By Pamela Berger

Simplicity is one of my favorite words. It showcases the best of an idea, eliminating the fluff to best communicate a particular idea or vision. I struggle with simplicity all the time in my writing, my television producing. The funny thing is, keeping it simple is anything but. It takes experience, maturity and a fair bit of practice.

Chef Richard Blais of Top Chef All-Star fame, has welcomed this word into his culinary vernacular. He stated the phrase, “simple, delicious food” so many times on set these past few months, (we recently finished production of Life After Top Chef, a new series for Bravo to premiere this fall), that the words became his mantra, then my mantra in describing his ever evolving approach to food. It’s a phrase that many fans and followers of Richard may not be expecting. As fans of Top Chef, we’re used to watching him in the throws of liquid nitrogen during a challenge or if local to Atlanta, enjoying one of his many inventive molecular concoctions offered at Flip Burger. But I see this change as a mark of a chef who has evolved with his craft. He is someone who is wholly committed to food- who has played with it, challenged it, savored it, manipulated it and has slowly come back around to the best one, celebrating it.

His latest restaurant for Atlanta diners, The Spence, which opened in June at Technology Square in Midtown, offers Richard the perfect venue for putting his mantra to the test. In describing the restaurant to me, he rattled off thoughts like a focused contestant battling to win $20,000 pyramid.

“It’s an eatery. An every night kind of place. A date place. Food that is seasoned and executed well. Casual American. Exciting and mildly educating.”

He added, “It’s not the molecular altar of Richard Blais. It’s not a science lab.” And even though it is not that, (although he’ll always dabble) one must remember his definition of simple is coming from an experienced, meticulous chef, who is also ingeniously creative. Simple to him still entails an expert’s technique and all five of his senses fully engaged. It’s just that at this stage of the game, we’ll see substance over style.

The menu at The Spence changes daily and Richard is always trying to create a moment for diners when they are taken aback by the flavor of an ingredient or a preparation that surprises and enhances their dining experience. Odds are, you can find your own memorable food moment at The Spence. The crisp pork belly with octopus and barbecue chickpeas is a perfect mix of sweet and sour with a charred bite to it. The mussels with Chinese sausage and ginger beer is another must have, as well as the Oysters and Pearls and General Tso’s sweetbreads.

Each dish has been worked and reworked in Richard’s mind and in various kitchens until he was sufficiently satisfied. And still he tweaks, forming new ideas for what to improve on or prepare for the next night, and the night after. His mind never stops. Simplicity ain’t as easy as one might think.

Creating and delivering on his mantra of simple, delicious food is a mark of a seasoned chef and a tribute to the confidence Richard has gained in the kitchen. At times, during our filming together, he wondered if he should be the nitrogen guy – the one people know and expect. It’s that natural insecurity many artists go through when moving out of their comfort zone. But if he kept up the “science” schtick, he’d be unhappy and always trying to be what he thinks others want him to be.

I just want him to be himself. I want to see him continue to grow and challenge himself as a chef. For no matter where his mind may wander on a plate, the food is going to taste good. Really good. And to put it simply, that’s all that matters.

I’d tell him this, but my hunch is he already knows.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.