Michael Richard is on the liquid protein diet. So are a lot of other people. What makes Richard's diet note-worthy is his occupation - French pastry chef.

Not just any pastry chef, but the one who opened the ill-fated New York branch of the internationally famous French patisserie, Lenotre.

Richard has made his way to Beverly Hills, with an intermediate stop in Santa Fe. N.M., since the much-heralded Manhattan Lenotre expired after a year of operation.

"It wasn't for lack of business," Richard explained early one morning as he sat in the Beverly Hills restaurant-carryout-catering-patisserie that bears his name. "Business was booming, but it was very bad organization and management." Gaston Lenotre, owner of seven pastry shops in Europe, "made a weird deal with New York business people," Richard believes.

After that unfortunate experience, Richard's next stop was New Mexico where someone had talked him into buying a restaurant in the well-known old Santa Fe hotel, La Fonda. It was a case of selling the Brooklyn Bridge to a country bumpkin. Richard said he knew the place was filled with "cowboys, but it also has 2 million visitors a year." He had now way of knowing that there are only two short seasons in Santa Fe when his elegant and expensive pastries would sell: When the tourists arrive for the ski season (and there was no ski season last year because there was no snow) and when they come for the summer opera.

The other six months "the people don't know the difference between my pastry and others. They just think it's more expensive," Richard complained. He wants to sell his Santa Fe place and concentrate on Beverly Hills where there "are a lot of rich people."

The 29-year-old Frenchman and his brother, Alain, who handles the business affairs, are learning everything the hard way. In Beverly Hills "the cowboys have Rolls-Royces but they are not as sophisticated as we thought. They want carrot cakes and cheese cakes, but we have to maintain an image and not get into the business of traditional wedding cakes and cheese cakes," Richard said. "That's the difficult part of the business," educating their customers.

He also cannot understand Americans' preoccupation with chocolate. "Everything is chocolate, chocolate," he moaned. "In France, vanilla is just as big as chocolate. After chocolate the second thing they like here is anything with fresh fruit.

"When I was making the Napoleons the regular way with powedered sugar, they were not selling. Then I put caramel icing on them and they sell OK. Then I put raspberry on top and they are selling like hot cakes."

Richard is making "modern" pastries, a concept that is probably new to Los Angeles - lighter creations that follow some of the new dictates of French cooking, the nouvelle cuisine . He explained that he uses almost no butter cream; instead fillings are "light, airy and refreshing" Bavarian creams and mousses. Many things are also made with fresh fruits that still look like fresh fruits after they are baked.

"My dream is to make a low-calorie pastry," Richard sighed with the knowledge that such a thing is impossible. "You have to use butter and eggs.

"People are so diet-conscious here," and that includes Richard, who lost 15 pounds in 10 days on the liquid protein diet.

"It's a family problem." Overweight Frenchmen use the same excuses as overweight Americans: "We thought people would rush for something new. We thought so, but they haven't it."

So in their six-month-old establishment, which also sells brioche, croissant, pates, quiches and soups, the carryout is the biggest part of the business, the restaurant comes second and the catering has a long way to go.

Part of the problem may be cost. "Everyone tells us our pastries are very expensive and that's another thing we have fight." But Richard is certain he will succeed. He has something special to sell. Who but a Frenchman would think his "pastries are better than sex?"