News & Politics

And Now for the Next Course

At 62, chef Michel Richard is far from retiring. He’s just getting started.

Michel Richard—who was a celebrity chef before cooking shows became popular—has a new cookbook, a new bistro, and new energy. "I love busy," he says. Photograph by Scott Suchman

That Michel Richard is opening a third restaurant may not come as a surprise. The 2007 James Beard Award winner for the country’s outstanding chef already runs the much-praised Citronelle in Georgetown, and in Penn Quarter he has the brasserie Central Michel Richard, which won the 2008 Beard Award for best new restaurant.

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.”

The decision to open at the Ritz wasn’t made rashly; Richard mulled it over for more than a year. When he learned that the space would be opening—the previous occupant, the highly acclaimed Maestro, had closed down—Richard declined. “I was already in a hotel,” he says, meaning the Latham, which houses Citronelle. A year and a half later, he was approached again—Gordon Ramsay is said to have been a contender for the space but dropped out. This time Richard agreed, after several conditions were met. One was that he, not the hotel, would control the restaurant.

Richard has spent $2.5 million in renovations. The chef’s longtime business partner, Carl Halvorson—co-owner of Michel Richard Restaurants—describes Michel the bistro as a “deluxe Central” with silvery wood floors, burgundy chairs, and mahogany-colored tables.

“The lighting in Michel will not be too dark,” says Richard. “Good lighting. But you’re going to be able to dim it. In one corner, you’re going to be able to change the color, to create different moods. If you’re going to have young people in the corner, we’re going to put bright yellow to make them happy.”

Following lunch at Entyse, the Ritz’s other restaurant, we visit the space for Michel. The open kitchen, smaller than the one at Citronelle, is partially constructed by August. We look over blueprints while the chef points out the corner location of the bar, behind which will be a large antique-style mirror. Next to it will be a glass-enclosed wine “cellar,” with a capacity of 3,000 bottles—compared with 8,000 bottles at Citronelle. Across the way will be the chef’s table, which is not connected to the kitchen, and in between will be the main dining room, seating 110. A private room will seat an additional 24.

The way Richard sees it, his new bistro will be something between Citronelle and Central.

“I don’t want it to be too froufrou, too fancy,” he says. “I just want to make sure the people are going to have food and fun. I want my food to stay young and exciting. Texture is important. No stuffy. Almost like a California feeling.”

Richard has spent the past year developing the new restaurant’s menu.

“I was dreaming of old French food with a twist, a modern twist. And a lot of seafood—chefs love to cook seafood. More magic. It’s refined, it’s special, the texture,” Richard says. “And one thing I love to cook is chicken. You have the drumstick, you have the thigh, you have the breast, you have the little filet, you have the liver. You can play a lot with that. You have the skin. It’s wonderful. I’m going to have onion-shallot soup. We’re going to use miso instead of chicken stock.”

Richard has been fascinated with food from as far back as his childhood in the Ardennes.

“When I was a very young man, eight or nine years old, my mother was working in an artificial-silk factory. I used to cook for my brother and sister. I was enjoying myself. They were getting fat. My mother used to give me ten francs every Thursday. I used to go to the horse butcher and buy four or five horse steaks. I used to make my own French fries.” His father, an abusive alcoholic, left the family when Michel was six.

Richard was inspired to cook by watching a television show starring France’s first modern celebrity chef, Raymond Oliver. He also learned from observing his mother, though he admits, “She was pretty bad. I’m not going to tell the world that my mother was a great chef. Pie crusts were hard like a rock.”

He says he never complained, aware that she was raising five children on her own. One day when Richard was ten, he went to a restaurant owned by the father of a friend. “I went in the back door, went inside, and I loved the kitchen. And I stayed. I used to spend a lot of time in that kitchen. I used to bother the pastry chef.

