Chances are, you have probably heard of Richard Blais. Most likely from television. Most likely from reality television: Top Chef, Top Chef: All Stars, Life After Top Chef, Top Chef Masters, Iron Chef, and his own show on the Science Channel, Blais Off.
But here's why you should know Richard Blais: he received an AOS in culinary arts from The Culinary Institute of America and has studied under chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Ferran Adrià. Blais also studied at Chez Panisse. He currently runs four restaurants, three in Atlanta: The Spence, Flip Burger Boutique (also one in Birmingham), and HD-1 (also known as Haute Doggery). In 2011 he released his cookbook, Try This atHome: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate. And, finally, he is slated to open another spot in San Diego in December.
It looks like he's also running marathons as well - Blais Runner (I had to do it). With a wife and two daughters, Blais is a busy man, to say the least.
So you can imagine my good fortune to be able to catch him for an interview recently to talk about the South, pimiento cheese, vinegar and his perfect picnic.
RB: I’m a native New Yorker and I was dating a girl whose dad was a restaurateur in Atlanta. I was working in Manhattan at the time at Restaurant Danielle and the restaurateur asked me to come down there and take over the restaurant and I did.
FFF: When was that?
RB: That was a long time ago, 1999-2000.
FFF: I know that you’re not known necessarily for Southern anything, but I’m curious where you see the trajectory of Southern food and how you fit into that and what’s happening in the South, food-wise, right now.
RB: It took me a while to really embrace Southern food as a stubborn Yankee, self-admittedly. I think the thing about Southern food is that it is not a trend. It’s all about heritage, ingredients and recipes. There are a lot of young, modern chefs that are now bringing back heirloom seeds. It’s never going to go out of style. Southern cuisine happens to be the trend at the moment but it’s not molecular gastronomy or small plates - it’s history and tradition and it’s not going to go away.
FFF: What do you think the great Southern food cities are right now?
RB: A few I haven’t been to that I want to visit. Certainly I think Charleston is a great food city. Obviously, I’m a little biased to Atlanta - I think Atlanta is great. I have not been but I need to get to Oxford, Mississippi. I think that is a place that is just calling me, and I need to get out there. There are so many cities now. It's not just about one place. There are great chefs and great restaurants in every city.
FFF: Any specific restaurants or chefs that come to mind?
RB: I'm a fan of all my colleagues and peers. I think Sean Brock (Husk in Charleston), who is a good friend of mine, is one of my favorite Southern chefs. He's from Richmond. I think Hugh Acheson is doing a great job. There are just so many. I mean certainly (Steven) Satterfield (Miller Union in Atlanta) and Anne Quatrano (Star Provisions), who I don't think a lot of people know. She is a chef in Atlanta and one of the best chefs in the country, if not the world. You don't hear her name a lot but she's been around.
FFF: I want to know what you're cooking/playing with right now that's seasonal or that's just weird and crazy that is really inspiring you.
RB: Herbs and flowers and the idea of what happens after we pick them: rosemary flowers or blossoms on other herbs. The whole seed to stalk thing. Cooking with the seeds as well as the stems as well as the blossoms. Herbs and flowers are what I'm into at the moment, but it changes every day.
FFF: I've been hearing a lot of buzz about Peru and ingredients sourced from the Andes. Do you think that is the next big thing? If not, what do you think is?
RB: It's funny you say that because I'm opening a restaurant in San Diego in December and my business partner and I are taking a trip to Mexico City and Peru. So, yes, I don't know if it's the next big thing, but people definitely want to know what's going on there.
FFF: I feel like right now the egg is the new bacon. I'm wondering, what is your ideal preparation of an egg, if you had to pick just one?
RB: It's not going to be as romantic as you would want. I like a good sunny side up egg, but cooked really hard on one side. So the bottom is crusty and all browned on the edges. I'm a native New Yorker, so Egg on a Roll style. I mean, who says roll anymore? No one says that except for my dad. But, yes, cooked hard on one side.
I think scrambled in a microwave probably would be my second. Using the microwave is pretty inspiring to me at home. People give it a bad knock, but it's usually the food that goes into it, not the technology itself.
FFF: You're on your way home in Atlanta traffic at about four o'clock in the afternoon and you get a call from your wife announcing that four of your friends are coming over for dinner in two hours. What are you going to do?
RB: Pasta. For sure. I'm on a big extruding pasta kick so we always have a number of shapes ready in our kitchen. Our kids are even making it. So I would say a pasta of some sort with some garlic, some vinegar, some fresh herbs and a little touch of butter.
FFF: Pimiento Cheese.
RB: Love it. I love it on a sandwich. I also love it on a cracker. As a matter of fact, I just did an event in Napa a couple of days ago where that was my dish. It was a big, fancy Napa Valley wine auction and I served it pretty much like a grilled cheese. I did a riff on it using Jack cheese and poblano peppers instead of pimientos, and a little bit of horseradish and chiles.
FFF: Duke's Mayonnaise?
RB: I love Dukes Mayonnaise! I'm a big fan of Duke's Mayonnaise. It's got more of an acidity to it. I like it on white bread, too. Soft, white bread... I'm a convert of the pimiento cheese sandwich and we eat it a lot. I even buy it sometimes, prepared from Whole Foods, and I have no shame in that. I also like it as a topping for a burger, a pimiento cheese burger.
It's such a simple thing, but most people don't know about it. It's got this sort of mystique to it, like it's a very famous French cheese. But it's just some chopped up cheese with some peppers and mayonnaise in it!
FFF: What is your ideal picnic and what is the one must-have that you are going to take on that picnic?
RB: Wow. Well, I'm not as much of an experienced picnic-er as I should be. Not to just recycle the last answer, but I would probably bring some pimiento cheese sandwiches. And some carbonated beverages – soda for myself, I'm a big soda freak. I actually do work with a soda company (DRY) as the creative director, which uses only four ingredients like natural sugar – so we're packing some cucumber soda for our picnic. And crudité! And, hey listen, leftover fried chicken is not a bad picnic thing. Some chili vinegar. I usually do a buttermilk-vinegar soaked chicken, a couple dredges of flour. Vinegar is my favorite ingredient in the world. That's the one. Vinegar makes food great. A lot of people think it's fat or salt, and those are important, but it's really acidity and vinegar.
And, so, as we have deemed June Picnic Month here at F for Food, we decided to make Richard Blais' 'ideal picnic':
Pimiento Jack Cheese Tea Sandwiches
Crudité: Radishes with Salted Butter and Heirloom Tomato, Cucumber, Red Onion Salad
Double-Dipped Buttermilk-Chile Vinegar Marinated Fried Chicken
Everything was sensational. I even like his version of pimiento cheese (I can feel my mom's eyes rolling out of her head right now). I think Blais would be pleased - we used vinegar in almost everything. I even made my own chile infused vinegar for the salad dressing and the chicken marinade. But the recipe I want to share is that of the fried chicken. That was the star. The chile vinegar added a really nice back end heat with every bite, and the double dredging ensures a super, extra awesome crackly, crispety, crunchety skin. And that's the whole point, right?
Double-Dipped Buttermilk & Chile Vinegar Fried Chicken
2 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons chile vinegar
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 teaspoons tarragon, divided
½ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1tablepoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon plus 1teaspoon ground pepper
1 chicken cut up into 8 pieces
3 cups all-purpose flour
Vegetable shortening & vegetable oil, for frying
Combine the buttermilk, chile vinegar, dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon tarragon, paprika, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon of the salt, and 1 of the pepper in a nonreactive bowl large enough to contain all of the chicken pieces with at least 1 inch to spare. Add the chicken and turn to coat fully in the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or overnight. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator about 45 minutes before frying.
Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. In a large, shallow bowl, combine the flour, remaining salt, pepper, tarragon & cayenne pepper. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk marinade and roll it around in the seasoned flour until completely covered. Set it on the prepared baking sheet; repeat with the remaining chicken. Dip the coated chicken pieces once more in the marinade, then again in flour. Return the pieces to the baking sheet (a few minutes’ rest makes for a sturdier, crisper coating).
Have a wire cooling rack set over paper towels ready. In a large, heavy cast-iron skillet, heat 1 1/2 inches of shortening & oil over medium heat until it reaches 350°F on a deep-fat thermometer. Using kitchen tongs, add a few chicken pieces at a time to the hot oil (crowding will lower the temperature, making for greasy chicken). Fry the chicken until the internal temperature reaches 180°F, about 10 minutes per side (watch carefully, it can easily burn). Transfer the cooked chicken to the wire rack. Serve immediately or at room temperature (don’t let the chicken sit more than 2 hours).
Do it Early The chicken can be fried up to 2 days in advance, covered, and refrigerated. Serve it cold—a classic picnic food—or reheat on wire racks set on baking sheets in a 375°F oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
Tip If the chicken looks pretty dark before it is cooked through, transfer to wire racks set on baking sheets and bake in a 375°F oven until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 180°F on an instant-read thermometer. Keep fried chicken warm in a 200°F oven. Using a digital thermometer eliminates the need to stand over the chicken. When the alarm sounds, the meat is done.
One year ago: Fresh Mint & Chip Ice Cream
Two years ago: An Evening in Gruissan.
Three years ago: Shiso Leaf Butter