Michel Richard, the chef who brilliantly fused French and American sensibilities and flavors at restaurants like Citronelle and Central Michel Richard, died Saturday morning at age 68. The cause was complications from a stroke. News of Richard’s death was shared by his fellow chefs on Facebook and Twitter.
Richard, who was born in Brittany, France, had a rare mastery—and passion for—both the savory and sweet sides of the kitchen. He got his professional start at age 14 in a patisserie in Champagne, then worked his way up the ranks at Gaston Lenotre’s famed pastry shop in Paris. He moved to New York City in 1974 to open a place with Lenotre, then headed to Los Angeles to open a restaurant of his own, called Michel Richard. Restaurants Citrus, also in LA, and Citronelle, in Santa Barbara, followed. In 1993, he brought Citronelle to Washington and made DC his home.
In then-Washingtonian critic Robert Shoffner’s first review of Citronelle, he noted that “a sense of festivity is not usually associated with dining at the table of a nationally known chef. Citronelle is an exception.” Indeed, few chefs ever seemed to be having as much fun in the kitchen as Richard. Even 23 years ago, he was transforming Reuben sandwiches into ravioli (“delicious as it is droll,” wrote Shoffner) and turning out a genius re-envisioning of a Kit Kat. He had a winking affection for trompe l’oeil. Lobster “begula” pasta featured lobster cooked in butter, then served atop squid-ink-tinted risotto nestled inside a caviar tin. His “lemon egg-ceptional” dessert looked just like an egg, but was actually crafted from white chocolate, lemon, and meringue. In 2007 and 2008, Citronelle topped our ranked list of the area’s 100 best restaurants.
The more casual Central Michel Richard followed, opening in Penn Quarter in 2007. There, he was known for fried chicken that he gleefully admitted had been inspired by KFC, a lobster burger, and his legendary, supremely puffy Napoleon. In an early review of Central, former Washingtonian critic Todd Kliman wrote: “The technical prowess in these dishes is unmistakable, yet they feel so tossed off that you can’t help but have a good time.” In 2008, the restaurant won a James Beard Award for best new restaurant in the country. The year before, the Beard Foundation named Richard chef of the year.
The next few years were rockier for Richard. He expanded Central to two casinos, and the spinoff in the short-lived Revel in Atlantic City lasted less than a year. A 24-hour Las Vegas location of the bistro closed in 2014 after three years, when the restaurant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And then there was Villard Michel Richard in Manhattan’s New York Palace Hotel, which was panned with zero stars in 2014 by New York Times critic Pete Wells. It essentially closed—serving only breakfast—seven months later.
But in Washington, the jovial Richard remained a beloved figure, known as much for his joie de vivre as for being one of the driving forces behind the city’s culinary success. Restaurateur and close friend Mark Bucher, who calls Richard “a surrogate father,” remembers cooking Sunday dinners together at Bucher’s house: “It was a place where he could be himself and not put a show on for anyone. We talked family, restaurants, recipes, and of course wine and sorbet. He loved my kids. He would sit at their tiny kids’ play table and have tea parties with them.” Bucher also recalls taking Richard to Chipotle: “He couldn’t understand why Americans would want to eat that. He had a hatred for cilantro and root beer; he thought everything at Chipotle tasted like cilantro. You could only imagine the drama every time he took a bite then had to spit it out.”
Richard’s restaurants produced talents including Tom Power (Corduroy, Baby Wale), Austin Fausett (Proof), and most notably, Cedric Maupillier (Mintwood Place, Convivial), who worked under Richard for six years and was the opening chef de cuisine at Central. Richard’s influence can be tasted in many of Maupillier’s creations. Those tiny, crunchy potatoes adorning the steak tartare at Mintwood Place? The sparkler-spewing celebration cake at Convivial? Pure Richard. And of course, many of his best dishes—that Kit Kat, that lemon egg-ceptional—can still be found at Central.