August 14, 2016
My son Philippe and I were eating rib steak with our friend Michel. It was his favorite.
Someone came to the table and whispered to him that a tray of already baked puff pastry had been dropped on the floor. He left us and went into the kitchen of Central, his restaurant.
After perhaps 20 minutes, Michel emerged, smiling broadly as he put before us a plate on which a puff pastry swan swam in a huge pool of whipped cream. So was born a Michel Richard creation made from fractured puff pastry that itself had been made with Wondra flour, an ingredient I am far too snooty ever to use.
In the food world Michel Richard was a giant and in his personal life he was outsized too.
I met Michel in 1991. Marvelous Market had opened the year before and Jean Louis Palladin had put our bread in his restaurant at the Watergate and had invited me into his huge circle of friends. When we learned that he and I would be in Los Angeles at the same time, he invited me to join him at Citrus, Michel’s restaurant in Hollywood.
I had not seen a restaurant like that before. Light and open and simply decorated with the kitchen in the front visible to all. I was ushered to a back table that was littered with champagne bottles. Jean Louis was sitting with a round bearded man. Even before introducing us, Jean Louis poured a glass for me and said, “Taste this because you will never taste it again.”
“Don’t waste it on me,” I said, “I don’t like champagne.”
Michel looked angry and asked Jean Louis, “Qu’est ce cul?”
“He’s my baker,” Jean Louis said.
Michel said to me in a voice of pure scorn, “Oh, you’re boulanger. A boulanger!” He pushed a loaf of bread across the table and asked me, “Can you make this? Can you make a bread like this?”
I didn’t know how to do it.
Seven years later on the eve of his 50th birthday Michel Richard left Los Angeles and moved to Washington to take over full time his restaurant in the Latham Hotel.
This wasn’t a good time for Michel. His family didn’t want to move, but he had tired of Los Angeles about which he complained incessantly. “They come into the restaurant and ask for a piece of grilled fish, sauce on the side.” He felt unappreciated, his art unrecognized.
I do not use the word “art” lightly; Michel was truly an artist. The walls of my apartment would convince you of that. On them is Michel’s “Jolie Pomme,” a painting he gave to friends one Christmas as well as a caricature of me he drew in charcoal.
He drew and painted and brought his artist sensibilities to his restaurants, imagining how he would like to have his dishes look, drawing them before making them.
But he was a chef above all. As he thought visually about his foods he thought about other senses as well – how to give foods flavor combinations and unexpected and pleasurable textures. He loved “crunch” and talked all the time about the importance of texture.
Michel had complicated relationships with everyone who loved him but during those first years in Washington he was happier than he ever had been in his life. He said so.
Jean Louis had created in Washington a unique community of chefs who supported each other and socialized, but he had left the city and moved to Las Vegas, the first important chef to move to that strange place. Michel took over Jean Louis’ role as Washington’s host and his happiness about being in Washington made him the center of the food community.
Perhaps that would not have happened except that when Michel moved here somewhat bitter just before his fiftieth birthday, we learned that his birthday was approaching and Roberto Donna organized his chef pals to give Michel a surprise party.
We all arrived furtively, plans having been made to get Michel away from Citronelle while we gathered bringing foods with us; and when he returned we surprised him in the private dining room of his own restaurant.
He was astonished and touched and knew right away that Washington for him was going to be different. He told me so.
In fact he made it different. Every afternoon he sat at Citronelle, outside or in the upstairs bar or at the chef’s table in his kitchen, and people passed by for a cigar and/or a glass. Customers, chefs, Georgetown neighbors, visiting friends, whoever wanted to come.
Wine was freely poured, good wine, and generally Michel would ask, “Are you hungry.” No, people would say, and he would respond, “I am.” Shortly thereafter slices of my bread would appear with butter and a plate of thinly sliced American “prosciutto.” (Michel, like Jean Louis, was a champion of American foods.)
