Michel Richard, the supernaturally talented French-born culinary master who died Saturday morning at the age of 68 of complications following a stroke he suffered last Tuesday, was one of the best chefs of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries — anywhere, in any cuisine. He was also one of the wittiest and most genial.
In the more than three decades that I knew him, Richard nearly always had a smile on his face — a smile from deep down, an ingenuous one that seemed to betoken unalloyed pleasure in whatever he was doing, especially when he was cooking, but also when he was eating, drinking, talking, making a slightly inappropriate comment about a beautiful woman walking past… They could have put his picture in an illustrated dictionary as the definition of “joie de vivre.”
Richard was a big man, round, with a broad, pink face, twinkling eyes, and a Santa Claus beard — "He was the Falstaff of the culinary world," as Jonathan Waxman puts it — but he somehow moved with almost balletic grace when he was on the job. I have vivid recollections of watching him through the vast windows that separated his kitchens from his dining rooms at his groundbreaking Citrus in Los Angeles and later his wonderful Citronelle in Washington, D.C. Knowing full well that he was on stage, he'd move from station to station, inspecting everything, giving orders, offering encouragement or critique, making sure the tempo didn't flag.
As plates neared readiness, he'd often step in and take over — appraising each dish as if checking one more time that the solution to the puzzle was correct. Sometimes he'd add a touch of this or that with the focused spontaneity of a painter adding one more dab of cobalt blue; then he'd look up (yes, smiling) and nod almost imperceptibly to himself, as if to say, "Okay, that's it, it's ready to go." He was so obviously doing what he loved, and he did it with remarkable imagination, energy, and skill.
Michel Louis-Marie Richard was born in Brittany and raised in the Champagne region. He used to claim that he'd learned to cook by the time he was 7 years old, and he was working as a bakery apprentice at a local hotel at the age of 14. He went on to apprentice under Gaston Lenôtre, the most famous of Parisian pastry chefs. Lenôtre sent him to America in 1974 to open a patisserie for him in New York City, but it didn't last long, and Richard moved on to Santa Fe, where he ran a pastry shop of his own. In 1977, he headed to Los Angeles and opened his own place in West Hollywood, bringing a new level of French-style baking and confectionery to the city. (Wolfgang Puck once told the New York Times that he'd never had a croissant as good as Richard's, "even in Paris.") He soon added bistro tables to the shop and began serving basic traditional French fare as well.
The late seventies and early eighties were an exciting period in the restaurant world in France, as the novelty of nouvelle cuisine took over and chefs began to interpret its then-revolutionary tenets (shorter cooking times, the freshest possible ingredients, simplified sauces, etc.) in their own ways, and no one was more enamored of the goings-on than Richard. He sometimes said, probably not exaggerating very much, that he spent every dollar he made at his shop and bistro on dining trips to the best restaurants of France. He also quietly worked for a few days here and there in some of them, learning the techniques of contemporary French cuisine.
In 1986, he surprised everybody by opening a full-fledged restaurant, dubbed Citrus, in Hollywood. The following year, he sold his original enterprise to his good friends from France, André and Huguette Coffyn, and became Michel Richard the chef — sans "pastry" — full time. (André was tragically killed by an armed robber as he sat in front of the shop in 1989; Huguette continues to run what is now called Maison Richard Restaurant, Café & Bakery about a mile west of where Citrus was.)
There is a tradition of pastry chefs turning into particularly innovative and technically proficient non-pastry chefs. The great nouvelle cuisine pioneer Michel Guérard is a prime example, as are the now-deceased Gaston Lenôtre himself and, more recently, Albert Adrià in Spain. Richard did this tradition proud. Cooking what he once described to me as "French cuisine from the French province of California," he was part of the extraordinary high-end Gallic restaurant scene in LA at the time — L'Orangerie, L'Ermitage, Ma Maison, Fennel, L'Escoffier, Champagne, Michael's, and more were thriving (all but the last of these are now long gone) — but Citrus was a place apart. There, Richard wasn't just putting his spin on the fine food he'd had in France; he was rethinking it, and having fun with it, and doing it all with the lapidary precision the pastry arts demand.
A quarter-century before it became a trend, Richard was shredding vegetables into glorious tangles with a Japanese spiralizer; he was using bean juices to thicken sauces before today's proponents of aquafaba were born; he brought vegetables to new (and un-French) prominence on his plates — green cabbage rémoulade with his crispy shrimp, zucchini tart and pissaladière sauce with his salmon, asparagus risotto with his rack of lamb; he was serving quinoa spiked with chiles with his grilled swordfish back when nobody north of Ecuador had ever heard of the stuff. And everything was always exactly right, perfectly balanced, perfectly seasoned — perfect.
