When Man Cave Daily wants to send you to a burger lunch cooked by Richard Blais and sponsored by Amstel Light, in conjunction with the official Battle of the Burger, you say yes. If we’re getting super-specific, you respond to your editor’s request for a writer to attend — three seconds after you receive his email — with the word ME and no fewer than five exclamation points. I am a paradigm of professionalism.
So anyway, that’s how I found myself at Broome Street’s Tasting Table at 1:30 on a sticky-hot Wednesday afternoon, clutching a glass of liquid gold in the form of Amstel Light and chatting it up with Mr. Blais himself.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; you’ll have to wait to hear about Blais’ “definitely try this at home” kitchen blowtorch techniques. First, there was lunch. And what a lunch it was.
I, along with a motley crew of press, foodies and one potentially homeless man who had snuck in (kidding) was seated at a long wooden table for a family-style meal (with a little help from the beer, we had all become best friends forever). In the middle of the table were buckets of Amstel on ice, along with big bowls of homemade pickled radishes and celery, strawberries and various condiments.
And folks, these were no ordinary condiments. Between the umami ketchup, beer mustard and sri-rancha (Yep. Exactly what it sounds like: homemade ranch stirred into a frenzy with a healthy dose of Sriracha hot sauce. Totally swoon-worthy), I was pretty sure I had died and gone to burger heaven.
As for the burger itself, it was gussied up with the obligatory tender-juicy rings of tomato, thick, fatty slices of braised bacon, a healthy amount of melted cheddar cheese and cooked to a perfectly precise rare, so pink it made me blush.
Ever heard of iceberg carpaccio? Me neither, but I’m pretty certain it’s about to blow up (you heard it hear first, ‘kay?). A cross section of unfussy lettuce, chilled and dressed with creamy blue cheese and hunks of the blue-veined stuff, plus ripe avocado and more bacon.
Big plates piled high with vidalia onion rings were placed at intervals on the table and I, being
smart lucky enough to have situated myself directly in front of a beer bucket, found the onion rings within arm’s reach as well. As far as onion rings go, these were a pretty big deal. I mean, I’ve eaten a lot of them in my day, and most I’ve known have been completely forgettable. These ones were epically light and sweet with a shattering crunch and a showering of salt. They went great with the beer. I ate a lot of them. I am not ashamed.
As if we hadn’t already been lulled into a near-comatose state (I found myself swaying slightly at the table, my head dangerously close to resting in the crook of my neighbor’s neck), there was dessert: cardamom buttermilk panna cotta, toasted cornbread, blueberry compote and tarragon. I know that all sounds like a whole lot of words that mean little to you and your interests, but let me assure you they are very relevant to your interests. The panna cotta ate like a cool, smooth pudding, the herbaceous tarragon brought it back to the precarious and oh-so-exciting line of sweet-not sweet, and the cornbread added some nice texture and give. Oh, and did I mention the shy dribbles of extra virgin olive oil, the spare large flakes of salt? People, if you are not putting olive oil and salt on your cardamom panna cotta, the time to start is now.
After lunch, someone made a terrible mistake and I was allowed to sit down with Blais for a ten-minute interview. Now, I am aware that I was sent on behalf of the Man Cave Daily, not the geeked-out fangirl blog, but whatever. As the fine folks over at the Cave named my column Sex in the Kitchen, I found it necessary to open the interview by inquiring as to whether Blais has ever, um, done that. (Note to my editor: I am sorry but you have no one to blame but yourself for this).
The verdict? Well, it’s kind of unclear. He wanted to know whether I meant home kitchen (totally hot) or restaurant kitchen (totally hotter and also definitely against food safety requirements). I’m pretty sure he was joking, so NYC health department officials, please do not investigate this further.
Actually, it does sound like his wife, Jazmin, has a sweet deal. I asked about the most romantic meal he’s ever cooked her, and he immediately brought to mind the first dinner he ever made for the two of them: veal marsala — though he substituted sherry wine — with roasted potatoes and garlic-laced spinach. You know, everyday, average-guy type food. There was also red wine in glasses that were “definitely on their sides by the end of the night.” …The glasses, you say?
“I really care what she thinks about my food,” he explained. “Also, I’m high-anxiety so I’m sure it was awkward.” This, coming from the man who won Top Chef All-Stars. Yes. I’m sure it was super awkward.
Does he ever totally screw it up in the kitchen? With what one can only assume is mock-modesty, he detailed a recent meal cooked on a new grill that turned out to have all the nuance of a smoke-bomb. “Everything tasted like smoky grill. It was the worst meal ever.” Perhaps he should have used lighter fluid (ha-ha) to get things going? With a vehement shake of his head, he denied ever touching the stuff, though he did have a great story involving his father who is a “hippie-sort of guy” and once caught his hair on fire in a lighter fluid accident. Blais also recalled, with a dreamy sort of look in his eyes, burgers made by his uncle that had been dredged in beer before getting the grill treatment. 12-year-old him was psyched to be consuming beer, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some subconscious influence at play as I thought back to the beer mustard from lunch.
But enough reminiscing — you guys want the fun stuff, right? I then asked Blais what foodie words he hated (HOW’S THAT FOR FUN!?). To get him started, I offered “unctuous,” which is obnoxious, and “mouthfeel,” which is just gross. He agreed, adding in “orgasmic” and “sex in the mouth.” Yeah, we’re with you. Can the Man Cave take an official stance against this? I’ll get a petition started.
With seasonality and farm influence so pervasive in our food landscape, I had to ask: how important is it to him to cook with in-season and responsibly-farmed ingredients? Very, though he admits that there’s a definite increase in cost that gets translated to the customer in restaurant settings. “It’s more laborious to work with,” he said, citing carrots with their tops intact as an example, “so that can be tough for home cooks who don’t have the capacity of a restaurant. But hopefully [restaurant] guests understand.” I think I speak for all of us when I say that if it involves braised bacon and umami ketchup, we understand. “[Cooking is] always about quality product,” he said.
For those of you who are into quality product and creating your own onion ring-sri-rancha-iceberg carpaccio adventure at home but don’t have the resources of a celebrity chef, is there hope? “Absolutely. You don’t need fancy equipment,” Blais explained. “And you probably already have everything you’d require when cooking. Choose 4 to 5 good ingredients, prepare them simply and have some fun. Get out the blowtorch.”
“Yes! Seriously.” as I scribbled furiously in my notebook, Blais went on to admit that further instruction might be needed for this process, and that he’d be happy to give us step-by-step instructions. So, Man Cave folks, I’m game for a round two interview if you want this information. Just say the word, and I will be there with the fire extinguisher.
To wrap things up, I asked for a selfie with Blais because I am awkward as hell. Getting a good shot proved difficult because
I was drunk cell phone cameras are hard, so I eventually asked someone else to take the photo as I held my arm out in front of my body like it wasn’t the weirdest thing in the world. If you ever find yourself in the precarious situation of needing to fake a selfie, I really do recommend this method.
And I really, really do recommend sri-rancha, as well. You can fake it with store-bought versions of the two ingredients and blow people’s minds at your next barbecue. It’ll be totally orgasmic invigorating.
Rochelle Bilow is a food and wine writer who cooks with lard. To read more of her meandering thoughts on eating and drinking, visit her website at rochellebilow.com or follow her on Twitter @RochelleBilow.