Michel Richard A Chef Who Brings New Meaning to Haute Cuisine

Written by admin on November 13, 2006 – 3:59 pm -

Spending an evening with super chef Michel Richard is enough to make anyone who loves food; its preparation and presentation know they’ve experienced an evening they’ll never forget. This isn’t solely from a culinary point of view but because his character and physique are bigger than life. He clearly enjoys his own food, sports a Santa Claus beard and possesses passion.

Michel Richard roars when he’s happy, when workers in the kitchen aren’t working up to his extraordinarily high standards or if anything goes wrong in the front of the house. Perfection is his mantra and he’s impatient when anything less is produced. He’s determined….

Michel’s colleague, public relations consultant Mel Davis, who also happens to be a member of “Women Chefs and Restaurateurs,” laughingly says, “Michel’s bark is worse than his bite.”  But, she makes no bones that keeping up with him takes an incredible amount of energy and has been doing precisely that since 2000.

Citronelle, Michel Richard’s restaurant, is located in a hotel on M. Street in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. There’s no question it would compete with any of Paris’s three star eateries. It’s obvious he pushes himself and his staff to achieve greater perfection. But the chef is quick to say that his ambition isn’t to cook solely French food. “It’s to understand what Americans like and what they are eating. For example, it’s a misconception that people don’t indulge in butter and cream. When they eat at Citronelle, diners from the East Coast, love butter.”

The interview took place on the terrace (rather, sidewalk) just outside of Citronelle. Upon meeting, he greeted me with, “Bonjour Cherie” while simultaneously waving for the waiter to bring a bottle of champagne. He was celebrating his newly released book, “Happy in the Kitchen” and getting ready to embark on a promotion tour. “Life is good” he said as photographer Clay McLachlan started snapping . The camera lens loved the chef and people, who happened to be walking by, stopped as if Michel Richard were surrounded by paparazzi. Many came over to the table to pay their respects, while at the same time, Michel eyes were darting. “I love beautiful women,” he confessed with a twinkle in his eyes. It was obvious they adore him considering the amount of bises (kisses) being exchanged.

As tiny plates of the chef’s newest creations were placed in front of us (not to mention constant refills of our flutes of champagne), the conversation took on a bit of a debate. Was I hearing this chef with his very French accent say, “Americans don’t embrace French chefs and food in the same way they do Italian counterparts”?  Didn’t he miss the ingredients he was able to obtain in France?  “Mais non,” he said, extolling the virtues of local ingredients such as superior crab meat and scallops. Citronelle buys its beef from a supplier in upstate New York and he claims great cheeses aren’t exclusively French.

The food guru explained that when he and his colleagues find great suppliers, it’s in all of their interests to patronize them.

Michel Richard’s pilgrimage to becoming one of the most revered chefs in the world had many twists and turns. He was born in Brittany in 1948. Post-war life wasn’t easy and only after he spent Easter vacation with a schoolmate, whose father owned a restaurant, did he develop an idea of what he wanted to do as an adult. When he was 17, he became a pastry chef and ultimately ended up working for Gaston Lenotre, whom he credits for giving him his start. From that time on, food took on new meaning for Michel. It was a gift he had to create that he was compelled to share with others.

In 1974, Michel moved to New York City to open Lenotre’s first US pastry shop, which had a short run, failed financially and closed.  On he went to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he constructed his creations in much the same way as an architect would plan a building. No detail was too small.

However, Michel Richard wasn’t content being solely a pastry chef and launched into the world of being a full restaurateur. His first rave restaurant, Citrus, opened in 1987.  It was located Los Angeles, where celebrities and all of the “in” and trendy folks, were clamoring for reservations. He met with such success that he used his name on nine restaurants and quickly discovered he didn’t like the life of a parachute entrepreneur.

He started closing the restaurants and permanently settled in the Nation’s Capital concentrating on Citronelle, a 120-seat restaurant where the décor is conducive to savoring fine food and enjoying a romantic evening or closing or celebrating that very important business deal. At any meal, the restaurant draws its quotient of stars from Congress, the Diplomatic Corps and some of Washington’s rich and famous. Then there are the clients who save up to eat the food of the “master” or “Maestro” as he’s known to some.   Michel plans to give cooking classes but it’s hard to imagine when he’d have the time.  I’d certainly sign up to be exposed to even an iota of his creativity and talent.

He’s been the recipient of the James Beard Award and Wine expert Robert Parker anointed him “A great chef, who is cooking at a level that far exceeds any Michelin three-star chef in France.” Having reviewed countless restaurants for Bonjour Paris,     I’d have to agree.

The reality is that this man is a cook and is only happy when he can experiment in a kitchen. His creativity knows no bounds and he and his sommelier Mark Slater, take special pride in the pairing of wines and food. The restaurant’s cellar has more than 8000 bottles from approximately 300 vintners.

Only open for dinner, men are required to wear jackets and people come anticipating a special foray into one chef’s interpretation of the best food. Michel Richard is experimental without pushing the envelope so diners have no idea what they’re eating.
If you’ve hit the jackpot, reserve the chef’s table that accommodates a maximum of eight people. It may be in the kitchen but you’ll have Michel Richard’s full attention. When it comes to food, I couldn’t imagine anything better.

Citronelle
3000 M Street, NW
Washington, DC 20007
202-625-2150
Relais & Chateaux

© Karen Fawcett
Bonjour Paris


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