Three cheers for Richard Blais! The Atlanta-based “Top Chef: All-Stars” winner called from New York Thursday to discuss the strategy behind his victory Wednesday night, why he’d like to work with Mike Isabella again, and how he plans on spending his $200,000 spoils.
On his recent bout of self-doubt and the strategy going into the finale: I don’t think it was as much self-doubt as it was just wanting to do well and being focused. The strategy was to cook a great meal and hopefully deliver a sense of authorship with the food and build as close as you can get to a dream restaurant in five hours, which is a tall task!
On his strengths this season: Going into the finale I think my strength was the fact that I’d been there before. I understood not to take anything for granted and not get too excited about being a favorite — or having won the last challenge. You’re up one day, and you’re down the next. That’s kind of the life of “Top Chef,” or, the real world, quite honestly. Hopefully I showed that, although I was perceived as being a mad scientist molecular gastronomist, my goal is to make tasty, delicious food that you want to eat every day. That was my strategy – to just focus on deliciousness.
On whether liquid nitrogen made an appearance in the finale: The first course – which wasn’t the best photo of the dish, but that’s not my problem – the ice cream pearls that were on the oysters were liquid nitrogen-induced. I’ll only use a method or a gadget if it makes the food taste better, or presents an experience that you couldn’t get without using that.
On what went through his mind when Padma announced he won: I was quite prepared to step to the right and shake Mike’s hand and say congratulations. We knew it was a tough battle. I think it was the truest surprise. Not surprise that I had actually won, but I don’t think I’d actually let myself really believe that it could happen. I think you kind of saw that in the end with my emotions. I felt like I was floating away there. I remember Padma kind of coming up to me like she was my Mom, and I just remember this embrace with her. I actually didn’t think it’d happened until I saw it last night [on television], even though I’ve known for a month or so.
On his wife’s reaction to the news: It was more just kind of like, “OMG,” you know? It was really early in the morning when I spoke to her. I think she was just surprised. We are both very competitive and you have to be prepared for things to not go your way so that you don’t really get crushed by it. Although we thought we could win, it was a genuine surprise there.
On what he said to Mike after he won: Right at that moment you both kind of go in different directions. Production kind of pushes you away. But the next morning, because we roomed in the same hotel suite, I made a point of letting him know that he really did inspire me, and how talented I think he is. Also, I’ve been in his shoes before. A part of me felt somewhat bad. I think that’s the first time in “Top Chef” history that you can say that – that the winner has the experience of also having been the runner-up. I wanted to let him know that we’re friends and I admire him greatly.
On concerns about his sous chefs being unfocused: I think one of my strengths as a chef is having the experience of being a manager that draws the best out of whoever is working with me. I wasn’t concerned about having any three random people from the cast, but when I saw that we were going to have to do this blind tasting, I knew it was going to be impossible to pick out the dish and try and assign that to my pick. I really just shut my eyes and went with the flavors. At the end of the day, I think I did it the right way. I was very happy with the team. I consider the victory part theirs. I was only going to be as good or bad as their performance.
Watch Richard’s Final “Top Chef” Confessional:
On any finale regrets: I would have done a totally different dessert. I probably would have stayed with the Cap’n Crunch ice cream I had to being with as my first inspiration. Even though I don’t usually love my food, I did actually love the first three courses. We engineered a little bit more of a conceptual menu.
On his flight home after winning: It was amazing. I remember the flight back from Puerto Rico in my first season, and that was like the toughest flight I’ve ever had to make, just thinking about what went wrong, or, I can’t believe I didn’t do it. Obviously this was a totally different experience. It was amazing to come home and hug my wife and see my kids and kind of know that I did it. A little bit of hard work and effort paid off.
On why he decided to return this season: I think partially as someone who loves the game and the competition…I love grabbing the inspiration that comes from that setting, I was ready to just jump on a plane automatically. Of course, I had to step back. It was really a family decision because you walk away from your life for so long. I definitely had to consult my business partners and my wife and weigh the pros and cons of going back. You have to think about worst case scenarios. But at the end of the day I thought, If you think you can win, you really need to just go out there and give it a shot.
On how he’s evolved as a chef: As a chef going through the first experience and being critiqued by millions and millions of people, that really puts a thick skin on you. And not winning. My failure definitely helped me in my general life and as a chef. My first time around might have been about me trying to show off, or try to get my name out there. I’m not that kind of chef anymore. I want to make delicious food that people want to eat every single day. I don’t want to hang my own name on a restaurant door. I’ve hopefully become a better person. Having fans, and it still sounds crazy saying that…Having people walk down the street and root for you, there’s a responsibility that comes with that.
On how he’ll spend his winnings: I haven’t gotten it yet. I think there’s a responsibility, for the opportunity that you’re given on the show, to use the money for what the show speaks to: to help you with your career and help you move forward. I want to invest that money in restaurant work. And of course a portion of it will go to my kid’s education and some real life needs.
On the doors that have opened for him from being on the show: I think there’ll be lots of opportunities. My email box is overfilling right now. As a restaurateur, and a chef who has a few restaurants in the Southeast, and a native New Yorker, I’d love to get a restaurant project going in a major city. Whether that’s in New York, or LA, or Chicago, or San Francisco, and those are just the big ones. Washington D.C. or Philly – there’s so much passion there. Hopefully that happens. I’d love to do more TV work. I’d love to work on a book. I think these are opportunities that presented themselves the first time, and I’m hoping they re-present themselves this time.
On whether he’d work professionally with anyone from “Top Chef”: Mike Isabella is an amazing talent. His [new restaurant] Graffiato in D.C. is going to be great. Me and him have kind of kicked around the idea of doing a hyper-creative Italian restaurant called Prima Donna. I think we’re going to try to make that happen.
On his favorite challenge this season: I loved the last challenge. Being able to build your own dream restaurant, even though it was only a few hours, really did give me goosebumps. The whole ride was amazing. The end was certainly sweet.