Richard Blais talks new cookbook: 'There's a dry humor to it'
Richard Blais is probably a fancier cook than you are, if you don’t know how to use liquid nitrogen and haven’t won a season of Top Chef. But Blais’ first cookbook, Try This At Home, isn’t as fancy as you might think — intentionally so. The culinary guide, which hits shelves today, covers a lot of ground in the kitchen, including chapters on condiments, breakfast foods, and a recipe for black spaghetti. But it’s been packaged as a ready-to-use, ready-to-be-stained manual for the “adventurous home cook.” EW spoke with Blais recently about why he decided now was the time for a cookbook and what went into the book’s bold feel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did the timing seem right for a cookbook now as opposed to earlier, after first appearing on Top Chef?
RICHARD BLAIS: I think it just really took a little while to put together. I think we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a book that we threw out there just because of a moment in time, that we wanted to collect more data. We opened up a few more restaurants and we kept cooking and it really just got a point where we thought that doing a book that’s specifically geared toward the home cook was good timing.
How did you approach translating the “Richard Blais effect” so that it was approachable for the home chef?
One, I think the easy part is I’m probably not as progressive or as creative as maybe some people in the media think that I am. I always say that when you’re on TV and you lean toward the liquid nitrogen tank, cameras follow you. But when you run toward the salt and pepper and vinegar, they don’t necessarily follow you. So I think people think I’m more progressive than I am. And for the book what we did was anything that does go that extra step — and there are probably a dozen or so recipes that have an additional step — that you don’t need to do that step for that recipe to be delicious.
How long did you work on the book from start to finish?
I would have to say the whole process was probably about two years, a good six months to nine months of it being just figuring out what we wanted to do, cookbook-wise, and then it took another six months to sell the book, and then another year for the things that are out of my control. But it was easily two years. Even the photography was shot over a year ago, so I’m like, “Oh man, that was so long ago that we did that!”
You have the big blurb from Anthony Bourdain on the book and Tom Colicchio wrote the foreword. What’s your relationship like with the Top Chef family?
Colicchio, in general, for him to agree to do the foreword for the book was pretty amazing since he is probably the biggest part of the show. And he’s someone who’s still a real chef, he’s on TV, he’s doing the TV thing. I wish to continue TV so he’s kind of a good role model. I love the show, and I still watch it as a fan. Top Chef has done wonders for the food world: It’s gotten so many people to eat better and think about food differently.
It’s funny you mentioned that you didn’t want to have a coffee table tome, but flipping through it, the book does have advice on stocking your pantry, which spices to use. It feels like a complete guide, in a way. Did you envision the book being a one-stop shop?
I think there are still classics that are a little more encyclopedic. I did want people to cook out of it — and I think that’s a weird thing for someone who made a cookbook to be like, “I want people to cook out of this book.” It really was a recipe I did, I think for Food & Wine magazine a couple years ago, I started getting emails about this recipe: “Oh this is Mary Smith from Kansas. I cooked your burger and it was good. This happened when I did this step…” And I noticed that people actually cooked from magazines and cookbooks. And it was kind of like an “Aha!” moment: Well, I don’t want to do that cookbook that is just so intimidating or so impersonal that no one is going to cook from it. I wanted to do something that hopefully those people in the inner-inner circle would like, but also Mary Smith in Kansas and everyone else that has a common interest in great food as well.
At the same time I noticed that the recipe list does cover a huge swath. Why did you choose to go that route instead of something more specific?
I think there might come a time in my career, three or four cookbooks down the road, where I just want to do something about seafood or pickled vegetables. But for my first one, I did want to cover some broad ground and see what the feedback is, too. We cover breakfasts and condiments, which I think is two chapters you didn’t see in a lot of cookbooks. Condiments, to me, that’s everything — a great ketchup can make the burger sometimes.
Is there a section that leaps out as your favorite?
I think specifically my favorite part of the book is the tone of the photography. John Lee, who’s based out of San Francisco, who shot the book, we really just met for that project — but we really just hit it off. We just connected. If you just look through the pictures, I think we tell the story that, “Well, we’re serious…but not really.” My family’s naked in one of the photos. I literally put an ox tail on the back of my pants for the last page.
You just touched on this, but how would you characterize the overall energy of the book? Reading through it, it feels a bit more left-of-center in writing, design, and photos.
It’s fun. I think there’s a dry humor to it; I think there’s almost a British humor aspect to it, which is part of my inspiration. I’m probably far left-of-center, I would hope some of it is. When I go see a cookbook and I see it on the shelf and it’s a colleague’s cookbook, I don’t buy too many cookbooks myself. I go to a bookstore, I pick it up off the aisle and I finger through the photos. And then I make the decision. I don’t usually sit down and read a book. I get the gist from just flipping through some photos and I wanted to make sure the people that did that with my book were like, “Wow, this might be something I want to actually put on the shelf” — just by flipping through the photos.
What cookbooks do you have on your shelf?
Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail, both Nose to Tail and Beyond Nose to Tail. And I think I have multiple copies of Nose to Tail, which I think I tweeted a few weeks ago: “How many cookbooks do you have double copies of?” I have the Modernist Cuisine and I have the Nomas and the Fävikens and all those what I would call “progressive,” in a good way, coffee table books. Of course The French Laundry, Alinea, These Are My Friends. Tartine Bakery, which is a bakery out of San Francisco — I love their brand, I think it’s a fabulous book.
You have multiple restaurants. You’ve done the cookbook now. What’s the next step in Richard Blais’ Plan to Conquer the Food World?
I’m just trying to survive, “conquer” is your word not mine. But I think there’s three things I’m continually interested in: doing more food TV, which there will be plenty of upcoming; writing another cookbook, writing more than one cookbook; and opening more restaurants. I think I can officially say that I’m a restaurateur now. I think that what were’ doing at the Spence, I mean we have three-going-on-four locations of Flip. I like those things. I’m always going to have restaurants. I always want to be on TV because TV is really showing me that you can change the world, you can change the way people eat through a television screen or the iPad or whatever. And then the cookbooks, because eventually I’d like to write a book that doesn’t really have any pictures in it, just something that might not even be about food.