It’s October — the burnished gold, bonfire-scented heart of autumn. So odds are pretty good you’re gobbling up anything you can get your hands on that’s all about the apples or labeled “Pumpkin Spice.” Even if, if you ask me, 90 percent of the latter tastes more like drugstore aftershave than anything related to actual pumpkin seasonings. So what is it about the mere mention of fall that makes us crave all things sweetly spicy. What is it that makes us crave anything at all?
That’s the heart of the matter of Food Network’s fun and fascinating new series Hungry Games, hosted by Top Chef standout and James Beard Award winner Chef Richard Blais. And while Blais is a grad of the Culinary Institute of America and a past protegé of renowned chefs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, he says he’s tickled by how much even he has learned from this new gig.
And how much viewers of all ages and culinary talents will learn from it, as well.
“There’s a universal aspect of Hungry Games that’s really appealing to me,” Blais explains. “This is not just a show for professional chefs, it’s not a show just for the home cooks — this is really a great show for people who just really like to eat. And that’s everyone. I’m an eternal student, so what I love about the show is I’m learning things every episode and every day that we’re filming — and I’ve been around the block a little bit! So if I’m learning something new every day, I think the viewer, for sure, is going to walk away with some knowledge, too.”
Each Hungry Games episode features hidden-camera experiments and man-on-the-street taste tests based on actual research that reveal surprising facts about our cravings for everything from pizza to ice cream, the secrets of the perfect hamburger patty, how cooks remember a constant barrage of orders and more. Including why evocative food words (“Pumpkin Spice,” anyone?) can draw us to a food item as readily as an enticing aroma.
And Hungry Games is as family friendly as a trip to the pumpkin patch.
“After every episode, viewers are going to be left with, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know that!’ moments, but it’s also presented in such a fun way that this is the first show that I’ve been a part of that I’m really excited to cue up on the TV with my kids and watch it, because I think they’re going to enjoy it, as well,” Blais says.
Here, Blais reveals more about Hungry Games — and what it feels like for the Top Chef All Stars winner to cross over to the Top Chef Boston judges table.
CGM: Were you a part of selecting the topics and food products you feature in each episode of Hungry Games?
Richard Blais: Everything is a collaboration. There were some basic ideas and topics for each episode already in place by the time I came aboard, but what is great about the show is that we’re actually doing these experiments that are based off of legitimate studies that have been done at universities and wherever else. And as we’re filming and doing an experiment, sometimes the data goes in a different way — or you’re getting a reaction that you weren’t anticipating. There were plenty of moments in the show where we had to do something a little bit different than we thought, just because of the way an experiment is working out, or that we have a moment where we’re like, “Oh wow, that is super curious. Why is this happening like this?” It becomes an add-on or another part of the show.
So as you started to see how things were shaking out, did it affect how you approached experiments in later episodes, or did you stick with the original plan and let the chips — or pizza toppings — fall where they may?
Once we got an idea of what the experiments were going to be, it was always just anticipation! We had the data that said ‘this study was done at Duke University and here’s how it played out,’ but then we put it in play on the street, and — not to get too scientific, but it was, do we have a real controlled environment? Are there things that are influencing these people? So again, it’s more that anticipation of knowing how it’s supposed to go because we’re looking at the real studies, but never knowing on the street if it’s going to that way, because it’s raining or because you’re in a certain location or the people you are talking to come from a different place.
From your experience, how often do chefs actually employ psychology in creating their menu items — the impact of food trends, changes in our psyches and tastes as the seasons change and stuff like that?
On the higher end, I think its more prevalent because you have chefs creating more experiential sort of dishes that are called, like, “The Forest Floor” — you eat it and it smells like the forest! — and it’s really this intense, deep stuff. There’s definitely psychology involved in that. Are chefs actually thinking “Hey this is psychology!”? Probably not. We’re just creating something that is delicious and then possibly creating a way to present it that would really evoke the theme of whatever that dish is. So I don’t think too many chefs are approaching it with the psychology sort of angle, but I think it’s definitely prevalent in high-end foods.
And certainly on the low end, the marketing of fast food and food companies, they’re definitely thinking about psychology when it comes to what people order and how they like to eat. Me personally, I don’t; I just like to create good food. But there have been times now, filming Hungry Games, where I’m like, “Oh wow! People order french fries a lot and now I get it, because here’s what’s happening in their minds.”