“In France in 1960, being a chef was like becoming a wino. It was not a good profession,” says Richard. But it was the career he told his mother he wanted to pursue. She landed him an apprenticeship with a middling pastry chef named Jacques Sauvage. As Richard recalls, an acquaintance told his mother: “If your son wants to be a chef, he needs to be a pastry chef first. He needs to learn the discipline of dessert. After three years, then you can jump to become a cook.”

Those three years under Sauvage were brutal, Richard says. The chef did not hesitate to slap around his apprentices. “We used to do everything for him,” Richard recalls, including cleaning his home kitchen and bathroom until they sparkled. Madame Sauvage, on the other hand, offered comfort and helped Richard get through the hard times.

The experience made his stint in the French army a breeze. When Richard was discharged, he found a job working for France’s legendary pâtissier Gaston Lenôtre, who soon dispatched Richard to New York to open a Lenôtre bakery. From there, Richard was off to Santa Fe, where he debuted the Michel Richard French Pastry Shop.

“There was a line all day—it was packed,” he recalls. “The first month, I made $5,000 profit. Imagine, I was living in France a year before; my salary per month was $700. From $700 to $5,000 a month was a big thing in 1975. I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1976, and in 1977 I opened Michel Richard Pastry Shop in LA. And I was busy. I love busy.”

Though Richard is classically trained and his specialty is French cuisine, it’s his interpretation of classic dishes and traditional fare that has garnered him praise. Michael Ruhlman, a food writer and author most recently of Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, says via e-mail that what comes to mind when he thinks of Michel Richard is “the relentless ingenuity he brings to cooking (like the tater tots and the cuttlefish spaghetti) combined with technical virtuosity. He brings a pastry chef’s mechanical and visual cleverness to the savory kitchen. Combine all this with his sense of humor, his generosity, and his contagious joie de vivre, and you’ve got a chef like none other in the country.”

For Phyllis Richman, what stands out about Richard is “talent, above all. He is a perfectionist with wit and whimsy, a master craftsman with imagination. Unlike many chefs at his stage, he loves to cook. His creations are not only technically impeccable; they are lively. He doesn’t know how to make boring food.”

Richard’s creation of a traditional French soup using miso—as he plans to do at Michel—shouldn’t be surprising. He has often incorporated influences from other cultures into his menus. And it probably explains why, despite running behind schedule, he insists we make a quick stop at the Great Wall, an Asian supermarket in Falls Church.

It’s a sight to behold Richard strolling down the aisles of this exotic market. He seems to be the only non-Asian there.

“Look at this place! Isn’t this great? Only in America!” he says, walking past an elderly Chinese woman, no taller than five feet, who is wearing a silk tunic.

Along the back wall are meats and seafood. We walk past razor clams and a barrel of water teeming with eels. Richard stops to look down at a crate of live frogs and says, “My brothers!” He smiles at the fish heads and holds up a package containing a black-skinned chicken called a Silkie. “You ever see this?” he asks. I tell him I’m certain I did—in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

He ogles a roast pig under heat lamps, admiring the crunchy-looking skin. He lifts a fine specimen of Spanish trout, pointing out all the signs of freshness, including the firmness. He grasps it near the tail and holds it out like a sword. “After a few days, it begins to bend. But this—this is like me 40 years ago!”

Richard stayed at Citronelle for that night’s service until 11 and was back early the next morning, trying to create a potato couscous. He also met with Jennifer Lucy, former assistant general manager at Central and now manager of Michel, to decide on the types of dishes and silverware to have at the new bistro.

“No butter knives,” he says. “I think you have plenty of knives. You don’t need that small knife. Use the salad knife. And they don’t need to eat more butter.”

The plates should be a simple white, he says. And there will be no sommelier: “I don’t want someone hovering over you in that kind of place, telling you what you should order.”

Richard once complained about having too many restaurants and about his desire to scale back to one. So why is he heading in the other direction?

The difference this time, he says, is having a dependable team, something he didn’t have before.

“Now I have to be selective about my employees,” he says. “We need a good team. And I want to be very good friends with my team. We should stick together and make sure we all do a good job. Without them, I would never be able to create a good company.”

