While Richard Blais is best known these days as a James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author, “Top Chef All-Stars” winner and co-hosting Fox’s “Next Level Chef,” longtime Atlanta diners will fondly recall his years spent here in the early 2000s. He first hit town taking a job as executive chef at Fishbone in 2001. By 2004, at his eponymous Buckhead eatery, he was introducing adventurous Atlantans to foie gras milkshakes, liquid nitrogen margaritas, Dr. Pepper braised short ribs and Tang-accented desserts. After a stint at One Midtown Kitchen, he would go on to be the creative director of the Flip Burger Boutique chain here.
These days, in addition to his busy TV schedule and podcasts, Blais oversees his Four Flamingos restaurants in Orlando and Key West, Ember & Rye in Carlsbad, CA, Juniper and Ivy in San Diego and multiple locations of The Crack Shack.
With his wife Jazmin Blais, a yoga instructor who holds a master’s in public health from Emory University, Blais has now written “Plant Forward: 100 Bold Recipes for a Mostly Healthy Lifestyle” (Victory Belt Publishing, $39.95), out today. Richard first met Jazmin when he was the chef at Fishbone and she was the bar manager. In 2005, following the untimely flameout of Blais in Buckhead, Jazmin got Richard moving again — literally. With her help, Blais mostly eliminated his late-night fast food diet, dropped 70 pounds and started running four miles with her daily. After successfully completing the Peachtree Road Race on July 4, 2005, Blais pulled out a ring and proposed to Jazmin.
“I kinda blacked out and cried but she’s wearing the ring so I think she said yes!” Blais quipped to me back when I was writing the Peach Buzz column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I wanted the proposal to be symbolic of our life together.”
These days the couple is raising two teenage daughters in Southern California but in “Plant Forward’s” acknowledgements, Richard traces the roots of the project back to a hill in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. He writes, “This book at some point was called, ‘My wife saved my life,’ and it still is to me internally and eternally. There was a time on a hill in Piedmont Park, Atlanta where my eyes were filled with tears, my bank account empty —negative, actually — and my physical, emotional and mental state was at best, on edge. You, Jazmin, decided to stick by my side not during the best of times, but the most uncertain of them. Your unwavering support and invaluable contribution to my journey and our family’s toward a healthier and happier life will never be lost on me.”
In the following conversation with Eldredge ATL, Jazmin and Richard Blais discuss the development of the “healthier” recipes in “Plant Forward,” their former hometown’s new distinction as a Michelin Guide destination city and how Atlanta continues to play a valuable role in their relationship.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Eldredge ATL: Richard, I love how in your acknowledgements to Jazmin at the end of the book, you reference that hill in Piedmont Park and take readers back to the origins of this project. Why was it important for you to include that?
Richard: It’s where the story started. This was back after we closed Blais and it just felt like the end of everything. It was a deep depressing moment. There’s a lot of emotion in this book. Yes, it’s a cookbook but it’s a little deeper than that and when folks read the acknowledgment, they’ll see that.
Jazmin: I think we aimlessly drove around for a while and we ended up at Piedmont Park. We were trying to exercise the stress out. We ended up sitting down and that’s where we hashed out the plan for our life in that moment.
Richard: I like to use the morel [mushroom] in the forest analogy. A morel doesn’t grow unless there’s a forest fire.
Eldredge ATL: When I dug up that old Peach Buzz column from the summer of 2005, I realized there’s a through-line from your marriage proposal to this book. How did the two of you come up with the concept for “Plant Forward”?
Richard: The book came about because this is the type of food we cook at home.
Jazmin: I worked with Richard on his two other cookbooks. My role there was to add his voice a little bit more to some of the head notes and being the arbiter on the Blais voice. This one felt very organic, very authentic. My mom got a copy of the book and said, “I know all of these recipes!” We eat them. This is how we live.
Eldredge ATL: One of the things I love about this book is Richard’s honesty. He talks about feeding people at Blais, who would wait months for a reservation and then he would hit a fast food drive-thru on the way home from work. Jazmin, how do you get those people where Richard was 20 years ago, to take that first step?
