Thursday, March 1, 2012

Liquid Nitrogen: Chef Blais

One of my favorite TV shows is Top Chef, I love watching people cook and eat food, and the reality TV aspect just makes it more fun.  My favorite contestant of all time has to be Richard Blais.  What makes his cooking so appealing is that he utilizes science (molecular gastronomy, liquid nitrogen, and sous-vide machines), a playful style, and a nose to tail approach to food.  He combines modern techniques with old world utilization of all the parts of the animal, vegetable, and fruit.  He was in season four of the show, and he made it to the finale.  I still cringe when I think of this finale because Chef Blais choked.  He was the favorite of the season and when he started cooking in the finale his dishes fell apart. They lacked his playful style and lacked execution of techniques.  Thankfully, he got a second chance last year on Top Chef: All Stars, where he won the competition.

Inherently, I believe that all chefs are creative.  They are taking something in one form, and transforming it into a completely new form.  Richard Blais exemplifies this, as many other chefs do.  What sets Chef Blais apart is his playful styling of food, and the techniques he uses.  He is technologically advance for a chef and uses chemicals to enhance his food to get a desired product.  He is known as the liquid nitrogen king, he uses in every demo I have seen of his.  It has helped him in TV competitions though.  He needed a fast way to freeze something and liquid nitrogen is the quickest way.  It also gives a delicious product, it can make ice cream creamier, and give a new texture to foods.  He created a popcornsicle for Garret's popcorn.
When bit into, the quick frozen caramel on the popcorn would shatter, breaking off the popcorn with it.  This makes a delicious and fun frozen treat.  No one has ever done this for popcorn, and this newness factor helps with Blais' own popularity.  By keeping his liquid nitrogen king title, he has created a brand for himself. It keeps people coming to his restaurants and enjoying his food.
Chef Blais makes food look analogous to another unrelated food.  In this clip, he is making eggnog (you can fast forward to 1:00).
In this video he turns eggnog into scrambled eggs. He uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the eggnog mixture into an ice cream with a scrambled egg texture.  He is created a dish that looks like one thing, but is actually another. By using methylcellulose, he can turn scrambled mangoes  into tuna tartare (  The way that he creates his dishes is that he has an image of a dish in his mind, then he creates the dish, or he has an idea of an expectation which he wishes to exceed.  If you expect scallops, you may get bananas presented in a scallop style next to a foam in a dessert.
This changing of expectations is incredibly creative. It is creating an entirely new experience with food.  What may look like a tuna tartare, is actually a fruit, what looks like a bowl of scrambled eggs is actually brandy laced eggnog.  It creates an entirely new relationship with food, and this is what makes him so popular as a chef. I got the chance to see Chef Blais cook at the cultivate festival in Lincoln Park in October.    He made a salsa jelly, with queso foam on top of a chorizo chip.  I got the chance to try the chip along with a liquid nitrogen frozen margarita.  The chip was a dehydrated piece of chorizo, it looked and felt like a tortilla chip, but tasted of delicious smoked meat.  This type of playfulness in food marks him as a creative.

I had always thought of Chef Blais as someone who only utilizes science and modern techniques.  What I was struck as weird by some of his dishes was the homeliness to them.  He made a sous-vide ox tail soup that looked delicious, but also had a very rustic, rich look to it.  He also surprised me by talking about his nose to tail approach to cooking.  This approach utilizes the less used parts of the animal (tails, innards, heads) as well as the less desirable parts of the vegetables (like the pulp in a tomato).  This method of cooking makes for a more sustainable and economical product.  It is unusual to see a technologically advance, as well as high end chef use these items.  By doing this, he is allowing his customers to try something new, both different techniques as well as different foods.

Chef Richard Blais is a up and coming star in the food world.  His creativity is seen in his cooking and plating.  He plays with people's expectations of food.  Blais knows that people have a mental image of something in their mind, that they expect a certain product, then he challenges our expectations. This creates a new experience with food. What makes him different from other chefs? I think that he has made a brand for himself.  He is known for his liquid nitrogen and quirky ideas, and that is what he sticks to.  By doing this he promises his customers with a unique experience and will leave them wanting to come back for another innovative meal.

1 comment:

  1. I am an avid Top Chef fan as well, and though Sam (from series 2), and Fabio V. will always be my favorites, Blais is definitely in my top 5. His ability, like you said, to combine the rustic throwback style and taste, essentially, of dishes with this modern, extremely technical process of cooking the food is what truly blows me away. His playfulness is everything for him and his creativity is totally sparked from his desire to literally sit there and play with his food. I love watching him on late night talk shows or even morning shows because he never fails to surprise the hosts, who more often than not seem scared of the liquid nitrogen. I feel like Blais has nowhere to go in the cooking world but up. It's not that he uses new tools necessarily, but the techniques with which he uses said tools and food products is something that he has, like you said, worked into a truly Blais brand/style of cooking.
    (Also, on a side note, totally jealous you got to see him cook in October. I meant to go but something came up. Glad to know he didn't fail to impress).


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