Q&A: Michel Richard
Your first book came out in 1993. What's the difference between the way you cooked then and the way you cook now?
I used to be more influenced by other chefs and French cooking. Now I'm more influenced by myself and my American cooking, like the fried chicken nuggets in my book. Since then I've also developed a lot more techniques to make it easier for the cook, like how to make potato tuiles with a meat slicer, or making fettuccine with sliced onions rather than pasta.
You're unusual in that you started out as a pastry chef and then became a full chef. Now you're known for your inventive, playful techniques. What inspired you to go in that direction?
It's the magic. Today people have too much food around them. When they come to the restaurant, I want them to have something different, something magic. I remember the first time I ate pommes soufflees . I was so surprised. I thought, that's great. I wanted to do the same thing with my food. I want people to say, "Wow, how did he do that?" So I flirt with things that will surprise people: an egg that's not an egg, pearl pasta that's creamy caviar, scrambled scallops that look like scrambled eggs.
That can't be easy for the home cook to emulate.
If you love to cook, anyone can do these.
Some of the dishes in the book have been on your menu at Citronelle. But it's difficult to adapt a restaurant recipe to home cooking, isn't it?
No, I change my recipes all the time. So every morning for 10 months, I worked on every one of these recipes. After six months or so, Peter [Kaminsky, his co-author] came in: He took my words and removed the French accent for them for the book.
He made them less French? Or just translated the chef-speak?
Most of the time, French chefs use French words, like terrine or mille-feuille . We tried to remove most of them.
The book is organized by ingredient, right? Why that way, rather than appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc.?
It's four or five recipes for each basic ingredient -- tomatoes, potatoes, corn, mushrooms, onions -- in varying forms and degrees of difficulty. I thought it would be easier this way. If you want something on tomatoes or potatoes or corn, instead of looking in the index, here they're all in one place.
Tell me about the unusual title. Why did you decide to call the book "Happy in the Kitchen"?
It makes me happy to please people, to make people feel good, to play like a mom cooking for her family, like the mom with a big platter of food in a Norman Rockwell painting. It works in the restaurant, too. If you go to a good restaurant and are served good food, you think, "The chef cooks well for me. The chef cares about me." It makes people happy.
And how would the recipes in the book make the home cook happy?
Easy. You don't need to be a genius to be a good chef. A lot of my book is explanation. It is all simple and easy to follow. I realize that at home you don't have 30 chefs to work with you.