LISTEN: Scene in San Diego Podcast – A Conversation With ‘Top Chef' Alum Richard Blais About His New Restaurant, Pandemic Life & Keeping It Positive

Monica Garske, lead editor of NBC 7's The Scene, and Candice Woo, founding editor of Eater San Diego, talk about San Diego’s food scene in these times of COVID-19

On this episode of our Scene in San Diego podcast, we talk about the newest project to hit San Diego’s hotel dining scene: Ember & Rye, a restaurant by “Top Chef” alum Richard Blais, at Park Hyatt Aviara in Carlsbad.

Blais joins the conversation to talk about why the new restaurant is making him so nervous and how he’s prepping for the project. The Crack Shack and Juniper & Ivy alum always has a lot of eyes on him and, at the end of the day, he just wants to make good food and “make people happy.”

Blais also chats about his life during the pandemic (there are hikes with the family, bread samples, TikTok videos) and how he’s just trying to keep a positive outlook, even in tough times.

We’ll also recap the latest enforcement efforts by San Diego County public health officials to keep local eateries following the pandemic restrictions which, under the ongoing regional stay-at-home order, still means restaurants can only offer takeout and delivery, and no indoor or outdoor dining just yet.

Listen to Episode 14 Here:

Courtesy of C&R Communications
Del Mar resident and "Top Chef" alum Richard Blais.

San Diego’s Top-Notch and Sometimes Even ‘Top Chef’ Hotel Dining Scene

When you think of a typical hotel restaurant, you likely think of convenience over quality. But, in recent years, San Diego’s hotel dining scene has really stepped up its game.

As Eater San Diego has reported over the years, many of San Diego’s hotels shine in the dining department – at least in non-pandemic times.

Standouts include A.R. Valentien at The Lodge at Torrey Pines and Nine-Ten Restaurant & Bar at the Grande Colonial Hotel in La Jolla. Then there’s Serea by Chef Jojo Ruiz at the Hotel Del Coronado, which opened as the landmark’s new, fresh restaurant in 2019 as part of the hotel's revitalization project.

And in 2021, the local hotel dining offerings are only getting stronger, with some “Top Chef” stars joining the mix.

Last month, local “Top Chef” star Claudette Zepeda joined our podcast to talk about her latest project VAGA – a restaurant that’s set to open this year at the new Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas.

The hotel is supposed to open next month, and Claudette’s restaurant will follow – a concept she said is unlike anything she’s ever done before. Zepeda called VAGA her “love letter to San Diego.” Listen to our episode with Zepeda here.

Meanwhile, Blais’ Ember & Rye is set to open this spring.

Rendering Courtesy of C&R Communications
A rendering of the bar at Richard Blais' Ember & Rye at the Park Hyatt Aviara in Carlsbad.

Guest Interview: 'Top Chef' Star Richard Blais (The Crack Shack; Juniper & Ivy; Ember & Rye)

Ember & Rye is a big project for Blais, who hopes to recreate some of that magic and success he created with Juniper & Ivy, the popular Little Italy restaurant that first brought the “Top Chef” star to San Diego. The celebrity chef is no longer affiliated with Juniper & Ivy but remains an investor in The Crack Shack chain.

Blais told Eater San Diego last week that he’s feeling the pressure that comes with sophomore efforts and with the pandemic on top of everything, it’s been quite the challenge.

Blais talked about his nerves on our podcast.

“You’re only as good as the last thing that you do,” Blais said. “You’re always trying to make that first impression.”

Blais said his goals for Ember & Rye are simple: “I want to cook for people and make them happy. That is the driving force behind every chef and the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to do.”

You're only as good as the last thing that you do. You're always trying to make that first impression.

Chef Richard Blais, Ember & Rye
Rendering Courtesy of C&R Communications
A rendering of the patio area Richard Blais' Ember & Rye at the Park Hyatt Aviara in Carlsbad.

Being attached to a hotel property is a new path for Blais but, at the end of the day, he says there’s “no security in the restaurant business” – no matter who’s backing you.

An eternal optimist, Blais said he’s looking forward to the “rebirth” of the local industry, post-pandemic, although he admits it’s hard to stay positive all the time.

So, what’s Ember & Rye all about?

Andrew Eccles/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
TOP CHEF -- Season:13 -- Pictured: Richard Blais -- (Photo by: Andrew Eccles/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Well, Blais said the restaurant will be a “steakhouse, of sorts” – which gives him some creative wiggle room to feature steakhouse favorites on his menu, but with a twist. He wants to give his new space time to grow and develop its identity.

