The Chefs Who Knew Him Best Remember Michel Richard
On Aug. 13, Washington, D.C., lost one of its culinary forefathers. Michel Richard, the legendary chef behind Georgetown’s Citronelle and Central Michel Richard, was more than a cook. He was a mad scientist of gastronomy, whose food bore an electricity and an unpredictability, a panache and a whimsical genius, equaled only by his very character as a man. Along with chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin, Bob Kinkead, Roberto Donna, Nora Pouillon and Francesco Ricchi, Richard was one of the restaurateurs who jump-started Washington’s current dining revolution.
He will be fondly remembered and deeply missed, and his food will live on through those chefs who knew and loved him. The Georgetowner spoke to a handful of the chefs who knew Richard best, who shared their remembrances and thoughts on their dearly departed friend.
Robert Wiedmaier, Chef and Restaurateur, Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, Brabo, Mussel Bar
We respected each other’s works and had a lot of fun together. Marcel’s and Citronelle were totally different restaurants — I was more French, he was more Californian, with innovative pastry styles infused in his cooking. People assumed we were competitors, but we were just buddies. He’d always barge into my restaurant — it didn’t matter what time of day it was — and he’d just scream my name: “ROBERT!”
What Michel brought to D.C., because he was a pastry chef, was a whole angle to cooking most savory chefs can’t. He was a master of layering different textures. His nickname was Captain Crunch. The way he thought about food was so precise, with such exacting formulas, but he didn’t let that limit his imagination or hamper his creativity in the kitchen. His mind worked differently than most chefs. He’s one of the few chefs I’ve ever known to pull off massively complicated dishes and make you say “wow.” Sure, he turned a ratatouille of peppers, zucchini and eggplant into jelly cubes, but he also made it taste and look great. I’ve never seen anybody do that. Because when you take those kinds of risks, they can’t just be base hits, because that’s as good as failure — they have to be outstanding. And with Michel, they were.
Bob Kinkead, Chef, Previously of Kinkead's
I think Michel’s gift to cooking was his ability to conceive things in an almost childlike way that nobody else really saw. He was able to do interesting things with food because of his pastry background for sure, but it was mostly his unique perspective, which shocked even other very talented chefs.
About 10 years ago, I went over to say hi to him on his birthday. We had a glass of champagne and he asked if I would try a new dish he was working on, which we often did to each other. So he comes out with these three little bite-sized desserts that looked like pretty basic opera cakes. I said, “What’s the big deal about this?” and he says, “Wait — just taste it.” So I picked it up and it popped in my mouth and dissolved, and every single flavor came rushing out at you. He had made gelatin layers within the cake so that the heat of your mouth melted it down and the flavors came out contained and beautiful, all working separately and together. Several years later, he did his dessert book, and this recipe wasn’t in there. I asked him why he hadn’t added it, and he said, “Oh, shit! I forgot!” But that’s the thing. If I come up with something that good, you can rest assured I am not gonna forget about it. Michel would just forget that he even did it. What, are you kidding me? No one comes up with that many good ideas that you can afford to toss them away. Except Michel.
He looked at food in a total different way. In my opinion, he was the most creative chef in the U.S. He might not have been the most skilled, but he was absolutely the most inventive. He thought about food on a whole different plane than us mere mortals.
Fabio Trabocchi, Chef and Restaurateur, Fiola, Casa Luca, Fiola Mare
Michel Richard is a culinary giant. Here in Washington, D.C., he paved the road for all of us. He is the chef of chefs, and we will miss him always. His contagious charisma and creative genius will never be forgotten.
Mark Furstenburg, Owner, Bread Furst
My son Philippe and I were at Central, visiting Michel and eating rib steak. It was his favorite. Suddenly, someone came to the table and whispered to Michel that a tray of already-baked puff pastry had been dropped on the floor. He left us and went into the kitchen. After 20 minutes, Michel emerged, smiling broadly as he put before us a plate on which a puff pastry swan was swimming 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 his personality was outsized too.
Ris Lacoste, Chef-owner, RIS
I was that girl chef in the great Boys Club of the restaurant business. I have been around with them since 1987. I loved Michel’s brilliance, his camaraderie with his fellow chefs — they were all quite something — and I was proud to eventually become one of them. I loved the great respect he always showed me. I was nowhere in his league, but certainly of his passion, and he still thought I was something else. He called me “Cherie.”
Frank Ruta Chef, The Grill Room
I never worked for Michel, but I participated in a few charity events with him over the years and I ate at Citronelle numerous times. So my impressions are probably in line with others’. As a diner, I couldn’t help but to be impressed and amused with his whimsical style, creativity and presentation on the plates. As a cook, I was always intrigued and blown away by the technique it took to execute that creativity. But his presence at these events added that dash of charisma and celebrity that all of us admired and, quite frankly, that these events needed. He was always very generous and giving with his time, and his jovial, festive and happy nature was just what people were looking for.
David Guas, Chef-owner, Bayou Bakery
I have been a huge admirer of Michel’s since I first met him in 1998, particularly his ability to transition from a pastry chef to then opening and running his own successful restaurants. Michel was playful and creative and his technique and talents were truly one-of-a-kind. I often wondered what it would be like to be his pastry chef, and how tough that position must have been. He was a perfectionist in the kitchen and held everyone to his highest standards.
Amy Brandwein, Owner, Centrolina
I knew Michel because he was a constant presence at Galileo, Roberto Donna’s restaurant. I worked with Roberto for many years and saw Michel often when he would come visit the restaurant. I remember their friendship well, through both good times and bad. I saw how Roberto was influenced by Michel’s techniques, and we would try to incorporate some of his ideas into our cooking. I had the pleasure of cooking for Michel at many off-the-cuff lunches. It was such an honor for a young chef like me, but I always thought to myself, “What do you cook for Michel Richard?”
Jim Swenson, Restaurant Consultant
Michel and I were once sitting in the Boston airport and Michel was hungry, but all there was in the terminal was a Pizza Hut. The food looked old and tired but he insisted on getting some. Of course it was terrible, but Michel kept turning this dull piece of pizza around in his hands, looking at it from every angle and saying, “It’s not what it is, but what it could be.” A year later, when his cookbook “Happy in the Kitchen” came out, I saw there was a recipe in it for pizza. And it was brilliant. Nothing like the sorry one we ate, but a totally new way of looking at something we all see every day.
Eric Krempp, Private Chef
I knew Michel for 20 years and came to love him like a father. We are both French and love all things French, but he also had so much love for things uniquely American. The last couple of years were difficult for him, but he never lost his ability to shock you with a joke from nowhere. Last year, I went with him to Paris to visit friends and places that were important to him. It was an honor to spend such special time with him. He inspires me and will continue to for many years to come. Michel will be always in my heart and his memory will come through in my cooking.