BBQgeek - I’m kind of curious where you stand on BBQ. Would you call yourself a BBQ fan?
Blais – A fan? Sure. An expert or a connoisseur – probably not. You know, it’s probably something I need to do more research for. One of the things about being a New Yorker and coming to the South and really getting a first taste for BBQ [inaudible] there’s really no difference learning about BBQ or learning about wine right?. There’s a lots of different ways to do it and the terms can get mixed around. A burgundy can be a Pinot Noir and the same sort of thing goes with BBQ. But, I’m certainly a fan.
BBQgeek – If I picked up on you correctly, you really didn’t have a lot of it (BBQ) growing up in New York and your first introduction (to BBQ) was when you moved?
Blais – Yeah. Absolutely. So, whether it is a local joint or shack, or people in their back yard – coming to Atlanta was my first serious introduction to the art and the passion that is BBQ.
BBQgeek – Do you have a favorite spot for BBQ?
Blais – I do have to say – one, because it is really delicious and two, because it is right behind where I live – is Fox Brother’s BBQ. I like to try and stay fit and I run a lot and it’s kinda hard running by those giant smokers they’ve got. It’s sort of like the comics you see with a blueberry pie cooling in a window and the kid peeking up at them thinking how he can sneak one away….
BBQgeek – Would you say you are more of a consumer or a producer of BBQ? Do you get to cook it much, or are you just eating it?
Blais – Again, I think it depends on your definition. I’m definitely a consumer, but I would be not telling you the truth if I didn’t say that I use the word barbeque on my menu at my restaurant at Home in Atlanta. We do what is basically a pork belly that we smoke briefly and sous vide for two days at 60 degrees Celsius and then we actually glaze it in a BBQ sauce with coffee and cayenne and some veal stock. So, maybe to you, I’m not sure to you, maybe a loose interpretation of the term barbeque. But, it’s one of those flavors that, when you see the word barbeque on a menu, it gets you salivating – it gets your mouth watering - it’s something that people know right away.
BBQgeek – How is that working in terms of a technique? You said you were smoking the (pork) belly briefly – how long are you smoking it and when you put in the sous vide bag are you packing it in there with the smoke?
Blais – We’re talking about a brief one hour/two hour cold smoke on the belly and then a slight one hour cure – washing off the cure – then a one hour smoke – then making sure the temperature is right - then the pork belly will go into the sous vide bag with, with depending on what we are doing, in this case BBQ spice, we’ll go right into the sous vide bag and kind of marinade all that dry rub into the meat while it is cooking for a few days at a slow temp. So, it’s thinking about what barbeque is and then thinking about a technique like sous vide and seeing how the two can come together.
BBQgeek – In terms of base lining what your preferences are and also considering any influences you might have had along the way, what are your preferences in BBQ and who taught you that?
Blais – The only way I can talk through it is using what I’m getting, flavor-wise, from different barbeques without knowing specifically what is going on or even what region it is coming from. What I can tell you is that my favorite flavor that I associate with barbeque or barbeque sauce is more on the acidic side. It’s a more vinegary, in your face, sort of vinegar flavor. That’s more of a Carolina sort of thing, I think… but that’s not a knock on any other technique that I just haven’t had more experience with. One of the great things about BBQ and what I’d like to see personally is a fine dining touch. Taking something traditional but making it feel more like some other chefy-type meat. I would love to see more BBQ done like duck confit that‘s been barbequed or sweetbreads or some other unusual cut of meat that’s been smoked.
BBQgeek – Do you think that people would accept a BBQ restaurant that used different meats and offered different presentations?
Blais – I think so. I think the key is those flavors, whether it is smoky, spicy, sweet or acidic. I think it’s the flavors. I think at the end of the day, you can get the best of both worlds. If people in Atlanta would eat duck legs under the guise of BBQ, that would be a really neat thing. It’s actually something that makes me think that would be a pretty neat concept somewhere down here in the South to try and combine those two things. Maybe with some more of the fine dining ingredients and presentation…
BBQgeek – Speaking of that, you’ve been in some really great kitchens over your career, with regard to BBQ or smoked meats what have you seen in terms of creative presentations?
