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Small bites prepared for the 2012 Cooking for Solutions gala at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

On the home page of his website, celebrity chef Richard Blais highlights a short list of what currently inspires him. So what turns on the 41-year-old former "Top Chef" runner-up? Right now it's dry-aged beef, Muir Woods, marriage equality, chipotle, Golden State Warriors' guard Stephan Curry and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

"As a chef I'm always looking for education," he said. "The aquarium is constantly teaching me things about the products I use and the environment, so the inspiration is that of the eternal student."

Blais has come a long way in his education, after beginning his culinary journey as an employee at McDonald's, the corporatized antithesis of everything the aquarium will preach at this weekend's 12th annual Cooking for Solutions.

"I'm proud of it," he said about his short stint under the Golden Arches. "It's a true story, so nothing to be sheepish about."

From his days of flipping industrialized burgers, the father of two daughters has matured, and his kids don't encounter a lot of fast food.

"I don't think they even know what a Happy Meal is," Blais said, "and I'd love to keep it that way for a long time. Cooking fresh food at home for my family is something I take great pride in and my wife and kids cook now, too."

As a chef who has gained his share of celebrity (he followed up his "Top Chef" bridesmaid experience by winning the 2011 "Top Chef: All Stars"), Blais believes all chefs should embrace the role of ambassadors of sustainability.


He believes he's a chef, as well as an educator.

"(Chefs) have a tremendous responsibility," said Blais, a partner in a modern hamburger restaurant called FLIP Burger Boutique, a long way from Ronald and the Hamburglar. "People listen to what we recommend, so it's always a great feeling to spread an important message like sustainability."

That was the idea behind the aquarium's Seafood Watch program. (Since 1999, more than 40million pocket guides have been distributed, and its smartphone application has been downloaded nearly 1million times).

More than 70 percent of all seafood consumed in the United States is eaten in restaurants, so getting chefs on board became critical. Armed with information to make responsible choices, consumers can gravitate toward restaurants led by chefs who take the time to embrace sustainability.

Cooking For Solutions brings these like-minded chefs together to share food and the gospel of sustainability.

"The best part of the event is spending time with fellow chefs," said the aquarium's culinary partner Cindy Pawlcyn, the official host for the event. "The whole reason we joined up with the aquarium was their vision of creating sustainability. The health of the sea and earth are so intertwined. It's been baby steps over the years, with many more to come."

When it comes to blazing trails, no chef is more suited than appropriately named Blais, who has made his name by elevating burgers with decidedly gourmet twists.

His most prominent CFS event will be held Saturday at Carmel Valley Ranch during an outdoor burger-themed barbecue. Unfortunately that event is sold out, but fans of Blais can buy tickets to Saturday's Street Food Extravaganza hosted by "Top Chef" alum Carla Hall (5-7p.m.).

Blais will join fellow chefs Sam Choy, Susan Feniger, Emily Luchetti, Mary Sue Milliken and Art Smith, along with local chefs Sarah LaCasse (Earthbound Farm) and James Waller (Schooners Coastal Kitchen). Cost is $180 ($150 for aquarium members).

The food is paired with premium wines from The Hess Collection and beer from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and takes place overlooking the water at the bayside Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa.

The opening night gala and many of the more intimate events are sold out, but the weekend Sustainable Foods Celebration is a good way to rub elbows with chefs, and learn practical ways to help lead a more sustainable life to help lessen our impact on the planet.

Blais will also appear at the Sunday celebration from 10a.m.-6p.m. Both Saturday and Sunday events are free with aquarium admission, and include the Whole Foods Marketplace, Kids Zone and cooking demonstrations, including one by first-time Celebrity Chef Ambassador Lorena Garcia (Lorena Garcia Cocina & Lorena Garcia Tapas in Miami and Atlanta).

The Venezuelan-born chef, restaurateur, TV host, published author and one of the country's best-known Latina chefs is a fervent supporter of the ethos behind Cooking for Solutions.

"I buy local whenever possible and I base my menus on ingredients that are in season to achieve maximum flavor," Garcia said.

Other weekend events include the return of the popular "Salon Series," educating guests on subjects ranging from chocolate to wine, to Indian food and sweet treats. At just $50 ($25 for aquarium members), these hour-long classes are a great way to take home tips, techniques and time-honored traditions while sharing lively commentary with the experts.

The aquarium's executive chef (and Pawlcyn's trusted lieutenant) Jeff Rogers will lead a Salon Series class on Saturday called "Tales of the Fish Wrangler" (1:45-2:45p.m.). Michael Passmore of Passmore Ranch in Sacramento County will talk about his aqua-farm, which raises sustainable bass, catfish and sturgeon. Then Rogers will step in and show the class how to prepare the fish.

"Sweet Treats with Ben Spungin" (Sunday, 10-11a.m.) focuses on the genius of the pastry chef at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley. Spungin is known for his unique creations using foraged ingredients, and he will hand out plenty of outrageous samples.

The participation of Spungin, Rogers and dozens of other local chefs and artisans shows that Monterey County leads the way in combining sustainability and deliciousness.

For those who can't attend the many Cooking for Solutions events but want to support the cause, there is an online auction at where one can bid on great getaways (from Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur to the Galapagos), wine tasting tours, gourmet treats and exclusive experiences at the aquarium. Online bidding goes through May 20.

Mike Hale can be reached at GO!

·What: The 12th annual Cooking for Solutions
·Where: The Monterey Bay Aquarium and other venues
·When: Friday through Sunday, May 17-19
·Tickets: or 644-1055