He may look like a jolly French Santa Claus, but chef Michel Richard of Citronelle and Central Michel Richard looked jollier than normal last night. In honor of six decades—more than half of which have been spent filling lucky diners’ bellies with livers, duck confit, and lobster medallions—Richard was tricked into an evening drive to CityZen. There, a crowd of about 200 friends, fellow chefs, food-media types, and family members drank Champagne in blazers and cocktail dresses while waiting to surprise the birthday boy. With invitations sent a month ago, could the night really be kept secret? Didn’t it dawn on Richard that CityZen is normally closed Sundays? Or that his Central kitchen staff had been acting funny? His press-relations director, Mel Davis, didn’t seem to think so, but according to one rumored story, spread throughout the evening, Richard had a gut feeling in the car ride over. He apparently asked his wife, “Zees isn’t a surprise partay, ees it?”
Read on for the best moments from the night.
Hosts with the mosts: CityZen chef Eric Ziebold, who was outside as guests arrived, made sure Mandarin Oriental valets knew the drill when Richard showed up. Inside, manager Mark Politzer jumped from food to wine stations, personally selecting a glass of red for Washington Post food critic emeritus Phyllis Richman while working the crowd and recalling exactly where diners had last sat and ate at CityZen.
Best way to dupe Richard: Tell him CityZen isn’t closed on Sundays anymore and that Ziebold wanted Richard and just a few close friends (not the 200 who RSVPd affirmatively) over for dinner.
Best sunglasses-turned-headband look: Brasserie Beck and Marcel’s chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier rested his Oakley-looking shades on his forehead the whole night, despite the dim lighting. He looked ready to zoom off on his Harley at the drop of a hat.
Best Rocky-soundtrack moment: When the deejay blasted “Eye of the Tiger” as a surprised Richard walked through the front door at 8:30.
Best French-pancake showing: Delicate crepes, flipped by line cooks, were filled with dollops of fluffy foie gras mousse. The little pockets roused inappropriate moaning sounds in that station’s corner.
National chef icon who traveled the farthest: French Laundry chef/owner Thomas Keller came in from Napa Valley. In a sleek black blazer and fitted jeans (not chef’s whites), he sang his buddy Richard’s praises all night, especially at the after-party, said one source. An honorable mention goes to chef Jean Joho, who trekked from Chicago.
Best birthday gift: A bucket of warm KFC crispy chicken, Richard’s guilty pleasure, sat on the front gift table. We didn’t catch the giver’s name, but he or she he clearly knows Richard pretty well.
Lips that got the biggest workout: Those belong to the birthday boy, of course. Richard was ready to purse his smackers on any lady’s hand or wayward cheek. His unshaven chin was a bit furry and his cologne very sniffable.
Best solid to soak up the liquids: The restaurant’s trademark Parker House rolls, normally served to CityZen diners in tiny wooden boxes, were plated conveniently at the table closest to the front door. And nobody counted how many you took.
Best news for Citronelle staff last night: They didn’t have to work! The staff got the night off to celebrate with their boss.
Pastry chef who should get a raise: CityZen’s Amanda Cook created two four-layered cakes the size of monster-truck wheels. There was a chocolate cake with chocolate ganache and almonds and a vanilla cake with gooey lemon curd and berries. She and boss Ziebold struggled with a huge cutting knife at first and eventually destroyed the cartoonish image of Richard atop the fondant.
Best after-party: As Top-40 hits kept playing, chefs and close friends snuck off to Brasserie Beck around 10:30, where Wiedmaier had a three-course meal and buckets of frites (Richard’s favorite) waiting in the back room. The approximately 50 guests drank Belgian beers and sang “Happy Birthday” every twenty minutes or so.