Richard Blais gained notoriety as the faux-hawked favorite on Season 4 of “Top Chef.” Now he’s best known as chef-proprietor of Atlanta’s Flip Burger Boutique, where almost everything—from ossobuco to Korean barbecue to country-fried steak—can be inspiration for a new-age burger on one of the burger world’s most interesting menus.
But Flip—which opened in December 2008—is only the latest addition to Blais’ culinary curriculum vitae. As with so many others, his career began in his teens at McDonald’s. It also includes a degree from The Culinary Institute of America as well as an internship at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and stints in the kitchens of Daniel Boulud’s Daniel and Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli.
Blais spoke with BurgerBusiness.com about melding all the disparate influences on his style.
Flip is an interesting hybrid: Certainly not your average burger joint, but a burger-based menu that’s not your run of the mill “contemporary American” restaurant either.
From the start we wanted to do something very untraditional. Not a burger bar or a burger joint or fast food. With me and most of the team coming from a more fine-dining background, we came up with the corny phrase that Flip is really “fine dining between two buns.”
We wanted to create a burger restaurant that could mimic the experience of four people going out to dinner, with one person ordering chicken, and one [wanting] the catch of the day, or whatever. That’s where we started.
What’s the organizing principle for the menu?
We started with two rules. We said that whatever we call a burger has to be ground and it has to be on a bun. But those are really the only two rules.
With the name Flip—a sort of fun idea of flipping things around—we wanted a menu with half the burgers that resemble traditional burgers and are beefcentric. And then the other side is items that are not beef. That’s vegetables or pork or veal. There are lots of options.
With so few rules, almost anything’s possible. Is that liberating for you as a chef or do you need to continually rein yourself in?
We’re still reining ourselves in. When you make that decision [to break barriers on what’s a burger], you have the ability to turn everything into a burger, and certainly we’re creative enough to do that. So we probably have 16 or 18 [burgers] that rotate through the menu everyday. But we’ve probably had 40 to 50 that have made appearances, whether they were popular or not.
Where do the ideas come from?
Sometimes the inspiration is a classic dish like fish and chips. We took some cod and ground it up and that’s going to become a burger. Or maybe it’s fried chicken, or ossobuco or Moroccan lamb, or really anything that has a traditional taste.
We do have to be cautious about not getting too cheeky in what we want to do and making sure we’re concentrating on deliciousness. Not everything works as a burger, you know?
Have you learned that the hard way?
We’ve never had anything that was a total dog, that doesn’t sell. Sometimes it’s the verbiage [on the menu].
Have you had trouble communicating the idea for your Pâté Melt burger (which includes a veal-and-pork patty with Swiss cheese, cornichons, lingonberries and Dijon mustard)?
That’s one of my favorites because it combines some of my favorite things: French country pâté with a patty melt. To me, it’s clever and certainly delicious. But the term “pâté” opens up a lot of different reactions. Some people think it’s cat food and some think it’s liver and others don’t understand it at all. We learn as much about menu language as we do about flavors.
Did the Pâté Melt sell?
[Flip] Chef Mark Nanno and I probably kept it [on the menu] longer than we should have just because we loved it. We might think it’s brilliant, but if no one wants to buy it, you need to question your brilliance sometimes. We like to say when we pull something that we “put it in the shop.” Sometimes you need to change just a word or two in how you describe something on the menu and not change the item at all.
By offering so many nontraditional burgers, do you see yourself educating the tastebuds of burger lovers?
Looking at the future, I like to think I’m going to have a lot of restaurants that aren’t burgercentric, so I look at Flip as a sort of training ground for a lot of palates. Sort of disguised under this iconic All-American ingredient, the burger, it is a way to get young people to experience lamb or something else they’ve never had before. But they’re much more receptive to it because it’s a burger.
If I have two teens out on a Friday night date and they decide to order the lamb burger, I’m building clientele for the future. And they’re building their palates.
I don’t feel like what we do is that creative. We just try to look at things a little differently.