Richard Blais Talks To Us About Next Level Chef And Gives Tips For Eating Healthy - Exclusive Interview

Chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Richard Blais has been a fixture on the television food scene since he first competed on "Top Chef" in 2008. He came in second in his first appearance, but bested the competition in "Top Chef All-Stars." After that, he started regularly showing up in contestant, judge, and guest-star roles in just about every type of food show you could think of. One of his most recent gigs is as a judge/mentor on "Next Level Chef" alongside Gordon Ramsay and Nyesha Arrington. The three mentors try to coach teams of cooks to victory as they compete in harrowing challenges on a massive, three-tiered set.

In preparation for the premiere of "Next Level Chef" Season 3 on January 28, we spoke to Blais about his approach to the show and got him to share some on-set stories. We also talked with him about his most recent cookbook "Plant Forward," and he gave us some tips about how to eat healthy in the new year.

What's new in Season 3

So, leading off here, I'm just curious if there's anything new in Season 3 that fans should be excited about.

Definitely. New this season is an audition process, so I'm quite excited to see it. I was quite excited to experience it, and as a viewer of competition shows and a big fan myself, I love audition episodes. I think the heartbeat of our show is the amazing cast we have, so to open that up and see even more potential cast members fight their way to make it to the draft is really, really exciting. The first three episodes will be auditions, and you literally could feel the energy on each floor during the audition process, so it was a really, really great way to kick off season three.

It looked really chaotic.

It is a chaotic show, in general. I will say even when I watched the trailer for it, my heartbeat raced a little bit watching it, because it seems once you drop a little bit of audio in there and then you see what's happening on the other floors, that it can be a stressful experience, but a good one. I've never seen a trailer that's pumped me up so much as the one for season three. I mean it's got blood, sweat, tears, and Gordon Ramsay, so we're in for it.

How Blais compares to the other mentors

Something that Gordon mentioned in the trailer, as well, is that you are the only mentor who hasn't won yet. Did you fine-tune your strategy this year to try to secure a win?

Yeah, well listen, I'm a competitor. Gordon's a competitor. So is Nyesha. I'm always trying to win. It's an inside "Next Level Chef" moment, but I was talking to someone about how now that I know Gordon and Nyesha more, I am definitely working with my mentees and my team to cook a little bit more specifically for who they're cooking for. I know, as an example, that Gordon is all about precision when it comes to meat cookery and proteins, so I have that in the back of my mind when someone is cooking. I know that Nyesha is all about commitment and authenticity, so I'm thinking about my co-hosts and other mentors while I'm teaching my team, for sure.

Who would you say is the most competitive coach on set?

Wow, that's tough, because we all three are really, really competitive. It is not rare to find Nyesha and myself battling it out in ping-pong between moments at our lunchtime. Instead of eating lunch we battle in ping-pong, or on the golf course, or in the gym. 

All of that being said, Mr. Gordon Ramsay is the real deal when it comes to intensity. He is a competitive guy. He doesn't really need to be, does he? But you understand right away why he's great, and it's because of how intense he is and how competitive he is in every which way. Listen, I haven't won yet, like you said, but I think I have better hair. I think that I possibly can take Gordon down early on this season in hairstyles.

You certainly win the vertical battle there.

Thank you. Even you are too kind to officially anoint me as a winner, though. You're like, "You win on verticality. That's it. You don't get the full award."

I don't want to get on Gordon's bad side.

Fair play. Fair play.

The different types of contestants on Next Level Chef

One thing I thought was interesting is that you pulled contestants from three spaces: restaurants, social media, and home cooks. Did you notice differences between the three backgrounds?

Yeah, I mean they all have their advantages and their potential disadvantages. A social media cook usually knows how to present good food. They also know how to probably articulate and present themselves really, really quickly and well to the mentor or in front of the mentors. They know about beautiful stuff. They might not be really great with timing, though, because they're setting up their ring lights and getting everything ready to go on social media, and they might take seven takes or 10 takes and we just don't have that time.

The pro chef obviously knows how to move fast in a restaurant-style kitchen. The pro chef can move really, really fast, might be very acclimated to the pace, but the pro chef usually gets the ingredients that they want. They make specific orders. They only shop at a certain place. So the disadvantage for the pro chef is they might not get what they want in the show.

