By the time Richard Blais began wooing the woman he later would marry, the quirky, risk-taking chef had gained more than 50 pounds while managing upscale restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia, and had lost much of his youthful athleticism.
His lax lifestyle posed another problem: His future wife was a personal trainer in top physical condition. “If you want to run with me,” she challenged Blais when he suggested they pursue the sport together, “you’ve got to keep up with me.”
“To get the girl, I had to make some changes,” says Blais, 41, a classically trained restaurateur, cookbook author and victor of Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars” TV competition in 2010. “I wanted to impress her, and I was also dealing with closing a restaurant, so these things sort of came together to kick-start what was my new healthy eating and fitness journey.”
He modified recipes, exercised regularly, lost the weight and won the girl. Blais now participates in the annual New York City Marathon and runs on behalf of the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Nation, which strives to reduce childhood obesity. He and wife Jazmin, who recently moved to Delmar, Calif., with their daughters Riley and Embry, are culinary adventurers who once spent 30 days abstaining from animal products, caffeine and alcohol.
“It was eye-opening,” he says. “It reset my whole palate and the way that I tasted food as a chef. When we broke our fast, we were at a Dodgers game in L.A. We got a hot dog and a Diet Pepsi, and [it was like] those were the sweetest and saltiest things we had ever tasted.”
Making people happy
Blais’ ultimate culinary goal “to make people happy” is what prompted the Uniondale, New York, native to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America two decades ago. “If you can make people laugh before they’ve tasted your food, make ’em smile while they’re eating it, and make ’em think about it after they’re done, then that’s success,” he says.
The chef often sketches ideas before trying them and frequently pushes the envelope on TV with his unpredictable, comedic style.
Making guests happy doesn’t require mounds of butter, sugar and salt, he points out. It just takes a little imagination. Blais suggests starting out by introducing healthful ingredients in unexpected places. “I don’t think deception is a bad thing when it comes to cooking healthy at home,” he says, “whether that’s grinding up some vegetables in a tomato sauce or folding a couple spoonfuls of quinoa into your meatballs.”
The holidays can quickly derail even the best eating habits, Blais acknowledges. To keep his own Thanksgiving dinner on track, he serves several types of roasted meats, lots of vegetables and a few salads. “Filling the table up with options—that’s the way to go,” he says.
Blais laughingly calls his favorite holiday recipe—mashed rutabagas—a “weird” one. “But we love that dish, and it’s literally just boiled rutabagas mashed with a fork and a little butter and salt and white pepper—super-simple but a dish that really comes out for us in the depths of winter or at the Thanksgiving table.”
A return to TV
The fun-loving Blais once again takes his whimsical style and cooking know-how to the small screen as host of “Cook Your A** Off,” a new competition with a healthy twist airing Dec. 1 on HLN at 6 p.m. Central. Each week, he’ll oversee as three well-known chefs visit restaurants, churches and truck stops, creating healthier versions of fattening dishes for a local resident grappling with a health or weight issue. A surprise “wild card” ingredient — or two — will challenge the chefs further. Celebrity judges will determine the winner.
“It’s a great fit for me because the story is mine. I’ve gone through the journey myself,” he says, referring both to the competing chefs and ordinary people who are struggling with the consequences of overeating. “I fit the shoes of everyone on our show.”
The program, which also features nutritionist Keri Glassman, is part of an interactive Turner Broadcasting System initiative called “upwave,” addressing all facets of healthy living, from fitness and skin care to sleep and positive thinking. After each episode of Blais’ show, viewers can go online, find makeover recipes, and follow participants’ ongoing efforts to transform their eating and cooking habits.
“Richard understands fundamentally what’s at stake for these chefs battling it out. And he understands food in a way that is unique but very approachable,” says Gabriella Messina, Upwave’s vice president of content and programming. “Couple those two things with his fun, dynamic and lovable personality, and we knew we had a winner in a host.”
“It’s not preachy, but you’re gonna learn a lot about things that you can to do to eat better and cook better,” Blais says of the show. “It’s a great cooking show that actually can help people.”
Chef Richard Blais offers these tips for eating right during the holidays:
• Create a “veggie-centric” menu. “Vegetables are not just on the side of the plate anymore. They’re at the center of the plate,” Blais says. “During the holidays, making sure there are fresh vegetables and greens on the table is the key.”
• Serve whole foods with fresh, unprocessed ingredients.
• Make slight adaptations to classic holiday fare. Cook collard greens with olive oil, lemon and garlic instead of bacon. Leave the marshmallows off the sweet potatoes. Use half the sugar specified in recipes.
• Serve lean meats and eat them in smaller portions. A turkey breast is probably a better selection than glazed ham with pineapple and brown sugar.
• Eat in moderation and keep up your fitness regimen. “Exercise,” Blais says, “can offset a lot of things.”