Richard recently created a menu for the Garden Café at the National Gallery of Art and another for OpenSkies, an airline with flights from New York City and Washington to Paris. His latest book on pastries and desserts is out this fall.
In the midst of all this, Richard is rolling out another restaurant. Called Michel, it’s a casual but not inexpensive bistro at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner.
Looking at Richard’s life, you might think the chef was ready for retirement. In 1993, he was running a restaurant empire with nine locations, including the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica, Michel’s Bistro in Philadelphia, Citrus in Los Angeles, Bistro M in San Francisco, and a Citrus outpost in Tokyo. Then, over the next several years, he stripped himself of all but one property—Citronelle in Georgetown. He and his family moved east from LA, settling in Potomac, where he preferred the slower pace and the weather: “I’m from France, where you have four seasons.”
Richard is 62 and a dead ringer for Santa Claus, a jolly soul with a soft white beard—no extra padding necessary. He has diabetes, yet he continues to indulge in rich food and drink.
“I’ve never met an ice cream I didn’t like,” he confesses. “I love it. You know, when I go home, my wife is sleeping—she cannot see me. I take the ice cream from the freezer, stick it in the microwave for 10 or 15 seconds. Creamy, delicious—I love it.”
There was something Zen-like about the great chef tucked inside the kitchen of one restaurant, as was the case when Michel was solely at Citronelle from 2003 to 2007. He had become like André Soltner, the longtime chef and proprietor of Lutèce, whose devotion to one place has often been described as monk-like. And like Soltner, perhaps Richard would eventually retire and become a culinary instructor.
That was merely an interlude. Richard now scoffs at the idea of retirement and uses television chef Jacques Pépin, 74, and the still active—though not in the kitchen—Paul Bocuse, 84, as his benchmarks. This past summer, I spent time with Richard to get a sense of his typical workday, what his plans are—starting with the concept behind Michel at Tysons Corner—and what he hopes to accomplish.
Richard is an early riser compared with most chefs. Every morning, he gets up around 7 and has a bowl of cornflakes mixed with Yoplait yogurt and two or three tablespoons of frozen sliced fruit, giving the crunchiness that he loves in his cooking. His wife makes him a cappuccino, to which he adds Splenda, not sugar, because of his diabetes. Then it’s off to Citronelle.
When I arrive one morning, Richard is seated at the chef’s table in the kitchen. By night, the rustic wooden table hosts six to eight guests, each of whom pays $350 for a food-and-wine pairing and proximity to the kitchen, not to mention access to Richard, provided he’s in town. During the day, it’s where the chef conducts his business.
Richard, in dark slacks and a plaid short-sleeve button-down shirt, looks up at me with disappointment.
“You’re not a blonde!”
Richard is passionate about women. “The way they look, the way they smell—I want to be a lady!” he says. Richard repeatedly mentions his wife of 23 years, Laurence, and how much he loves her.
He’s aware of the sacrifices chefs and their families make—Richard has been married twice and has six children. The eldest, Michael, is also a chef.
“It’s tough to be married and be a chef,” Richard says. “When your family is dining together, you’re not there. You’re married to the kitchen.”
What occupies him at the moment is not tonight’s service. His publicist, Melanie Davis, is going through the logistics of their upcoming trip to Napa, California, for one of his many charity events—this time it’s Hands & Hearts for Cancer, hosted by the Peter Michael Winery. His past charities have included aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Not only will Richard be cooking at the $2,000-a-person event in Napa, but his artwork—a series of watercolors of food—will be auctioned. Richard has been a painter since boyhood; he’s particularly fond of van Gogh, though his own sketches better resemble Cézanne. His hope is for his works to fetch a decent price.
“Can you imagine if they sold for $4? I’d go to the bathroom and hang myself,” he says, his hand holding up an imaginary noose, his tongue sticking out.
Michel, the new restaurant, is also on the day’s agenda, so for lunch we head to the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons. En route I’m hoping to learn more about the driving force behind Richard—which turns out to be me.
He can drive, but he has asked if I’ll get behind the wheel, allowing him to take calls and look over his files. I agree, not realizing I’ll be driving his black VW Phaeton, a $70,000 sedan. It handles very well, such as when I turn into a parking lot, gunning the engine lest the passenger side get broadsided by oncoming traffic.
“That was a close one,” I say, mostly kidding.
The chef replies, “Michel Richard is dead. I was almost dead.”
The drive from Citronelle in Georgetown to the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons isn’t easy in traffic. Yet Richard says he plans on visiting his new outpost every day. In the hotel’s fourth-floor lobby, Richard looks around, noticing the quietness.
“It makes me sad,” he says. He wants there to be excitement.
He wonders if Washingtonians nearer to Citronelle or Central will make the trek to Tysons. The diners are more likely to be powerbrokers from nearby McLean as well as hotel guests, who won’t have a problem affording a meal at Michel, the cost of which will be $80 to $100 a person.
“Michel always craves a challenge,” says former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman. “He has chosen a particularly tough challenge at the Ritz. The timing could hardly be worse for a pricey restaurant. The location has already proven that even a superb and lavishly promoted chef can’t squeeze a stable success out of it.”