Yesterday Richard Blais and Radhika Desai were at the Crescent City Farmer's Market. They put on a few cooking demos, chatted up the crowd, soaked in the nice weather, and took time out of their day to talk with Blackened Out.
Blackened Out (BO): First time to New Orleans?
Radhika Desai (RD): I have been here once before but I was too young to remember.
Richard Blais (RB): This is my third visit. First time I was in college and there may have been a few Hurricanes involved so I don't remember much. I was here for the finale of Top Chef 5 and I am here now.
BO: What are your connections, if any to New Orleans and Louisiana cooking?
RD: We ate at Commander's Palace last night and had an amazing meal with a lot of wine so I have a bit of a headache this morning.
RB: New Orleans, and I guess to a larger extent the South, but definitely New Orleans, has the only real, original food culture in the United States. I love being here, I am always inspired by the food of New Orleans. At my burger restaurant Flip we have a Shrimp Po Boyger which is ground shrimp with kind of a spicy remoulade, it screams New Orleans.
BO: The fans at the demo all seem to want to know "how do you think up those dishes on such short notice". Well, where does creativity come from?
RD: I think it is innate to be an artist. Some people are scientific, doctors, engineers, but being creative is something entirely different it has to come from the heart.
RB: Creativity is everywhere. I get inspired from just about everything from a leaf blowing down the street to a hot dog at a baseball game. For instance, I was at a Braves game and I had a Chicago Style hot dog. I had never had one of these before, it had hot peppers, tomato, celery salt-all these things right. Well I went back to my restaurant and had an idea to use those same condiments with octopus because octopus has a very similar texture and shape to a hot dog. Is this boring you?
BO: Absolutely not, I love this stuff. As a follow up though, isn't all creativity in some ways rooted in something you previously experienced.
RD: Yes, I use my past experiences, places I have been, chefs I have worked with to create my future dishes.
BO: As American consciousness about food has grown, many restaurants have begun serving a form of comfort food-meatloaf, roast chicken, etc...- almost as a reaction to the French formality of classic restaurants. Isn't part of the restaurant experience one of entertaining and doing something at a restaurant the diner can't do at home?
RB: Yes, listen I have no problem serving roast chicken and mashed potatoes and charging $24 to a diner, but my philosophy about restaurants has always been that there needs to be something entertaining and engaging about them. There is a new paradigm in the kitchen, the consumer wants something more than just being served, they want to be part of the process. They see shows like Top Chef and other food shows and the want more from dining out. And markets like this (Crescent City Farmer's Market) make it really easy for the home cook to do something great with simple ingredients. So yeah, I think a restaurant has a responsibility to do more.
BO: The "civilian" reaction to Top Chef has been overwhelmingly positive, what has been the reaction from the Chef community?
RD: Mixed. There are some that think it is bogus, fake, and just one giant product placement ad. There are others who are very supportive of it. But I think most chefs think that it gives a pretty accurate depiction of a genuine profession.
RB: I think the show reached a tipping point recently. Where it is now more widely accepted by the chef community as being very serious. There have been 75 people go through the show now, and in a business where everyone is sort of connected, people know the chefs on the show are tough, talented cooks.
BO: Radhika, are you dispelling the myth that chefs are "rockstars"?
RD: Chef's are not rockstars. We work very hard, 10-12 hour days in sweaty kitchens doing mundane tiresome work. There is very little rockstar in a kitchen. It is a hard life.
BO: Richard, you once wrote that some cheftestants look at Top Chef as an opportunity to get a golden egg, but the smart ones realize that Top Chef is a chance to get a hen that lays eggs. Can you talk about what you have done post-Top Chef?
RB: There have been literally tons and tons of opportunities. I had already had a little bit of exposure before Top Chef on Iron Chef and other FoodTV things, but I really owe a lot to Top Chef. I am doing product development with Quaker and McCormack, I do demos all over the country for corporations, foodies, and the like. I opened Flip (a burger shop) in Atlanta and we plan to open 20 more locations throughout the Southeast. We will be in New Orleans soon. Nashville and Birmingham are opening next. I have a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles I am opening that is more fine dining. So really at this point I am just focusing on keeping this incredible momentum going and going.
Radhika Desai and her dish, seared halibut with lentils, corn, and salad. Very good and a nice use of ginger in the lentils.
The back of the Top Chef demo kitchen and tour bus. Coming to a city near you soon. And I heard a little gossip of a Top Chef Master's Series which has just wrapped filming.