He said there will snacks, starters and proteins “cooked from the embers,” plus a list of foraged and farmed vegetable side dishes (baked potatoes, celery root, creamed spinach, etc.).

Blais said the menu will also pay homage to classic steakhouse favorites – and he can’t wait.

“There will be a ‘Prime Rib Night,’ and I’m really excited, quite honestly, because I like to eat prime rib,” Blais said.

The chef said he’s looking forward to using the range of fresh produce available from San Diego’s farms because that’s one of his favorite parts of being a Southern California resident.

Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 13: Chef Richard Blais attends the Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival Presented By Capital One - Brunch With Wylie Dufresne and Richard Blais at Chefs Club on October 13, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

Blais also shares his love for San Diego, his push to make the local culinary scene stand out and his concerns about the pandemic’s potential lasting impact on restaurant operations.

Paul Cheney/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
TOP CHEF -- "Choke Holds and Clammy Hands" Episode 1403 -- Pictured: (l-r) Chris Cosentino, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Richard Blais -- (Photo by: Paul Cheney/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

He thinks some pandemic trends may be here to stay for the industry, including third party delivery and the revival of the drive-thru. He also likes seeing his chef friends cooking online and sharing their tips and tricks on our screens.

Oh, and by the way, he’s been cooking at home A LOT, and his wife, Jazmin Blais, is also a culinary master in her own right, Blais said.

"One of the things that has happened in the pandemic is I realize my wife is a better cook than I am," Blais said. "Really, I will say, it hits my ego every once in a while. She make the most delicious food; she follows recipes and she makes things healthier. She's just a great chef. She's earned the title."

One of the things that has happened in the pandemic is I realize my wife is a better cook than I am.

'Top Chef' Alum Richard Blais, Ember & Rye

Of course, there’s a bit of chatter on our podcast about “Top Chef,” too and how Blais has grown throughout his time on the TV cooking competition – from contestant to judge. Which role does he like better?

The Scene in San Diego podcast crew catching up with local celebrity Chef Richard Blais in January 2021.

San Diego County Vows to Ramp Up Enforcement of COVID-19 Restrictions: The Impact on Restaurants

Although new restaurant openings like Ember & Rye are certainly a bright spot in these tough times, right now, COVID-related restrictions continue to impact daily life for restaurants.

San Diego County remains under the regional stay-at-home order that has been in effect since 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2020 (and that was extended in late December 2020). For now, for our local dining scene, this means San Diego County’s restaurants can only offer takeout and delivery – no on-site dining.

But take a drive around some neighborhoods and you’ll see some restaurants still running their dining rooms, still seating. Some call the defiance of the public health order a “peaceful protest.” Others say it’s the only way their small business will survive economic impact of the pandemic.

Many restaurant owners said they take the Carlsbad City Council decision not to take action to step up enforcement as a "green light" to stay open.

Meanwhile, the county continues to serve cease-and-desist orders to local restaurants and businesses defying the public health order. Officials are keeping track of those here.

Earlier this month, Mayor Todd Gloria’s Deputy Chief of staff told NBC 7 that San Diego Police Department officers had contacted dozens of restaurants and cited many others for not following the rules.

And officials have said they will continue to ramp up enforcement efforts.

On Jan. 12, the County Board of Supervisors voted to strengthen public health order enforcement, promising to keep the response “fair and consistent with science and data.”

The new strategy includes county compliance teams conducting inspections at businesses. Now, there are at least 39 county COVID-19 enforcement teams deployed around San Diego.

The board also agreed to increase citations for businesses violating public health rules – and that may mean that non-compliant businesses will be ineligible for county relief funds.

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond was the only board member to vote against this increased enforcement plan; he has long been opposed to most of the pandemic restrictions against local businesses, including restaurants.

You can read more on enforcement here.

NBC 7's Dave Summers heard reaction from a pizzeria owner who's committed to staying open.

Listen/subscribe to the Scene in San Diego podcast to get the latest local lifestyle stories and news from our local food and drink scene. As we continue to adjust to life (back and forth, back and forth) in these times of the coronavirus pandemic, the way we enjoy our city has changed. We’ll keep you up to speed on how those changes impact the things you love to do in our city. Tap here to find Scene in San Diego wherever you listen to podcasts.

For more content from The Scene, visit this website. For more content from Eater San Diego, click here. And to read our collaboration content with Eater and The Scene every week, click here.

The Scene in San Diego Feat. Eater Podcast is hosted by NBC 7’s Monica Garske and Eater San Diego’s Candice Woo, and is produced by NBC 7’s Matthew Lewis.

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