Richard: I have not thought about the Taco Bell on Ponce in so long.
Jazmin: (laughs) The way we look at it, it’s really about the marginal gain, the incremental change. It’s about the small things you can do. I remember when I first met Richard, he was drinking Coca-Cola and apple juice and all of this empty calorie stuff. If you can cut that out right away, that’s one step. The whole book is really dedicated to saying, “Hey, if you can swap out this one thing in this recipe…” Maybe it’s a change from regular pasta to gluten-free noodles. All of those small things add up.
Richard: We’re not health and wellness gurus. I’m not David Goggins telling you to run an ultra-marathon.
Eldredge ATL: I’ll be honest, when I got the advance copy of the book and started flipping through it, I thought, ‘Oh god, has Blais become one of those people?” Then I got to the ranch dressing recipe and it calls for two tablespoons of bacon drippings. I was relieved. How did you decide to create this happy medium?
Richard: The easy answer is also the authentic one. We’re not those people. From a financial perspective, we probably should be because those books do well. But I’m still a restaurant chef. I’m still doing dry-aged wagyu standing rib roast at my steakhouse. To then write a book saying don’t eat meat doesn’t make much sense. My personal go-to is protein and veg. If you can do that with a condiment that doesn’t have a lot of sugar, you’re going to be in a good spot.
Eldredge ATL: As the parents of two teens, what’s your advice for parents who want to introduce these plant forward recipes to their kids who might be picky eaters?
Richard: When they were younger, I discovered deception is your best friend. You can grind up carrots and kale and put it in a tomato sauce and no one will know. When they become teenagers, it becomes about balance.
Jazmin: It’s about offering options. If you don’t have it on the table, they’re not going to select it. If he’s cooking a big piece of protein, yes, let’s have that but then let’s also have a salad, a hot vegetable, some greens or whatever.
Eldredge ATL: For Atlantans who dined in one of your restaurants here in the early 2000s, there are fun flashes of that guy in this book. The tomato-watermelon poke bowl is one of those recipes. Was it fun to dip into that a little bit?
Richard: It always is. And thank you and the 24 other people who remember those restaurants! It’s fun when you have those moments, I hate to say restaurant chef moments, but when you’re like, compressed watermelon looks like tuna. Tuna makes great poke. Why not try this, adding soy and ginger but with watermelon and tomato? What I’ve learned though, is if you only do that, then it’s really hard. To live in that world all the time is almost impossible. In this book, we’re saying a steak with some potatoes on the side is also fine. And maybe that’s the lesson for me as well about why some of my restaurants failed in Atlanta. I wasn’t able to just put a steak with some spinach on a plate and be OK with it. That’s what people want. I think this is now a therapy session, Rich!
Jazmin: (laughs) The grilled carrot hot dog in the book is also a call back to those days. I love that substitute swap out. It’s never left him.
Richard: There’s always the small percentage of people who want that. There’s probably going to be someone who picks up this book and says, “Aw, there’s no liquid nitrogen in here!”
Eldredge ATL: There’s no photo of you wearing goggles.
Richard: Right! Liquid nitrogen is calorie-free. I’m just throwing that out there.
Eldredge ATL: (laughs) I don’t think I’ve ever uttered this phrase before so bear with me — I want to cook this entire cauliflower chapter. I’m in for all of it — the cauliflower and coconut soup, the roasted whole head, the jerk steaks. But for some, cauliflower remains a much-maligned vegetable. How did these recipes come into being?
Richard: This book really started during the pandemic so a lot of these recipes started with, “I’m bored in the backyard. Let’s throw a whole cauliflower on the grill and see what happens.”
Jazmin: Cauliflower has had a bit of a glow up. One thing we had to think about with this cookbook, is it’s not just going to California and New York. We wanted vegetables people could find anywhere. Cauliflower is super versatile and it’s also vitamin and mineral-dense.
