Michel Richard, 1948-2016

Michel Richard, right, accepting the 2008 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant (AP)
August 13, 2016

I last saw Michel Richard a few months ago at his eponymous restaurant, Central Michel Richard, in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He didn't look well. He was barely managing his diabetes and his memory seemed to fade from time to time. He also had a bit of a temper—at least more than usual. We sat outside for lunch, surrounded by his clientele, although I doubt these diners, some of whom looked like tourists, knew who he was. He started mindlessly banging a spoon on the table, which led his publicist Mel Davis, to chide him about the noise. "I can do whatever I want," he said, and banged the spoon with a definitive whap! The diners at a nearby table snapped their heads in his direction—they looked annoyed. I felt like saying, "Do you have any idea who this man is? What a genius he is? What a legend?"

I received news this morning from Mel Davis that Michel suffered a stroke. Not long after, he died. And with that, a truly great chef was lost.

Michel was born in Brittany, but his family moved to the Champagne region after World War II. His father said there were jobs aplenty near the old front. Unfortunately he was a drunk and left Michel and his mother some time later.

It's been well documented, by now, how hard it was for Michel to grow up fatherless. His mother met another man and suddenly there was no more room for him in the house. So by age 14 he was sent to apprentice with a certain Chef Sauvage. The man was both verbally and physically abusive (not atypical in the cooking profession at that time). In a Washington Post profile Michel recounts the time he tried to run away. He made it as far as the train station but broke down in tears when he realized he had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.

"The bathroom had to be spotless," he once told me. If not, the chef would start slapping him and throwing punches. But Michel suffered through it and said that for many years later, even after he became a success in America, he'd still call Monsieur Sauvage every Christmas.

His first foray in the United States was a failure. Michel was asked to open a Gaston Lenotre pastry shop right on 5th Avenue in New York. Lenotre was one of France's most renowned patissiers. But New Yorkers in the 1970s were not ready for delicate and refined "opera" cakes. They wanted big, bold, and lots of shortening. It drove him nuts. "The shortening," he complained. "You can't wash it off your hands!"

There was opportunity out West, however, so Michel opened up a restaurant in New Mexico. Every now and then, from the corner of his eye, he'd see a rodent scamper across the kitchen floor. "Oh God," he said, as if he was about to cry. "I'd pretend not to notice!" I asked if he missed New Mexico and without hesitation he said, "No."

From there he went to L.A. and flourished at the same time as his friend Wolfgang Puck. He did cookbooks and cohosted with Julia Child. He hit his apex by 1993, running nine restaurants from D.C. to L.A. to San Francisco and even Tokyo. Citronelle in Georgetown was one of the highest-rated restaurants in Washington, serving ingenious interpretations of French and nouvelle cuisine.

I profiled Michel for Washingtonian in 2010. My angle was The Comeback. He'd been focused on just two restaurants in D.C. but was planning an expansion--first to the Virginia suburb of Tyson's Corner, then Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and New York. I spent a few days with the chef, from morning until night. I even drove him around in his Volkswagen Phaeton. We went to an Asian market in Falls Church, Va., and looked at the fish, the eels, the frogs, buckets of fish heads. I was reminded of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He, on the other hand, loved it. He smiled from ear to ear, chatting up the Asian purveyors and customers about enoki mushrooms.

I wish I could write that Michel made a comeback, but he didn't. Tyson's closed first. His restaurant in Atlantic City was unfortunately located in the doomed Revel Casino. His outpost at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas folded next. But worst of all was his foray into New York City at the Palace Hotel. It struggled from the get-go but the nail in the coffin was the review in the New York Times. Critic Pete Wells gave it zero stars.

I'm not sure whose fault this was. Michel blamed it on the stubbornness of the union kitchen. He recalled his past experience at a union-staffed restaurant where he begged the cook at the fish station to help out the beleaguered cook at the meat station, but the poissonnier wouldn't budge—not his station. But when I recently chatted with chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, he mentioned how he and other chefs knew Michel was struggling, but that he was set in his ways. The last phone call Ripert made to Michel ended in a voicemail message, in which the younger four-New York Times-star chef said he just wanted to help and that he wasn't calling "to kiss his ass."

That was it. After his failure in New York (I was in fact scheduled to have dinner with him on the night his place closed down), his health followed suit. During our last lunch, I remember talking to him about the famous Pavillon restaurant from the 1950s under the stewardship of Henri Soule. "You remember the Pavillon, yes?" He shook his head in silence. But when the Napoleon dessert arrived--a monumental treat--he leaned in to me, pointed to the flakey crust, and said, "We call this the mille feuille."

My wife and I had a dinner at Citronelle once. We sat at the chef's table, which was in the kitchen amidst all the hustle and bustle. Michel joined us, waltzing in, doing a double take, and saying, "I know why you married her, but why did you marry him?!" He was full of laughs. At one point we were served a dish that required the chef to say, "Kill the lights!" It was luminescent--although I can't even remember what it was. I do remember his short-ribs cooked at a low temperature for 72 hours "so that the fat melts evenly throughout" and a seafood bisque made with a calamari stock. That last was the most amazing thing I've ever tasted, and he never even put it on the regular menu. He was just messing around, like the time he tried making couscous from potatoes, or cuttlefish that looked like linguini.

During our last lunch, he and another chef were deciding on plans to go to France. Because of his ill health, it fell through. But he had invited me along—it would have been one for the ages. Instead, I left his table, gave him a hug and kiss, and said that I'd see him again.

In the next life, my friend.