I don’t want to reveal too much about some of the topics we discuss, but doing the show has changed the way I think — and how I write menus now.
Considering your resume, your investment in your chosen career path clearly goes beyond the restaurant and restaurant kitchen to the universal language that is food and food preparation. So given that Hungry Games concerns both how we react as individuals and as we react as a collective human species, is that element especially appealing to you?
Definitely. Whether you’re walking up to a cashier or talking to a waiter, that’s what is really going to make this show special is that you’re really going to take what you see and what you learn from the show and you’re going to be going about your everyday life and be like, ‘Wait a second! I know what’s going on here!’ Or ‘Is this really happening the way I saw last night?’ The stuff we’re talking about is happening to people every day, in their normal lives, and I’m excited to see what the response is.
So, for example, the part where I work at a cubicle farm where most of us eat at our desks, and when someone’s got food — a chip bag crinkles or somebody has something that smells delicious — we all go running for something to eat…
I think you just inspired a new segment for us! I’m serious right now! We definitely talk about sounds and aroma and things like that so that sounds like an experiment itself. Thanks for the inspiration.
You’re welcom! As a writer and also someone who can’t get enough of reading about food, I’m also particularly interested in the segment about creative food descriptions and how words impact our cravings…
Certainly as a chef, I like to think of myself as a writer, as well, because writing a menu to me is almost as important as cooking it. So that was another fascinating episode or series of things that we did on the show. Because we’re all used to it. Whether it’s healthy terms like “no cholesterol.” Or “fat-free.” Or “organic.” We’re just bombarded with these descriptions, so I think that episode might help people figure it out — might just be some flowery language or it might be something that actually has some real content to it in the description of a dish. One of my favorite segments was that one!
If you are having a craving for something you really should not eat, do we get some insight into a way to short-circuit that — or is that the unknowable secret that is keeping the diet industry in business?
I think the show is definitely going to make us think a little more about what we’re ordering and what we’re eating and how we’re going about it. But not in a way that’s disruptive [laughs]. I don’t think viewers are suddenly going to be at the grocery store and it’s going to become a chore. I think it’s all fun, sort of matter-of-fact trivia, and I think people are going to take a lot away from it. But I hope we’re not slowing down any lines at the grocery store across America!
As a relentless Green Bay Packer fan, I would also like the team to watch the episode about why a winning season is a winner for my waistline, too. I suspect it has something to do with the part where I tend to medicate my game-day frustrations with an obscene amount of chicken wings and beer?
[Laughs] I can’t reveal too much … but you might be onto something right there!
Is there an overall theme that you hope viewers take away from the series as a whole?
For me, fun is a word I like to use. Whether it’s in my restaurants or with my family, I like for people to have fun. I’m excited to do a show that doesn’t have forced tension in it. There’s just so many competition shows — and they’re great — but this is a show that is just about fun. I’m always careful when I talk about “education,” because I don’t want people to think that it’s all food science and there’s going to be a test at the end of the show — there’s none of that. But I do think families are going to love the show and there’s going to be two or three things each episode where everyone is going to be, “Oh wow! I didn’t know that! That’s a cool thing I just learned.”
And I think any time you can do that, it makes our industry better. So it’s a fun show with a little bit of learning. And then I get to dress up! I hope that the show continues, because there’s usually one segment each episode where I get to dress up like an ice cream truck driver or a pizza guy. I like to dress up, so I’m hoping that it continues so I can keep that up.
Branching out on the subject of expanding your mindset in a food-related environment — Top Chef Boston premieres Oct. 15 and you’ve made the leap to the judges panel. What has that experience been like?
A little surreal, because I obviously have a history with the franchise and I’ve been saying that for me, it’s like the Thanksgiving Day table when you go from the kids table to the adult table and you’re like “OK what do you talk about at the adult table?” There’s a little bit of that for me.
But having judged other Food Network competitions — I’m a regular judge on Guy’s Grocery Games, as well — so that’s part is fun. But I think for Top Chef, I have the ability to give the chefs some feedback that hopefully can help them throughout the competition, in almost a mentoring sort of way. I haven’t seen any cuts of the show, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but I’m hoping that that is the way that my words come across!
Thank you, Richard.
Hungry Games premieres Monday, October 20 at 8pm ET/PT on Food Network.
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