By RODNEY HOemail@example.com, filed Nov. 26, 2010
In 2008, Decatur resident Richard Blais was blazing his way to "Top Chef" victory - until the final meal.
For the first time, he seemed frazzled. His pork belly dish disappointed the judges. He lost. "I think I choked," he said on the show.
In a recent phone interview, more than two years later, he admitted, "I had a little bit of writer's block. I tried to do a little bit too much and tell too much of a story."
Now, it's time for redemption. On Wednesday, Blais joins 17 other past non-winning contestants in the Bravo series' first "all star" competition. The stakes are higher - $200,000 instead of $125,000. And this hungry crowd features many of the show's most talented and colorful characters, from arrogant Marcel Vigneron (season two)Â to intensely combative Dale Talde (season four) to chipper, ever quotable Carla Hall (season five).
"I really loved the competitive vibe of the show," said Blais, "the inspiration that comes fromÂ it. I really loved playing the game."
Much of the show has already been pre-taped though a winner has not been named. Blais said coming in a second time, he carved out a simple philosophy: "My game plan is just to cook really great food and not get too wrapped up in any specific strategy or get wrapped up in the drama. I worry more about competing against myself."
Blais came acrossÂ in 2008Â as a nice guy and certainly not the type to needlessly critique others. Other chefs respected his technical skills, use of unusual ingredient combinations and odd love affair with liquid nitrogen.
He said one of his most memorable moments from season four people bring up is his beef fat-infused tofu:
Tom Colicchio, the chief judge on the show, said Blais should have won season four. He has one caveat about Blais for this round: "He's been doing the burger thing the past couple of years. He's been out of the fine dining scene. That could be a bit of a handicap."
Blais opened a high-end hamburger joint Flip Burger Boutique on Howell Mill Road two years ago and recently added a second localeÂ in BuckheadÂ and a third in Birmingham.
"It's been very successful, knock on wood," he said, of the original Flip. "I'm grateful people are still showing up."
He is now considering a gourmet hot-dog boutique spot in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood set to open in the spring not far from Pura Vida, a tapas restaurant run by Hector Santiago, another "Top Chef" alumnus. "It's good to have him as a neighbor," he said.
Blais said the "Top Chef" experience grounded him and "reinforced what I am as a chef. It got me cooking more at home and focusing more on food. I have been baking lots of bread at home. I'm known as this crazy creative guy. But at the end of the day, it's baking a great loaf of bread or roasting a piece of meat. Back to basics. It's easy to get away from that."
Since the original show, he and his wife Jazmin have hadÂ a daughter Riley with a second girl on the way, due in February. He's also lost 20 to 30 pounds since his first "Top Chef" experience, running three or four miles every other day. "You see yourself on TV for a couple of months," he said, "and I thought, 'Maybe I need to get on a treadmill!' "
His season is the only one which included four contestants, a "little bit of a shock," he said. "I've been pretty friendly with everyone from my season."
Here's his take on a few of his "all star" brethren:
- Stephen Asprinio, season one: "He's a fascinating guy. Very smart. Someone I enjoyed spending non cooking time with."
- Marcel Vigneron, season two: "Very passionate. Misunderstood sometimes. Dedicated to his craft. I'm a big Marcel fan."
- Casey Thompson, season three: "Down to earth. Tremendous work ethic, even in the gym!"
- Spike Mendelsohn from Blais' season: "The guy has figured out a way to make things happen for himself. I admire him a lot."
- Dale Talde from Blais' season: "So intense. I think he came in with the most to prove. Great cook, moves with speed."
- Carla Hall, season five: "What isn't there to love about her. I'd help her with anything. I think she would do the same for me. A good friend."
- Fabio Viviani, season five: "I fell in love with this guy and his cooking. An amazing cook, who knew?"
- Jennifer Carroll, season six: "The type of cook that I wish I was... Enough said."
- Angelo Sosa, season seven: "Another guy who's misunderstood. Moves at such an amazing pace. Really got me physically motivated to play!"
Here's one of the Bravo previews featuring Blais:
"Top Chef: All Stars," 10 p.m. Wednesdays, Bravo
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