These days Berlin is hosting a very special guest in the city. Starting his immensely successful career as a Poissonier at McDonalds and climbing the ladder to cooking at 3 Michelin stars restaurant El Bulli, Richard Blais is a force to be reckoned with. Crowned the winner of Top Chef All-Stars, this charming and innovative chef has also been the host of TV series such as Cook Your Ass Off and The Hungry Games. With three restaurants under his wing and a prestigious James Beard nomination for his book he’s not slowing down.
For his latest endeavor he took on a reinterpretation of the classic American diner for the Cadillac Experience that is currently taking place in the underground parking garage at Bebelplatz. Taking his wildly creative approach to cooking, he treats the visitors with burgers, onion rings and milkshakes—all done with an experimental take. We caught up with the star chef before the opening of to talk about bringing the American diner experience to Europe, why we order fries instead of salad with our burgers (it’s more complicated than you think), how to survive naked in a forest, and of course his secret cooking weapon, liquid nitrogen.
From where do you draw inspiration for new recipes?
Inspiration can come from anywhere. I’m in Berlin for a few days, so I’m sure I’ll find inspiration here—it’s about being aware. Last night I went to a German beer garden here in Berlin, and they just had candles on the tables, which was very inspiring. It got me thinking about how fat melts similar to candle wax.
Where and how did you first develop your passion for food?
When I was a kid, I’d make my own lunch sandwiches, talking to myself like I was on a cooking show. I was doing very avant-garde things, like putting potato chips in my ham sandwich, and crushing them for texture. It’s always been something that’s been inside of me, and I literally went from my first job at McDonalds to some of the best restaurants in the world.
Tell us a bit about your idea of the reinterpreted American diner.
For our event in Berlin we’re doing a live show featuring a hamburger. It’s the most iconic American meal—the cheeseburger and fries, and we’re demonstrating how we’ve stretched that a few steps. Part of that will include a milkshake made with liquid nitrogen, and we’re making the ketchup with Kimchi, which adds a whole other depth of flavor because of umami [the fifth taste.] Our burger for the event is homage to the classic In n’ Out burger, we’re doing onion rings with tempura batter, and charging it with nitrous oxide. When you look at the dish it will look like a typical American meal, but when you get into the process of it, there are a lot of interesting technical things happening.
How did you develop your relationship with liquid nitrogen?
We’re on the hunt for liquid nitrogen right now in Berlin; hopefully it’ll be making an appearance tonight. I want to know everything as a chef, at least know how to use every ingredient I possibly can. 7 or 8 years ago, I worked at El Bulli in Spain, had an amazing meal at The Fat Duck in London, started hearing about chefs tinkering with liquid nitrogen, and I had to get my hands on some. Now we do use it in all of my restaurants.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to cook with?
The wild things that grow like wood sorrel, nasturtium and wild mushrooms. I’m very excited about that right now—I can go outside and collect things that were just in the ground. The food is delicious, but it’s also the process. This may be weird, but I want to do one of those survival shows one day, kind of like Naked and Afraid, where they drop two people in an environment naked, and they leave them there for 21 days. I’d be naked and cold, and my other survival skills may not be up to task, but I’d be able to find little green things to eat on the floor.
Living in Berlin, I see a lot of support towards organic and whole foods. Are you keen on using organic ingredients?
Yes! I live in California, perhaps the epicenter of that movement in the States. The issue arises of price; it’s difficult to feed everyone, so it’s a bit of a debate in the US right now. But as a chef and as a dad, I like to cook for my family and in my restaurants using whole foods—especially using local organics in my restaurant [Juniper & Ivy] in Southern California, where everything is always in season.
Your new series The Hungry Games explores the notion of the psychology behind our cravings. With that, can you describe the appeal of “comfort food”?
The Hungry Games is an eating show about why we make the choices we do. One thing that I love is exemplifying how if you put a healthy option, like a beautiful little salad, as an option for a burger, it actually drives more people to order fries, because they feel like they fulfilled their health concerns by merely having the option. That’s something called vicarious goal fulfillment. So you look at the healthy thing, and your brain thinks that even by considering it, it has done its job, and you can get the fries now.
What is the most interesting and unconventional place you’ve cooked?
Well actually, right here, at an underground parking garage in Berlin!
Thank you very much for the interview!
The American Diner by Richard Blais as part of the Cadillac Experience at the underground parking garage at Bebelplatz is open from November 28 – December 1, 2014 from 10-18h.