And then the home cook. The home cook knows the hardest thing to do as a cook, and that is to make your loved ones happy, and if most people's families are like mine, the loved ones are the most critical people, usually, in your life. So a home cook really knows, "I have to make this delicious. It's tried and true. I make it for my family. I make it for my church group." Whatever it is.

So they all have these advantages, and they all have disadvantages.

Why his experience as a contestant helps him be a mentor

You have a pretty extensive experience as a contestant on competition shows, as well. Do you think that influences how you coach and judge?

I think it makes me the best mentor. Listen, we are premiering after the NFC Championship on Fox, and I actually don't know what network he's a pundit on, but I'm the Tony Romo of cooking contestant judges. I think he's a great pundit by the way, and I think it helps to be in the contestant's shoes, for sure. And very much like Tony Romo, I have not won yet.

But you've been there before.

But I've been there before. No, and I do think it really helps. I was just talking to someone else, there's a moment where a lot of contestants, sometimes they black out. They're doing it, they're in the moment, their heart rate is fast, the lights are on, Gordon Ramsay is there, all this sort of stuff, and I think this year I'm going to really be working on that, trying to notice that right away. I see it in myself, just calming people down to compete.

It's almost like a counselor role. Do you have any strategy for talking people down in that moment?

I think there is sort of the trope that I am the middle school, science teacher, guidance counselor of the three of us. Which is good, I guess. Listen, it's good to have a cool teacher. If I'm cool. See, I'm the teacher that thinks he's cool but isn't.

I think you're cool.

Oh, thanks.

How to eat more vegetables

The other thing I wanted to ask about is you recently published "Plant Forward," which is about healthy-ish eating. We're in the time of year when many people resolve to make certain transformations. As somebody who went through a major health transformation yourself, what's the first thing you'd advise somebody to do who's looking to make a big change like that?

Yeah, well listen, we're two weeks into January, so a lot of people have already stopped, so my first advice is don't give up. It's a journey, not a destination, whatever you're trying to change. It doesn't have to be health and wellness, or fitness, or weight loss. But I think when it does come to eating more vegetables, it's simple: just eat more vegetables. Here's my secret take on it. It's all about sauce. Right? Take whatever your favorite pasta sauce is, bolognese. Well, instead of meat, grind up some mushrooms, carrots, and onions, and you'll still have bolognese. You'll still approach it and realize that it's bolognese.

I just did a broccoli carbonara at home for my kids the other day. Broccoli with cheese and bacon, yes, I'm here for it. That's the first way. Eat more vegetables and sort of use some of your favorite sauces to go with these vegetables.

The broccoli carbonara, was it broccoli in place of the pasta?

Yeah. Again, it's not to replace carbonara, but it's just using the flavors of carbonara or whatever, pepperoni pizza, whatever your favorite flavors are, using those to season your vegetables. To me, that is a really great 101 tip to get people to maybe, who don't like cauliflower or broccoli, to give them a try.

Blais' favorite healthy ingredient substitutions

Relatedly, what are some of your favorite healthier ingredient substitutions?

Yeah. I'm a big yogurt swap guy, so yogurt for maybe a cream sauce or something that's got lots of mayonnaise in it, that's always a good one. People get mad at me, I think, sometimes, but I like the vegan cheese. I like the alternative meats that are out there. I like all of that sort of stuff. Even if that's not all you eat, just work it into your health and wellness plan here and there. It doesn't have to be, "I only eat alternative beef." No. Eat a cheeseburger. But every once in a while, maybe try a mushroom burger or an alternative beef burger.

Yeah, it's not about cutting everything out all the time because that's how you just give up.

A hundred percent. I have a steakhouse. I can't say, "only eat vegetables" because I have a steakhouse, and I have to mentor our chefs on "Next Level Chef" through all three levels, regardless of what the challenge is. I have to eat everything regardless of whether I want to or not.

The challenges of being a food show judge

That brings up an interesting question: How do you approach the eating part of judging so that your palate doesn't get blown out? Do you have to eat a ton of food by the end of the day?

