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Richard Blais Opens a Restaurant in Paradise
Broken Palate talks to the chef at the opening of his Key West restaurant, Four Flamingos
Most of the world was introduced to Richard Blais on Top Chef, where the chef showed his prowess in the cooking competition’s fourth season, where he was a finalist. Blais returned for season eight of Top Chef All-Stars to finally take the win. The CIA graduate, who continued his training at the French Laundry, Daniel, Chez Panisse, and el Bulli, is now a James Beard-nominated cookbook author, hosts two podcasts (Food Court and Starving for Attention), and recently opened Ember & Rye in Carlsbad, California and Four Flamingos in Orlando and now Key West.
The restaurant, located directly on the water, is simply gorgeous. Diners should plan to arrive in time to grab a cocktail at the bar to take outside and watch Key West’s famed sunsets before sitting down to dinner (the dining room also has great sunset vistas).
At Four Flamingos, Blais offers a menu of favorite items with a distinct Floridian twist, as evidenced in items like Key West pink ceviche (made with local Key West pink shrimp) and homemade cavatelli with a conch bolognese.
Broken Palate sat down with Blais to ask about his influences, his affinity to Florida, and his obsession with Wes Anderson.
Broken Palate: You’ve opened Four Flamingos in Orlando and now Key West. As a native New Yorker. can you share what Florida means to you?
Richard Blais: I’m a native New Yorker so I’m an East Coaster, although I spend most of my time on the West Coast now. But any East Coaster finds their way to Florida.
BP: It’s the sixth borough.
RB: I just say Southern New York. But yes. I grew up with these experiences of driving down to Disneyworld and my mother would stop to grab oranges from someone’s tree. I probably shouldn’t say that, but she’s passed. My wife is a Floridian — born and raised in Tampa. Her entire family is all over the state: in Gainesville and Jacksonville and Tampa. I’ve been married for over 15r years now, so Florida’s been part of the tour of spending the holidays and visiting.
Part of Four Flamingos is celebrating my sense of authorship when it comes to Florida. The name, Four Flamingos, comes from the four species of flamingos in the Americas: The United States the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. If you can find a flamingo there, our cuisine will be influenced by it.
BP: Key West has long been a major influence for chefs. Norman Van Aken, for instance, made his chops here. Can you talk about their influence — and the influence of Key West in general?
RB: This restaurant is an homage to chefs like Norman Van Aken and Michelle Bernstein and what they’ve done for Floridian cuisine. When Norman was coming up, there was a regionality. I feel like we’ve gotten away from that. We’re standing on the shoulders of those chefs with respect.
You know what? A piece of local fish that was just caught right here with a tropical fruit salad and a key lime beurre blanc is delicious. But modern chefs like myself with our tweezers and cool aprons — sometimes get away from that. And we end up doing marshmallows with sardines and eucalyptus and it’s like: “What are we doing?”
Years ago, when I was a young chef, I was always trying to come up with something brand new. But a lot of the answers are in the classics. This is a tribute to Norman Van Aken and Emeril or the late Charlie Trotter. Those are the chefs that I grew up admiring and reading their books.
BP: Both Four Flamingos locations are located in Hyatt Hotels. Can you tell me how you keep your restaurants as “restaurants in a hotel” and not a “hotel restaurant”?
RB: I have a few restaurants that are on Hyatt properties, but we operate as if we were on a street corner. We bring in independent chefs. I think we’ve all been in those hotel restaurants and that’s not what Four Flamingos is.
BP: Looking out at the waters of the Florida Keys and this beautiful sunset and knowing these waters are teeming with grouper, shrimp, and lobster. How does that inspire you and your menu?
RB: The Keys are the main character in this restaurant. My hair’s cool, but it’s not Key West sunset cool. Being here is a chef’s dream.
I’ve done projects in the Caribbean where it’s hard to get local fish because the fishmongers send everything back to Florida. One of the things I’m impressed with in Key West is there are a lot of local fisherpeople that we can source from. We’re not buying fish from New York when the fish was sourced from Florida and then came up to New York only to be flown back. That happens a lot.
BP: On your Instagram, you’ve participated in the Wes Anderson challenge — and it’s the best one I’ve seen to date. Can you share the details?
RB: I’m such a Wes Anderson fan. He’s incredibly popular, yet you feel like he’s all yours. It’s not like an Avengers movie. I’m a legit fan. If you go into my closet at home, there’s a Moonrise Kingdon poster. Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of my favorites. Everything he does is wonderful, but most of all, it’s Wes Anderson’s format. He’s a master. Right away, you know a movie is a Wes Anderson movie. If one day my food could be that identifiable, I’d love that.