Mind Over Menu

By April Witt
Sunday, August 20, 2006

"This is Michel Richard, the best chef in the world -- in the whole world," the sommelier says with practiced fanfare.

All eyes turn to a round, balding, bearded Frenchman who looks like Santa Claus wearing a slightly rumpled white chef's jacket. "He's not biased," the chef says of the sommelier, who works for him at his internationally acclaimed Georgetown restaurant, Michel Richard Citronelle.

Tonight the chef and a few key helpers from Citronelle are at a sleekly rustic mountainside resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Amangani resort is a natural vista so breathtakingly vast that guests sometimes enjoy a balmy sundown on the terrace while watching distant electrical storms float by like circus balloons.

Inside, four young members of the resort's waitstaff look nervous. The curtain is about to rise on a manmade spectacle. "Come closer," Michel coos encouragingly to a shy waiter. "Be part of us."

Soon, two dozen well-heeled food and wine lovers will negotiate the perilous switchbacks of a mountain road to attend a special dinner featuring seven courses of Michel's celebrated food paired with fine wine in the weekend-long Jackson Hole Wine Auction, an exclusive event in a nation obsessed with good living through fine dining.

The diners coming here tonight have paid $5,000 a couple for the weekend. "It's like nothing to these people," the sommelier, Mark Slater, tells the servers. "They know their food, and they know their wine. We are going to have a fun time tonight. We're friendly people."

"I am," Michel cracks to his sommelier. "Sometimes, you are not." Michel turns serious only when describing in minute detail each of the dishes the staff is about to serve. "You have the flavor of the country," the chef says dreamily about a morel and porcini sauce that will accompany a fish course. "When you taste the sauce, you really feel as if you are on top of the mountain." But mountains don't materialize by themselves. It's time to cook them up. Michel wanders off to the resort's kitchen to continue last-minute preparations.

Some celebrity chefs have spent more time becoming household names than actually cooking. They have signed lucrative contracts, lending their names to several restaurants they visit only now and then. They have hawked everything from frying pans to spice mixes. Michel has devoted much of the last decade to creating obsessively perfect food at one restaurant: Citronelle in Georgetown.

He has spent 44 years standing on his feet long hours in hot kitchens to cook his way into the top ranks of cuisine. Among the world's chefs, he is one of the most respected and most emulated. He is known both as a rare culinary wit -- his trompe l'oeil dishes can make diners laugh -- and a superior technician who understands food so well that he manipulates ingredients in unconventional ways to realize his artistic vision. His accomplishments have won him numerous awards and accolades. Along with Washington's other elite chefs, such as Roberto Donna of Galileo and Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington, he has been recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. He has been nominated for the foundation's coveted best or outstanding chef awards five times, including this year. In 1992, the foundation named him the best chef in California. Michel was selected for the first season of "Chef's Story," an upcoming television series of interviews with America's top chefs. Robert Parker, the nation's premier wine authority, calls Michel "a great chef, who is cooking at a level that far exceeds any Michelin three-star chef in France."

But even though his artistic reputation is secure, his place in the restaurant business is uncertain. The hotel that has housed Michel's 84-seat restaurant on M Street NW since 1994 has been sold to new owners. Michel must negotiate a contract or find Citronelle a new home. It's a nagging concern that isn't helping his passionately perfectionistic artistic temperament.

"Try to keep the tables very clean," Mark says to the servers as soon as his boss is out of earshot. "Keep an eye around the bread plates for crumbs. Michel is a crumb maniac. He's a very friendly guy. But if something goes wrong, he has a very short fuse. If something goes wrong, I do not want you to get yelled at."

By 7:30 p.m., the dinner guests are milling outside the resort's improvised dining room, sipping Taittinger champagne. Michel and his executive chef, David Deshaies, are side by side in the back of the kitchen, preparing small plates of finger food. Slivers of salmon smoked at Citronelle go atop brioche and are arranged on a textured green serving piece that looks like grass. "Cigars" made of spring roll wrappers rolled around a duxelle of mushrooms back at Citronelle, then deep-fried here, are plated with a ginger sauce.

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