Richard: There’s a photo of baby carrots in this book. I love it and I hate it. But there’s baby carrots in our fridge. It is authentic. Our kids eat them raw in their lunches. Sometimes, we throw them on the stove and cook them. The restaurant chef part of me is never going to buy a vegetable that looks like little barrels. But we want the book to be for everyone and also for it to be authentic to us.
Eldredge ATL: I think the pandemic brought out everyone’s ingenuity in the kitchen when we had certain ingredients at home and we had to figure out how to make things work. It sounds like that’s how the chickpea “tuna” salad in the book came about as well?
Richard: Yeah, it was my first TikTok post. That one was very pandemic. I just said, “I’m going to open a TikTok account and try to make tuna salad out of chickpeas.”
Eldredge ATL: My relationship with kale as a salad ingredient remains a work in progress. Jazmin, in the book you recommend massaging the kale. What are the benefits?
Jazmin: The benefits of massage for everyone are huge (Richard laughs). But for kale in particular, it breaks down the cellulose a little bit. If you’ve ever eaten a big kale salad and about halfway through, you’re literally tired from chewing it? It’s work. It’s also not the best mouth feel when it’s that much work. Kales needs to be softened and broken down a bit.
Richard: As a restaurant chef, I’m jealous of Jazmin’s Everyday Kale Salad recipe in the book. It’s three ingredients, it’s delicious, our kids love it. Any time you can take things away and make it simpler but still taste amazing? I’m in. Jazmin has completely sold me on massaging kale.
Eldredge ATL: Jazmin, it sounds like you’ve evolved on green smoothies. I’m not there yet. Can you talk about how you developed the recipe in the book?
Jazmin: I’m not a green juice drinker. I really wish I was, especially living in California. It’s very popular here. I’m a yoga teacher so I should like them but I don’t. My solution is to add green ingredients into a fruit-forward smoothie.
Eldredge ATL: Last week, Atlanta became a Michelin Guide city for the first time. Richard, I consider you, along with many others, as someone who helped to build out our city’s culinary infrastructure. What are your thoughts on Atlanta’s new distinction?
Richard: That’s kind of you to say. I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I have not seen the full list but I’m so happy for the city and for people like Kevin Gillespie. It’s about time. People still don’t quite understand how great a city like Atlanta is and how great the chefs there are. Whether it’s Kevin, Anne Quatrano, Pano Karatassos, you name it. It’s such a rich food city.
Jazmin: We moved away nine or ten years ago now but I was so pumped to see all of the names — Bacchanalia, General Muir, Miller Union — all of these amazing restaurants doing amazing things. Ten years in this industry is a lifetime and many of those restaurants have been doing this for twice that. I feel like it gives us such cred to have been from there.
Eldredge ATL: I once had the great pleasure of interviewing Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and I asked the president and the first lady about their experiences co-authoring a book together. Mrs. Carter didn’t hesitate when I asked if she would write another book with her husband. She told me, “No, because I would like to stay married to Jimmy.” I’ll pose the same question to the two of you.
Jazmin: (laughs) We would, absolutely. We work really well together. We’ve been doing this now for 20-something years. It works well. It’s not always easy. I think for either of us, it’s tough to be the taskmaster, to put on the boss hat and say, “Hey, I need those pages tomorrow.”
Richard: Definitely. I even mention in the acknowledgements, I’m ready to do another one together. In the celebrity chef world, this is the hardest thing. Restaurants are hard. They’re brutal. But the cookbooks are so much more work. The joy of it is this moment, when it’s done and you get to go on tour. Jazmin put in so much of the hard work on this. We’re hoping when we’re on tour, the inspiration will come for the next one. And yes, before you ask, we would love to do a tour stop in Atlanta. We’ve got to get back. We miss it, we love it and the people and the culture there.
Jazmin and Richard Blais’ “Plant Forward” is in stores now. Jazmin and Richard will sign copies Wednesday, Nov. 1 at the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca, New York City at 6:30 pm. For details on the rest of the dates on the couple’s book tour, visit Richard’s official website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.