Richard Blais has always been a curious cook.
Over the course of his career, Blais has cultivated a skill for cooking surprising food (smoked mayonnaise, anyone?) that has earned him recognition as a successful chef and restaurateur, as well as a two-time contestant (and one-time winner) on Bravo’s Top Chef. Now, Blais is taking his culinary curiosity to the streets in his new show, Food Network’s Hungry Games. Blais describes his latest venture as "chock full of experiments," a series of culinary riddles that investigate the psychology and science behind what we eat and why.
"All foods that we’re covering happen to be the most craveable foods there are, so why do we like them?" Blais asks. "Is it because its delicious or is it childhood nostalgia? Do we love pizza because of its umami flavor or is it because it reminds us of the pizza place on the block we grew up on?"
Exploring the psychology behind food is nothing new to the culinary industry. As Blais points out, "Chefs are all about creating the experience of a dish. At the highest end, sometimes it’s a dish like 'The Forest Floor,' and it’s under a dome that releases the aroma of evergreen." But despite his high-end culinary pedigree as a former apprentice of such acclaimed chefs as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, at the moment, Blais is more interested in the every day experience of how Americans interact with food. "I’m learning something new every episode," he says. "That’s not always the case in the kitchen. The show has given me a whole new platform to not just be a chef that makes a really good crab cake, but a chef that performs an experiment."
The point of these experiments, according to Blais, are to ask the questions that will help us determine why we eat what we eat. How big a part does aroma play in the way we taste food? What foods do we automatically reach for after eating something spicy and why? Can we make someone crave a specific food by tapping into the psychology behind that craving? On that question, Blais remains mum. Could he, for instance, make a vegetarian crave meat? "Oh no," he says. "I’d get into too much trouble. My wife is a yoga instructor — she’s a full moon away from being vegan."
One thing is clear, though — Blais's curiosity and his penchant for playing with food is going nowhere. "I like being creepy and surprising," he laughs, "so that's probably going to continue." Other than that, though, he doesn't expect the results of these experiments to affect his cooking style anytime soon. "I’m a stubborn cook. I'm not going to start writing my menu on the basis that research suggests the fourth item down is the most popular." Despite his fascination with the impact of science and psychology on what people choose to eat, Blais insists, "at the end of the day, I’m still going to cook the food I want to cook."
Catch Hungry Games Mondays at 8:00pm ET/PT on Food Network.