Richard Blais Talks ‘Top Chef,’ San Diego and The Crack Shack
Written By: Jordan Ligons
Photographer By: Damien Noble Andrews Richard Blais
Styling By: Teresita Marie Madrigal
Grooming By: Lisa Leedy Richard Blais
Richard Blais is hungry. This time, it’s not exactly for his droolicious chicken sandwich at The Crack Shack or a liquid nitrogen-infused plate from Juniper & Ivy, but hungry for success, and, more importantly, for the ride on the road to it.
“I love being the underdog; it’s great,” said the celebrity chef, restaurateur, author and TV personality. “No one is going to be upset if you don’t get all the way to the top, they’re going to love you even more.” The New Yorker is a Jets fan, so he’s really serious about being the underdog.
“I think it’s a flaw,” Blais jokes. “It’s embracing the journey though. I feel like once you win, the games over.” He goes on to talk about the moment he fell short on “Top Chef” in his attempt on season four. He was upset, angry and disappointed, but it wasn’t for a reason you’d think. “I wasn’t upset that I lost, I was upset that there was no game the next day, that the season was over. That’s why I came back, that’s why I keep doing it.” It’s this hunger for knowledge and opportunity that drives Blais into a multitude of endeavors like winning “Top Chef All-Stars,” appearing on “Iron Chef,” guest judging on “Top Chef Jr.” and the list goes on.
But Blais has to check himself often to remember those humble beginnings. Growing up in a lower-middle class family, his first position was the poissonier at good ‘ol Mickey D’s, and eventually worked his way up to being trained at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, both Michelin-star establishments.
In all the kitchens he’s worked in, he witnessed hard work ethic at the forefront. “But what I think I took from all of it collectively is that in this business it truly has to be a lifestyle. If you feel like you’re going to the kitchen or to the restaurant and it feels like work, you’re in the wrong business,” Blais said. “And that’s a joy that not many people have. I’m lucky and blessed for the 20 years it’s been, rarely have I felt like [it’s] my job.”
Yet, he still has plenty of started-from-the-bottom-now-I’m-here moments. “How many people in their lives that started from fast food, coming from pretty much nothing, have ever even had the opportunity to be on one television show or even be in a room to try to sell an idea [of another television show],” then he said talking directing into the recorder, “Come see me, Netflix!”
Blais goes on to say that you have to simply enjoy the process of it all; enjoy the journey, not the destination. In comparative to his culinary career, his impressive five-time marathon running resume and athletic background equates to his career as a chef. “You can’t think of mile 26 on mile four,” he says that makes for one hell of a race. The same goes for expanding The Crack Shack locations throughout Southern California or how Juniper & Ivy has just celebrated their fourth birthday, but he’s looking towards their tenth. You’ve got to take it as it comes.
Right now he’s coaching his youngest daughter’s basketball team and it’s “one of the absolute joys of this year” for him. The leadership, confidence and flat-out patience it takes to teach first graders a 2-3-zone defense in an 11-girl rotation stems from being able to handle the heat in the kitchen.
“Cooking is sport,” Blais says matter-of-factly, and just like in a zone defense, teamwork makes the dream work. “Chefs need to have confidence; they need to have swagger.” Much like Jon Sloan, the executive chef of The Crack Shack and Anthony Wells at Juniper & Ivy. They are the team captains, the point guards if you will; they’re leading the teams by example.
“There’s a bluntness about cooking that is really different than a lot of other businesses.” He explains that it’s no office job where there are group meetings every Friday in a kumbaya-style circle. Sometimes you have to be straight up with your teammate in the kitchen and let them know that they need to step their game up.
“Historically, the European-trained chef has been a tyrant,” Blais said. He mentions that Sloan is a surfer, a laid-back guy. “I trained in those hardcore European kitchens where I would go home crying. That’s something I say with pride, but also when I look back on that, I didn’t want any of my people driving their bike 10 miles home in the rain crying because they felt that they let down their boss, or whatever it was,” then he jokingly adds, “I’m also really sensitive, maybe that’s what it is. I’m a Pisces.”
Despite his self-assessed sensitivity, his skin seems to be tough. “I’ve failed so many times. In restaurants, in TV—you just have to embrace failure,” Blais said. “You have to love failing.” But, when you surround yourself with a lot of smart, amazing people, it cushions the fall. Yes, Richard Blais’ face is on the front cover, but he wants to set the record straight that although he may be getting the credit and the spotlight, underneath the cover image is about 300 people that are propping him up. “I cannot underestimate how important the executive chefs, the general managers, the financial partners, the other investors—it takes a village,” he said.
