'Top Chef' Richard Blais says he was discovered at Fuddruckers: 'I made my jump from burger-flipper to steak cook in a live moment'
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In his years as a chef, Richard Blais has done everything from appearing as a contestant on one of the earliest seasons of Top Chef to working alongside chefs Gordon Ramsay and Nyesha Arrington as a Next Level Chef judge, but the 50-year-old chef, restaurateur and cookbook author got his start in the food business flipping burgers at a chain restaurant.
"I worked at Fuddruckers — and no one knows this story, but I was discovered at Fuddruckers where they had this big open kitchen," Blais tells Yahoo Life during an event promoting his newest restaurant, Four Flamingos: A Richard Blais Florida Kitchen. "I was flipping burgers and it was super busy and someone from a steakhouse came in and they were like, 'Who's that kid? What's your name? We're opening up a steakhouse at the Roosevelt Mall.'"
"It was a Ruth's Chris steakhouse," he explains, "and I made my jump from burger-flipper to steak cook in a live moment that started it all."
But Fuddruckers and their famous burgers aren't the only chain restaurant Blais, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., credits with his early interest in cooking. As a kid, his family had a special tradition — "Fast Food Fridays" — where they'd kick off the weekends eating together at places like McDonald's and Roy Rogers. It's the latter where Blais says he first remembers experimenting with food.
"Roy Rogers was great as a high school student because they had [The Roy Rogers Fixin’s Bar] with all the toppings for burgers, but it was pretty much a salad bar," he says. "You could go in there and get away with like, a side salad of tomatoes and onions. See, when I was 17 I was being a chef and I didn't even know it. I was like, 'I'm making a Caprese salad over here.'"
When they weren't enjoying their Friday dose of fast food, Blais says a local Long Island Italian restaurant, Borrelli's, was a family favorite as well. "That would be a special birthday meal," he recalls. "I would get linguine and clam sauce. That, to me, was special."
"As a Long Island boy, clams were special," he explains. "One of my first food memories was getting stuffed clams with my parents and being like, 'What are you doing? You're eating rocks. You're scooping breadcrumbs out of rocks. This is fascinating. My parents are Martians.'"
It's another memory from his parents that later inspired Four Flamingos, where Florida-style cuisine like swordfish with lime butter and coconut shrimp toast are served in addition to whole lobster that can be chosen from a massive tank and prepared fresh. "As a kid, we came to Florida for the one vacation I can remember to Disney and my mom jumped out of the car and stole an orange from someone's tree," he says. "That's a memory I have — it's probably not a great one because there's mild theft involved — but it's one I have."
Blais describes the Four Flamingos menu as "vintage Florida."
"That could mean whatever your first memories are of Florida," he explains. "For me, it might have been the first trip I took and ate a Florida orange or some seafood with citrus butter sauce or a stone crab claw."
Blais says his wife's grandmother spent time living in Florida as well, and was an influence for the Four Flamingos menu. Jazmin Blais, who the chef married in 2006, is also an inspiration for the Top Chef's cooking.
"My wife is a great cook — she's excellent," he says. "She's great at baking and makes super-super-delicious banana bread and sugar-free cookies. She's co-authoring my next book with me. She has sort of been a ghostwriter for my other cookbooks and has put in the work without the credit, so I love that we're doing this together."
The couple has two daughters, ages 11 and 13. Blais says a big misconception about celebrity chefs is that their kids are miniature foodies.
"People think that we don't eat like normal people or that our kids eat bone marrow and foie gras and caviar," he says. "My kids are eating chicken tenders and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sending things back at home like someone else would do at a restaurant."
Still, he tries to cook with his kids when possible, keeping in mind that they're young and it's OK if they aren't always keen on kitchen time.
"That's a tender topic because I don't push them to cook," he says. "We live in this world now where kids who are 12 and 13 years old are competing on food TV shows, but half of those kids really are interested in food and half of them, it's just a casting call to be in front of a camera."
Something else surprising about cooking on television, according to Blais, is how TV chefs are treated when they visit a restaurant.
"We get lots of octopus," he jokes. "People send us octopus everywhere we go — a celebrity chef sits down in a restaurant and they get octopus. I think it's because we get all the weird stuff. People are like, 'Oh, chefs love this stuff. Chefs love uni,' and I do like a lot of that stuff, but I'm just not a big fan of octopus."
Another flavor that doesn't quite meet the mark for Blais? Coconut sparkling water.
"It's like carbonated suntan lotion," he says, explaining that although his go-to snack while filming is melon, prosciutto and sparkling water, the coconut variety is a hard pass.
"When I am in front of a camera I am really weird about not eating a lot and not being full on camera and having space in my brain and on my palate to judge other people's food, so it's like – sparkling water and fresh fruit," he explains.
When he's not on camera, however, there's another quick-and-greasy chain restaurant from his youth he craves: Friendly's.
"I think they are still around," he says. "They were a chain where you could get a sundae and a sandwich. Their Jim Dandy (the chain's iconic sundae with strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice cream topped with marshmallow, strawberry and chocolate toppings, a freshly split banana, sprinkles and walnuts), I'm so hungry right now just thinking about it."
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