Richard spun off a more casual, though still innovative, restaurant concept called Citronelle, first in Santa Barbara and later in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. In 1998, the D.C. version of the restaurant closed for renovations, reopening as something grander than the others, and a few years later, Richard moved permanently to the nation's capital (he always said that he preferred the climate there to that of Southern California because it got cold in the winter and reminded him of Champagne), making Citronelle his flagship. The Philadelphia and Baltimore restaurants subsequently shut down, and Richard closed Citrus in 2002 (the Santa Barbara Citronelle lasted until 2004). Citronelle, meanwhile, evolved into one of the great restaurants in America.
Here, Richard delighted diners with such dishes as escargots with mushrooms and bacon in a nest of fried potato slivers, butter-poached shredded lobster with squid ink orzo "caviar" (in a caviar tin) and brioche croutons, silver hake with ginger emulsion and gratinéed trofie pasta with lobster, rack of lamb with jalapeño-cumin sauce, and 60-hour braised short-ribs with raisin-peppercorn sauce. He reimagined the Reuben sandwich as ravioli and served an "egg" for dessert made out of white chocolate, meringue, and lemon cream. Anticipating, and later inspired by, the playfulness and benevolent deception that came to characterize avant-garde Spanish cuisine in the early twenty-first century, he was arguably not only the best chef in America but the most original. He also brought to Citronelle what Robert Shoffner, The Washingtonian's restaurant critic of the era, called “a sense of festivity…not usually associated with dining at the table of a nationally known chef.”
In 2007, Richard returned to his bistro roots, opening Central Michel Richard in D.C.'s Penn Quarter, where he served not only French onion soup, grilled sea bass, and steak au poivre but also a chicken-liver-based "faux gras," burgers made from ahi tuna and lobster as well as beef, and what he liked to tell people was his version of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The same year, he opened another Citronelle back in California, at Carmel Valley Ranch — and found himself named as the country's Best Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. (Central got the nod from the Beards as Best New Restaurant in America the following year.) Outposts of Central in Las Vegas and Atlantic City followed, and Richard talked with great enthusiasm about opening more places in various corners of the country.
The second decade of the millennium wasn't kind to Richard, however. In 2009, the Carmel Valley Ranch was sold and the new Citronelle shut down. In 2012, he closed a restaurant called Michel, which he'd opened less than two years earlier in the D.C. suburb of Tysons Corner — and a few months later, the Latham Hotel in Georgetown, where the Washington Citronelle was located, abruptly shuttered, reportedly due to water damage. (Employees apparently found out about the closure the day it happened, and spent the afternoon rebooking guests with reservations at other restaurants.) The closure was supposed to be temporary, but the restaurant never reopened. Central in Atlantic City shuttered the following year, and the one in Las Vegas went bankrupt in 2014.
In October of 2013, meanwhile, Richard, had made his much-anticipated restaurant debut in New York City at the Palace Hotel in midtown Manhattan, opening a pastry shop, an ornate bistro, and a formal gastronomic venue, The Gallery, which had prix-fixe menus at $150 and $185.The last time I saw Richard, he was sitting at a bare table in an empty banquet room next to The Gallery, shortly after he'd opened. He'd lost weight, and he looked tired — 10 years older than he had when I'd last seen him only three or four years earlier. He still had his impish smile, though, and while I thought he seemed a bit bewildered by where he'd ended up, he was in good spirits.
The critics weren't kind to these new enterprises. Ryan Sutton, then the dining critic for Bloomberg, had some good things to say about both restaurants, but also found "punishingly leaden seafood pasta" at the bistro and "one-note vegetables," "lousy onion fettuccine," and "rack of lamb as exciting as hotel buffet fare" at The Gallery. Pete Wells gave the bistro a no-star review in The New York Times (if the restaurant didn't succeed, he wrote, "it could reopen as the Museum of Unappetizing Brown Sauces") and compared it unfavorably with Central in D.C., dish by dish. By the summer of 2014, The Gallery had closed and the bistro was serving only breakfast. Today, only Pomme Palais — the pastry shop — remains.
Richard is survived by his wife of 30 years, Laurence, and by six children, two of whom are chefs themselves.