He had a wonderful life then and it became the most creative period of his life. He invented incessantly. He left his restaurant at 10 pm or so, sometimes going out with others.
He returned to his home and like most chefs had to do something before he could sleep. He watched infomercials on television, the contraptions they were selling. Often he would imagine a food use for them, a new idea, a new dish; and he would order one to be sent to him.
Michel with Phyllis Richman
Sometimes in the morning before appearing at the restaurant he would prowl Home Depot stores looking at hand tools and imagining food uses for them. And he’d bring his newly purchased tool with him to the restaurant.
Often he arrived early in the morning and could spend an entire day, sometimes more than a day, inventing a new dish or a new technique for cooking. He was perpetually excited about his work always trying something new and different, a bright orange carrot mousse atop a bright green liquid made from carrot tops, a cloud of nitrogen to dazzle my 96 year old mother before serving to her the ice cream he had made for her. A six-foot tall croquembouche, a wedding cake for my son’s wedding reception, carried to it by four men.
He was so happy then that he even started to exercise.
In those days he produced his magnum opus, Happy in the Kitchen, a beautiful book. This was the period in which he was named best chef in America and Gourmet Magazine put him on its cover.
But far earlier when Michel was still in Los Angeles people had put the bug in his ear that he ought to “expand his brand,” as it’s now called. So he had created Citronelle, a cousin of his fabulous Citrus and in the flash of an eye, there were Citronelles all over the country.
No one I know can manage successfully restaurant chains whose greatest virtues are supposed to be creativity and personality. Michel couldn’t. The Citronelles closed one by one, all but ours.
Many of us hoped that Michel was finished with that part of his life. He was so happy focusing on Citronelle, creating, entertaining his guests and enjoying their enjoyment.
He decided to open Central in downtown Washington. That seemed all right. A second restaurant a couple of miles from his own Citronelle where Michel was now in residence.
Central was fabulously successful.
Other opportunities came and came for Michel and others to profit even more from his prodigious talents. Some of his friends implored him to be satisfied with what he was doing. His life was so good. He knew it was good.
I organized Michel’s friends to try to dissuade him from expanding because years earlier I myself had given into the temptations of more-ness and ruined the highly successful bakery I had opened in 1990.
But Michel proceeded, first opening Restaurant Michel in Tyson’s Corner, an unappreciative neighborhood of our city that skins alive worthy restaurants that deserve support. Then he opened in Atlantic City – and then Los Angeles (again) – and then Las Vegas – and then finally in New York where he failed in a horribly visible way.
He returned to Washington, spent and lost. He lived just up the street from Bread Furst where we saw him often. His friends tried to brighten his life and I think we did. Certainly no one ever had more loyal friends than Michel.
Michel with Francesco Ricchi
Michel Richard prepared us for his death. All who loved him – and there are so many – tried to be attentive during his last years but we knew that he would die and far too early.
Of course no one could save him and now all those who loved him are left only with our memories. I have many:
A trip with him to Brussels where he was reunited with his mentor, the greatest of pastry chefs, Gaston Lenotre, then in his 80s, who threw his arms about Michel, kissed him on both cheeks, and said, “Mon protégé, mon meilleur étudiant.”
Those many occasions when I was permitted to join Michel when he was in earnest conversation with my son, Philippe. They had a special friendship and when they arranged to have dinner they sometimes included me but only if I agreed to come late.
A trip to Paris with Michel and Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and others. We arrived (of course) in the morning and agreed to meet at 10 AM at Maison du Chocolat. When we got there and began to look at the beautiful chocolates we turned around and there was Michel sitting, eating and he turned away briefly from his chocolate bombe to give us a mischievous look.
And one more trip, a particularly memorable one because the weather in Paris was alternatingly cool and warm, and we sat outside a little café just behind the National Assembly, watching the guards patrol, sipping beer in the sun. And Michel said, “Could anything be better than this?”
Perhaps, Michel, the opportunity to do that one more time.