You do. Right now I would say that I'm sort of purging, getting ready for our next season. But you do, and you mentioned fatigue, which is like your palate getting blown out. That is a really good question, because especially early on in these auditions, we are tasting lots of food. You have to take the marathoner's mentality of being an eater. There are a lot of times when there's a delicious plate in front of us, but we can't sit off to the side and eat a whole steak, so it's a couple of bites to get the judgment through and then to move along. But it is more challenging than people think to have to eat a lot of food and then also have to have the depth of vocabulary to describe it so that you're not just saying, "It needs salt, it needs acidity," or whatever it is.

Are you just eating celery sticks and baby carrots the rest of the day to get through it?

I wish. No. I still love to sit down and have eating experiences, to have a nice lunch. I will say that, yes, sometimes because we eat so much, I'm playing ping-pong during lunch with Nyesha instead of chowing down on a sandwich. But, no, I love the process of sitting down and having a great meal.

I know you gave up alcohol and soda and all of that stuff as part of your health transformation. In honor of Dry January, do you have any interesting booze-free beverages that you find yourself returning to?

Oh, well listen, I think we're in a great time for that, because the mocktail has been with us for a few years, and I think you can get lots of great mixology done without adding any alcohol to it, so it's a great time for it. I am a sucker for sparkling beverages, so seltzer of all different sorts. Listen, if you squeeze a lime and crush some mint into a seltzer, you're pretty much at mojito. There are lots of ways. Citrus is one. A twist of lime, twist of lemon here and there, and some sparkling water does it for me.

Tips for beginner home cooks

What are some dishes that you'd recommend for somebody who's a novice to have a good experience in the kitchen as a beginner?

Sure. Well, it's a couple of answers for you here. One is, I think if you like pasta like I do, it's a great way to start with some classic pasta dishes. Just do a quick little research on Rome and the five Roman pasta sauces and Italian food, a lot of it, you only need a couple of ingredients. It's basement-level-ease, but when you do it well, it's top-floor results. I would start right there. If you like pasta, start with some simple pasta dishes. But I would say this, I would love to do a "Next Level Chef: Home Edition" show.

Now, listen, I don't think we're going to be able to move that platform around the country and take it into your backyard, although it could be the next bouncy house. I mean, I could see this replacing the bouncy house for kids' parties. But I think people should play these types of games at home. What I mean by that is set the clock for 20 minutes, come home, maybe have your whole family play together. You don't have to be competitive unless you're like my family and then you want to really, really be competitive. And then just open up the fridge and you're done at 25 minutes. Now, you're not running to a platform. You don't have Gordon or Nyesha or myself running behind you acting like lunatics, but you'll get a little sense of how challenging it can be. If you want to up the ante a little bit, go to your neighbor's house, where you don't know where things are, open up their fridge. Tell them you're going to come over first, just to be clear.

And then you're trying to figure out where their knives and spatulas are.

Yeah. But that's how I cook at home, too. I'm the cleaner. We didn't buy a lot of ingredients. We're not getting takeout. Can you cook a meal for us? And open up the fridge and just go for it. There's something fun about that. The improv of cooking like that is fun.

Like any other creative thing, the limitations can breed creativity, right?

A hundred percent. That's why I think the basement is the best place to be on "Next Level Chef" sometimes. You have no other choice but to just do it. You have to come up with an idea, and usually they do.

A caviar hot take

Are you more impressed by what people do in the basement than what people do up at the Michelin level or the top level of the set?

Wow. I mean, I think you see great dishes on both sides, but I do think that there's a freedom, like we've been talking about, in the basement sometimes. Although, spoiler alert, I feel like it's a little tougher this year. It's season three. I don't know how many half-eaten sandwiches are making it down to the basement level, but maybe. But maybe.

I saw that you hosted a podcast where you judged food debates, and it made me wonder, what's your hottest culinary take?

Oh, man. What is my hottest culinary take? That's a good question. I feel like I just had this answer. My spiciest culinary take, it's a little bit deep, but I don't like salmon caviar.

I think salmon caviar is too fishy. I think people use it to just make things pretty. It is pretty, but there's too much. We're putting too much salmon caviar on things. I apologize. I just lost all my salmon caviar endorsement possibilities.

So you say sturgeon but no salmon.

That's right. 

"Next Level Chef" premiers on Fox January 28 at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT. Subsequent episodes will air Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT