While prepping for the elimination challenge—to create “the restaurant of your dreams”—on last night’s Top Chef: All-Stars finale, Richard Blais said he was planning to make Cap’n Crunch ice cream for his dessert course. As someone who could happily eat both ice cream and cereal at every meal, I was instantly salivating. But then Richard changed his mind, deciding instead to make fois gras ice cream. That’s right. He decided to swap out Cap’n Crunch for fattened goose liver. He might as well have reached through the screen and punched me in the face. And yet . . . I was still rooting for him. How could you not? He’s won more challenges than any other competitor on the show and somehow he’s not a jerk. In fact, he seems like an incredibly nice guy.
Last night’s matchup between him and Mike Isabella was close. The judges loved aspects of both of their “dream” restaurants. Richard’s amuse-bouche of oyster with crème fraîche pearls and a first course of hamachi with fried sweetbreads were both big hits. Mike’s halibut with pancetta crumbs and pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce—yes, pepperoni sauce—were equally impressive. But in the end, an emotional Richard was crowned Top Chef. (Some of the judges even liked the fois gras ice cream.)
But Mike put up a heck of a fight. And during an interview on the after-show, he showed a surprising amount of grace. He said that because Richard was so helpful to the other chefs in the kitchen, he doubted he would’ve even made it to the finale without him. Awww.
Here, we talk with the Washington chef about his new restaurant, Graffiato, the other DC chefs who helped him prepare for the All-Stars finale, and that fried-chicken-oyster controversy from earlier in the season. Check back later for our conversation with Richard.
Can you tell us more about that pepperoni sauce?
I like to change textures and flavors around. I saw pepperoni there, and I wanted to build my flavors. To elevate the flavor of the pork shoulder, I used the pepperoni. It turned out to be the hit of the night, and it will be on the menu at Graffiato.
After Richard’s win last night, you commented that second place is the first loser. Do you still feel that way?
No. I just say that to motivate myself sometimes. But for me, I won. I was probably one of the biggest winners in the entire season. People expected Richard to win this from the beginning. No one expected me to do what I did this season. It could’ve gone either way. It was a split decision.
You made a much sweeter comment about the outcome of the season on the after-show last night. You said that because Richard was so helpful to the other chefs in the kitchen, you may not have even made it to the final challenge without him. Is that really how you feel?
If you look at the whole season, I think Richard deserves to win. He was the most helpful, he was the most consistent. He was winning in the beginning, middle, and end. He was my biggest competition. I felt like I gave him a run for his money. He kept telling me, “I think you won.” But we have a great relationship. We’re great friends. Nothing but the highest respect for him.
Earlier in the season, there was some controversy over the fried-chicken-oyster dish you won a challenge with that apparently came from Richard’s journal. Is that water under the bridge with you and Richard now?
Before we even get to water under the bridge, chefs inspire me more than anyone else in the world. I go out to eat at new restaurants every time I go to new cities. It’s a dish that has been done before. I won because it was my dish. It was not his dish. We all inspire each other. Everything’s been done before.
Where are you with Graffiato? When will it open?
Storefront’s knocked out. Windows are done. Pizza oven’s in. All the duct work’s in. We’re getting there. We’re opening up in May. Without question, in May.
Will we see anything else besides the pepperoni sauce from Top Chef at Graffiato?
You’ll probably see the gnocchi dish I did when I was cooking for my mother and our families. You’ll see the pepperoni sauce. You’ll see some of the flavors I used. Pancetta breadcrumbs. Not a lot of the food, but inspiration from it.
What did you do during the break between the earlier part of the season in New York and the finals in the Bahamas that helped you?
I went back to basics, and I changed my life. I’m seeing a personal trainer and eating right. I was working at Volt with Bryan Voltaggio. I was working at the Source and Blue Duck Tavern. I was working with all these different chefs and talking to them and just cooking. That opened my eyes. I was ready to shock the world.
You were the bad boy on your original season, and you still had a similar attitude this season. You were never shy about singling out the weakest chefs and saying what was on your mind. Why is that your approach?
Maybe it’s my stupid side of me. My mouth has definitely gotten me into trouble my whole life. You know, I’m a New Jersey Italian. I come from a broken family, and I had to fight my whole life to get to where I am. Sometimes that shows in some things I say. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but sometimes, unfortunately, I am. But I just speak the truth, and it is what it is. At the end of the day, I care for everyone. I relate with pretty much everyone on the show. People who know me and work with me really know who I really am.
What were you expecting out of the season?
My biggest goal was to, number one, get out of New York and still be alive. I felt like anyone had a shot to win once they got to the finals. It’s a gamble and a risk and it’s a competition. That was my mentality. I wanted to get to the end. I wanted to be in every episode. I wanted to change who I was originally portrayed to be. And I did it.
In your opinion, what are the best and worst things about Washington’s dining scene?
The best thing about Washington’s scene is the growth of it. I’ve been in DC over four years now. I think this is DC’s biggest year. The scene just keeps growing and getting bigger. More James Beard Awards. I just feel like our scene is growing rapid-fire. I’m so stoked to be a part of it. I still think it has a lot of room to grow. There could be a lot more middle-of-the-road restaurants where you get a great value and great food.
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