Just in case you haven't noticed, Richard Blais has been on the road constantly since his departure from Home in early September. But you can keep up with him on his eponymous blog here. It's well written and entertaining.
As Besha noted earlier, Blais' departure from Home was no surprise to his longtime fans and viewers of his performance on Bravo's "Top Chef". While he brought his usual wit and deconstructive style to the Southern cooking at Home, it was clear that he wasn't expressing the usual depth of his imagination.
Explanations for his departure from Home in the AJC were courteous but said little about what we all knew was likely the issue: artistic freedom. Blais laid things out quite clearly in a blog post written the day after he resigned:
As an artist, its all about creative control. Its all that matters (at least when it can afford to be all that matters), and the constant struggle between an owners view, and a chefs perspective, has strained me to the point of re-focusing my efforts elsewhere.
Its time to work for myself, and its a liberating feeling.
I have my current commitments to Bravo/NBC, my creative consulting company Trail Blais and my young family to keep me more than busy.
What made my decision very easy were a few uncomfortable meetings, where it was obvious that ownership didnt value what I brought to the table and were insistent on a very archaic outlook of my position. HOME valued my physical time only, of which at times was limited because of prior commitments. When entering into this partnership, I laid out my full slate of commitments and everything was checked off on and approved. But in theory and in practice are two different things, I guess.
Read the entire post here.
Artistic freedom is an issue raised constantly by chefs at all levels not just by celebrity chefs like Blais. Sometimes, they fight with management over cost of first-rate ingredients. Other times, it's about the "vision thing." Sometimes, it's the grim reality that the public doesn't appreciate the "edgy" work of particularly creative chefs. That, I'm afraid, is part of the reason Chefs Guenter Seeger, Sotohiro Kosugi and Joel Antunes left our city. Blais himself left Atlanta for a stint in Miami at one point.
Part of the strange, even ironic situation with Home's closing is that owner Tom Catherall, with whom Blais apparently conflicted, made his name in Atlanta as one of our city's most inventive chefs, starting with Azalea in 1990, followed by Tom Tom at Lenox Square. Azalea was really the city's first fusion restaurant and a rare chef-driven one. I had many memorable meals there, including some by guest chefs like Stephan Pyles.
I'm not sure that Catherall's cuisine was as edgy in its time as Blais' version of molecular gastronomy is now, but it's certainly true that both chefs, um, blazed new trails in our city's culinary life. It might have been cool to see them work out a less compromising compromise rather than terminate their association.
I do remember that Catherall, the Azalea chef, ended his business partnership with Todd Kane, the businessman, when he opened Tom Tom. I have no idea if artistic freedom was an issue.
We are lucky to have some very gifted chefs in Atlanta, and I hope more choose to stick around like Blais. I find myself already urging people to waste no time trying the cooking of Bruce Logue at La Pietra Cucina and David Sweeney of Dynamic Dish. I have no reason other than gastronomical paranoia to expect them to leave Atlanta or change venues ... but it does happen a lot.
About 25 years ago, I wrote a brief photo-essay for the AJC on the city's first restaurant, Nikolai's Roof, to receive a four-star rating from the Mobil Guide. The opening chef was the late Heinz Schwab, who went on to open Hedgerose Heights. (He had worked as Anne Cox Chambers' personal chef.) Schwab told me he was shocked how easy it was at the time to manipulate Atlanta diners. A complex, labor-intensive dish would easily be outsold by any dish that he garnished with a piece of lobster. (I've heard this same example from other chefs.)
We've certainly evolved beyond that. Blais makes the point in the post cited above that the city is really ready once again for restaurants that depart from the norm, if only owners get savvy:
For the first time, it is clear to me, that I am in the position where the guests threshold of creativity has reached a parallel with a successful business model. Meaning I think Atlanta is ready for a restaurant that stretches. I know that if it is going to happen in Atlanta, its going to happen soon.
I'm glad to see Blais speaking out about these issues. It feels to me like he's committed to seeing our culinary scene take another step in its evolution. Maybe that comes with marriage, a new baby and getting a huge thumbs-up from the entire country for his imaginative cooking. I'm just glad he's talking.
(Photo of Richard Blais by James Camp. Tom Maicon of Atlanta Cuisine writes a good summary of Blais' career prior to Home here.)
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