Richard recalls giving a pep talk to a chef at Citronelle in 1995. He told him: “I would love to see you in the kitchen a little bit more; I want you to focus a little bit more on the food. You need to be the leader. I hope you’re going to improve.” When Richard landed in Los Angeles, he learned that the chef at Citronelle had just resigned, claiming to have been insulted.

“Citronelle chefs, they’re a special breed,” he says. “We don’t grab a chef off the street and just give him the recipe. Training a chef at Citronelle takes a few months. It’s tough. They need to know the technique.”

Thomas Keller, arguably this country’s best chef—his restaurants include the French Laundry in California and Per Se in Manhattan—says the temptation to overextend is great. “It’s a new era for the modern chef,” explains Keller, who considers Richard a close friend and mentor. “We have all these opportunities to open different restaurants. One thing a chef has a difficult time saying is no. We’re kind of trained to say yes all the time. And sometimes we bite off more than we can chew.”

Integral to Michel Richard’s team, besides publicist Mel Davis and business partner Carl Halvorson, are his longtime general manager and maître d’, Jean-Jacques Retourné—who has known Richard since 1976 and is his brother-in-law—and his young chefs, particularly David Deshaies at Citronelle. Richard has selected 34-year-old Levi Mezick, formerly of the Jockey Club, as executive chef at his new bistro.

Mezick speaks humbly of the task at hand: “I really want to develop Michel’s style. That’s a big privilege, to be able to work in this restaurant.” He comes with a stellar résumé, having been sous chef at New York’s Oceana, chef de partie at Per Se, sous chef at Daniel in New York, and executive sous chef at Café Boulud in New York. As nerve-racking as those first few months at Michel will no doubt be—with a bistro serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner Mezick wonders when they’ll have time for deep-cleaning the kitchen—he’s excited to get started.

So is Richard. With his team assembled, it’s as if all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit—including in his personal life. Retourné mentions that the other reason Richard had scaled back was because he realized he was missing out on his family life: “I think he did the right thing—to be with the children as they were growing and to spend time with my sister, his wife.”

Richard has undergone a transformation, says Retourné: “I knew him before when he was a madman, an absolute madman, running and drinking and eating, and there was no control. Now he’s a lot more controlled, he’s a lot more relaxed. There’s been a change in him.”

Richard thinks that change happened around 1987. “I didn’t like my food anymore,” he says. “One thing I didn’t like was the ‘guilty problem.’ I’m here in one restaurant, I want to be someplace else. I was not paying attention to anything.” His wife was talking to him about the kids, he says, but his mind was on business. “And I realized that all of that was not necessary.”

Richard’s plans, it seems, don’t stop at Michel. What’s next? The chef jokes about opening a restaurant that serves just meatballs. He remembers coming to New York and eating heaping plates of spaghetti and meatballs. The portions and the cheapness, he says, were indicative of America’s generosity.

There’s talk of opening a hamburger place in DC, and he’s taking trips to Las Vegas and Seoul, though he refuses to elaborate, saying, “It’s just a trip.” Imagine the possibilities: braised-beef bulgogi, kimchee carpaccio.

There may come a time when Richard is no longer able to visit all of his restaurants daily. Keller is familiar with this situation.

“At some point, you’re not the chef anymore,” Keller says. “If you’re not in the restaurant every day, you’re not the chef. It’s really about having the team.”

Richard has moments of doubt: “It’s always a dream, I think, for a chef to have one restaurant and be there every day. Sometimes I wonder, why do we need to open more restaurants?” Richard is lost in thought, but then the moment passes—he knows the answer is both demand and his desire to please.

Over lunch at Central, he reminds Levi Mezick that the goal isn’t so much perfect food—“nothing is ever perfect”—but rather happy food.

“I just want to make a happy meal,” he says. Mezick suggests he throw in a toy. Richard laughs, getting the McDonald’s reference. “Yeah,” he says, “but the price wouldn’t be the same.”

This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.