This village is nestled inside of San Diego’s buzzing foodie scene, which is totally having a moment right now, but he says the potential has always been there. “I can’t stand when people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you, Richard Blais, for fixing this place.’ That’s not true. We are a part of a movement.” Blais says that him and his partner Mike Rosen were one of the pioneers of snagging prime real estate in an up-and-coming Little Italy neighborhood. Now, it’s vibrant with dozens of new restaurants, condos and cafes; it’s booming.
“San Diego was where you can go to whatever restaurant you want with white table cloths, somewhere in Rancho-whatever spending a lot of money getting white tablecloth-type food, and then it’s also a place where you go right to the coast and get a fish taco.” He said that the middle spectrum of the culinary scene was really wide open for the taking. “It took people like Brian Malarkey to take those first couple steps, and then I came in and did what Brian Malarkey does, but better,” he says with a hearty laugh. He and the “Top Chef” finalist have a friendly rivalry as Malarkey opened his Herb & Wood right behind Juniper & Ivy.
This is why The Crack Shack works, he says. The food is fine-dining caliber with a side of family-friendly, casual vibes. The chicken has the same recipe from Juniper & Ivy: marinated in buttermilk and pickle juice with an additional of “crack spice”, a heaping unique blend of herbs and spices. With these chef-driven establishments serving truly top-notch food, you can see how Blais’ underdog appetite is whet.
“San Diego has the same products that San Francisco and Los Angeles has, the same labor force, so why is it not comparable to those other cities?” he says. “I can’t stand when someone tells me to stay in my lane. I may have a lane that’s preferred for me, but let me change lanes. As long as I put my blinker on, I’m good.”
After two successful cookbooks—James Beard nominee Try This at Home and his less than a year old So Good—Blais officially considers himself a podcaster, a new lane he’s merging into. PodcastOne’s five-star “Starving for Attention” is a love project for the sheer fact of breaking out of his shell, he says.
The bright-framed, outgoing character that we’ve tuned into on our TV screens for years on segments like “Good Morning America,” partnering with Michelle Obama’s Just Move initiative or a number of challenges on The Food Network, is actually incredibly withdrawn and introverted. “Chefs are known as social animals, but I’m totally not. I don’t really drink, I don’t party, I don’t have any tattoos—oh my God, I’m a disgrace,” he laughs. “The podcasts are a way for me to force being social.” Bonus: it’s also a great way to spend time with his wife, Jazmin, who co-hosts the show with him.
Hearing the stories of other wildly successful chefs and people in the biz have not only helped him be social, but also help him take home something new. “There’s always something to learn. I’ll never stop learning.” And with that knowledge, in 2018, he aims to be more of a mentor to young chefs in his kitchens, advise and overall be a listening ear. Blais confesses, “That’s me looking into the mirror and saying, ‘Dude, suck it up and work harder.’…Okay, now, this [interview] is therapy.”
But with all jokes aside, Blais is after something; he doesn’t know exactly what that “thing” is nor does he know how long it’ll take him to get there, but he possesses that hunger for it, and sometimes that’s all that matters in this marathon-esque lifestyle.
“I’m on this journey that I don’t even know what the fruit is I’m trying to grab on the tree, but I know that there’s a tree somewhere, and I do want some of that fruit, but I don’t even know what it tastes like,” he ends this analogy to success with a “does that make sense?” look on his face. It does, and we’re sure whatever it is, it will taste very well.
Want More? Download the PodcastOne app and tune in weekly to Starving For Attention With Richard Blais to listen to who he interviews next!
What’s Up With the Liquid Nitrogen? Blais once told Parade back in 2008 that he uses it “the way a lot of chefs use frying oil. It’s the second coldest substance on Earth and great for super-quick cooking.”
What Can’t He Do? In 2016, Blais appeared in his debut role in Why Him? starring James Franco and Bryan Cranston and he’ll be co-hosting a local AM country radio show. “Right now it’s new experiences. I think that’s what really stimulates growth for me,” he said.
What’s Crackin’? The Crack Shack opened its third location in Orange County late last year and has plans of opening a new location in Century City soon.
Where’s This Food From? Richard and his wife Jazmin aim to educate their two girls through cooking and eating a meal together at home: “It’s such an easy slam dunk for any family,” he advises. “If you want to through some education into your family, have ramen night. Boom! Now you’re in a conversation about Japan.”
What’s the Blais’ Home Golden Rule? “We have a philosophy in our house that you don’t have to eat it, you just have to try it.”
Why Does Richard Blais Love San Diego?
-“I love that San Diego is so close to Mexico.”
-“I love that I have cooks that live in Mexico—that’s just amazing to me!”
-”I love that I can run through the canyon and find in ingredients: wild radishes, fennels, carrots and all sorts of herbs.”
The Crack Shack – Encinitas
407 Encinitas Blvd
Encinitas, CA 92024
Juniper & Ivy
2228 Kettner Blvd
San Diego, CA 92101
The Crack Shack – Little Italy
2266 Kettner Blvd
San Diego, CA 92101