champions, which is all the winners of the respective leagues. If they ever did a Top Chef Champion’s League with all the winners competing for, let’s say a million bucks, then I’m there tomorrow.
And how’s the baby?
Embry Lotus is 7 weeks. She jumped on her first plane a few days ago. Riley is almost three. She walked into my bedroom this morning and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and said, “Congratulations on Top Chef, daddy.” It was the sweetest moment. I don’t think she understood the gravity of it, but she gets a kick out seeing daddy on TV.
Photo: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo