Interview with Richard Blais
What's your favorite new ingredient?
We have a techno-organic approach, meaning we do both traditional and experimental food. We use methylcellulose to make scrambled mangoes with tuna tartare. It thickens liquids to form a gel, which makes the mango juice look like scrambled eggs. On the other hand, I love Berkshire pigs from Riverview Farms in northern Georgia. We get the whole hog. We'll prepare the loin sous vide, cure the belly with sugar and cider, and make a pâté that we serve with mustard ice cream and juiced cornichons, thickened with xanthan gum.
What's the most versatile spice?
Smoked Spanish salt and smoked paprika. They're great for a touch of smokiness. Caraway seed is great, too. We do beef brisket and a corned duck breast with caraway seed. That's the Irish New Yorker side of me.
What's the most underused spice?
Nutmeg. It's in traditional recipes, but lots of chefs, including me, don't use it anymore.
What items should be in every pantry?
Duck fat, gellan gum and liquid nitrogen. Anything cooked in duck fat has a flavor that you can't get from oil or clarified butter. We'll sometimes strain the fat after we've roasted a duck, but we also buy it by the pail. Many of our pastas are made with gellan gum. We call them Impastas. We mix a liquid [like butternut-squash soup] with gellan gum to make a sheet of ÒpastaÓ without eggs or flour. Liquid nitrogen allows you to freeze anything immediately. We use it to chill stocks.
What's your favorite knife?
I just got a new Suisin Inox Japanese slicer that I only use for fish. I got it from Korin [in New York City], my favorite knife store.
What's your favorite pan?
My one-quart copper sauce pot from E. Dehillerin in Paris. It's a great store. I'll buy like $1,000 worth of pots and pans at a time since everything's so cheap.
What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
For traditional equipment, E. Dehillerin. For modern stuff, I go to PolyScience [which sells retail through cuisinetechnology.com]. And I bought an immersion circulator on eBay.
What's your favorite mail-order source?
The Dow Chemical Company, for methylcellulose and gellan gum.
What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
A kitchen centrifuge that could accommodate quart containers, for separating animal fats, consommés and wines. Industrial-size centrifuges are so large.
If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
I'd love an audio system that could be delivered with food. With seafood dishes, how about delivering an iPod that plays the sound of ocean waves?
What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
Hangar tartare with béarnaise ice cream at WD-50 [in New York City].
What's your favorite sushi place?
In Atlanta, we had a great place called Soto Japanese Restaurant, which just closed. MF Sushibar is also great.
What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
At WD-50. I think it has everything you could want from a restaurant.
If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
I actually have a business plan already, but I can't tell you yet what it is.
Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
Multicourse tasting menus that aren't prearranged by the chef, where guests get to choose [dishes they'd like]. I also see more new-school molecular gastronomy happening. You're going to get away from seeing it only as a part of 30-course dinners where you have to wear a suit.
A lot of chefs are getting into doing things completely from scratch, like making cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
We make our own mozzarella. We do chorizo, country pâté and terrines.
On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
I'd rate myself as a five. The real debate is: Is it really a one side or the other thing? Hopefully, molecular gastronomy is an extension of great simple ingredients, not a replacement for them.
If you could upgrade one piece of equipment in your kitchen, what would it be?
I'd trade the gas burners for induction. Getting rid of gas burners is another wave of the future.
Which newfangled piece of equipment (i.e., sous vide equipment, the Pacojet, the Thermomix or a dehydrator) do you think will gain a real place in home kitchens?
Alton Brown is trying to develop a Cryovac and sous vide home unit. People in Europe use the Thermomix at home, so maybe what they need here is a great infomercial.
What ingredient used by avant-garde chefs (i.e., agar agar, transglutaminase, methylcellulose) do you think will make its way to home kitchens?
The whole line of gums: xanthan gum, locust-bean gum and modified starch. They thicken foods without changing the food's taste. You can use gums in place of corn starch and flour. There's some debate now about the safety of handling liquid nitrogen, but it's really only as dangerous as frying oil.
What's your favorite cookbook?
I have Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie and Hervé This's Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor by my bed.
From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
I'd be more excited hearing [author and food-science expert] Harold McGee talk about the science of foods than I'd be by taking a class from a chef.
Spanish chef Ferran Adrià has been a big influence on chefs recently; what or who do you think will take his place?
What you see in Spain is a fraternity, with Ferran Adrià and the other forward-thinking chefs being very open about sharing information. I'm starting to see that here.
If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
With $1,000, I might get a plane ticket to Japan. I'd figure out how to make more money once I got there. Or I'd get an immersion circulator, or another Thermomix. For $10, I'd try to find the best cheeseburger I could.
Do you have any favorite insider spots in airports?
Any place that serves a good stiff drink before a long flight.
Do you have any good stories about your regulars?
We don't serve lunch, but [R&B singer] Usher came in once. He asked if I was open, and I said I was open for him. He asked for fresh white truffles. We have regulars—Matt and Jennifer Cunningham—who have done about a dozen tasting menus with us. They flew to New York City for our Iron Chef taping.
Do you have any food-related superstitions?
I have to absolutely scrub down my workstation before I start to cook, even if it's already clean.
Are you planning on backing anyone in new ventures?
I'm constantly talking to my staff about opening their own restaurants. We invest emotionally in people here. This restaurant is a family.