Blais – Well, you saw on the show with that little smoking gun, whether we encapsulated that smoke with a glass dome over a dish that has this barbeque smoked essence in it and then when you release the dome all that essence comes out, or whether it is Saran Wrap…I think that, as far as fine dining and presentation, that’s something that – although there are a few chefs that have done that – I don’t think we’ve gone down the full road of really exploring introducing the smoky flavors or the clear wrapped essences released into dishes that are totally encapsulated, like you are opening a box at the table…..Although liquid nitrogen is another advanced technique or ingredient that I could see being very applicable to a BBQ process as far as really cold smoking.
BBQgeek – Well, talk about that for a second. Do you think there is room for liquid nitrogen or foams or any of the molecular gastronomy techniques that you are familiar with in turning barbeque on its ear?
rB – Well, for example, pork belly or brisket that’s been cooking for two or three days in a sealed bag that doesn’t lose it’s juice, doesn’t dry out, and then be able to take that process and then still smoke and not lose the volume of the meat and not dry out and keep it in that environment…I’m surprised that there’s not anyone really doing that right now. And liquid nitrogen as well – especially when you are thinking about cold smoking. It’s a way to smoke meat or fish and not cook it, but really get some flavor on it. I could easily see a canister of nitrogen hooked up to the back of a smoker.
BBQgeek – In the bigger, more prestigious kitchens you’ve worked in does BBQ carry respect or do people look down on it? How is it viewed in those super kitchens?
rB – It’s respected for sure. I think one of the neatest things about working in one of those type kitchens is what the staff eats themselves or what the staff gets excited about eating. Even in NY City, you’ve got the Big Apple BBQ festival which just happened on June 7… you’re talking about blocks and blocks of people that can’t get enough of it. It’s one of those things that, there are other foods like it, but it’s the food you want to eat everyday. It’s the food that when you think about, “What do I want to eat tonight?” and you’re usually not saying “You know, what I really want is some celery foam with tea essence.” That’s not what you think about. It’s human nature. You think, “Wow. What I could really go for is some barbeque.” And you find that when you are hungry on a Sunday, it’s not uncommon for someone to go out and get some to-go boxes of barbeque, or hamburgers, tacos, or other food that’s got that taste of soul. That’s soul food. It’s definitely respected. And the further you come South, the more it’s respected.
BBQgeek – If you had to approach BBQ differently while still paying homage to its roots, what direction would you take it? I know you use coffee in your BBQ sauce at Home. What else do you think would work well in a BBQ sauce?
rB – One of my biggest interests is the Korean ketchup that I’ve been finding up on Buford Highway (a international neighborhood in metro Atlanta). It’s really neat ketchup a good amount of heat and a nice, acidic punch. That’s what I’m using with my sauce with the pork belly. I think that Korean food and Korean BBQ and really looking into what other cultures view as BBQ, to me , has opened up some pretty cool avenues.
BBQgeek – There’s been a fair amount of chatter on the Internet forums regarding your little electric smoker. How long have you been playing with that and who introduced you to it?
Blais – One of my cooks came up to me one day and said someone was using a vaporizer – that’s what it was being called then. We looked into it and found out it was something you would get at a smoke shop. We went and bought a few of those and played with it. Then we broke dozens and dozens of these little twenty dollar smokers that just weren’t built to be used the way we were using them. Other chefs were going through the same process. A few of them actually designed their own ones and some companies have come out with their own smoking guns. Polyscience is one company that I work with that, because of the success of the smoker on the show, have sent me a couple variations of the smoker. It kinda happened by a couple cooks just talking about it.
BBQgeek – Thanks for your time Richard. Good luck with the new restaurant and the new baby.
Blais – Thanks!