If you’ve ever had anything resembling a Kit Kat bar in a restaurant, thank Michel Richard. A lot of chefs see something fun in the world and make convincing copies. Richard — born in France but long a cheerleader for America — not only improved on the original candy bar, he turned it into something diners experienced as fine art and countless competitors tried to emulate.
To eat the commercial confection reimagined by Richard, a pastry chef trained by the legendary Gaston Lenotre in Paris, was to surrender to the glory of hazelnut chocolate enrobing chocolate mousse on a base of dried, crumbled crepes. No one-trick pony, Richard dazzled patrons over the years with creations that fused beauty and good taste. The tricks in his seemingly bottomless bag included “pasta” coaxed from onion and “caviar” created with Israeli couscous and squid ink. December brought tiny snowmen shaped from balls of meringue and filled with vanilla ice cream, and “Breakfast for Dinner” yielded a fetching tray of everything you expected — save for the fact the “toast” was poundcake and the “egg” was a dot of pureed papaya in shimmering almond custard.
The common bond: pure deliciousness.
Richard died on Saturday in Washington, following complications from a stroke. He was 68. He leaves behind a single restaurant, Central in downtown Washington, and legions of admiring peers and diners grateful to have tasted his signature magic. His flagship restaurant for many years was the now-closed Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown. After a genius meal there in 2002 that included escargots sheathed in spiky shredded wheat and a lemon meringue tart circled in a piercing basil sauce, one of my dining companions whispered, “Michel took the place of God there for five minutes.” Lots of us had such divine moments. Four years later, wine guru Robert Parker told The Washington Post that the chef was “cooking at a level that far exceeds any Michelin three-stars in France.”
Richard started his career as a maker of sweets but always yearned for more. Judging by his food alone, the nonstop tinkerer could have been an architect, a poet or another Thomas Edison. From his kitchen table at Citronelle, he sketched both recipe presentations and Christmas cards (numbering them, as an artist would). His whimsical, one-of-a-kind style sprang from science (gleaned as a pastry student) and instinct (honed as a savory chef).
Richard devoured the unexpected and incorporated it into his repertoire. His first taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken in this country was an audible revelation. Voila! Crunch became one of his trademarks.
For his 55th birthday in 2003, he invited a who’s who collection of chefs from around the world — Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller — to a charity dinner at Citronelle. The VIPs were expected to cook and serve the feast. But the highlight of the evening, according to Mark Furstenberg, the Washington baker and a pal of Richard’s, was when the culinary luminaries gathered around their host to watch him demonstrate his sleights of hand.
“This could never happen anyplace other than Washington,” Eric Ripert, chef of New York’s acclaimed Le Bernardin, said at the time. On Saturday, he added, “Michel was a magnet.”
He was also a flirt and a jokester, clever but never gimmicky. Who else but Richard could mince potatoes so fine you’d swear you were eating risotto? After tasting the dish in 1993, Post food critic Phyllis C. Richman wrote, “He is the best friend a potato ever had.”
One of the dirty little secrets of the restaurant world? A lot of chefs don’t really like to cook, preferring the managerial and perhaps marketing aspects of empire-building. Not Richard. He reveled in his glass-fronted kitchen at Citronelle, often showing up in the morning when the competition had yet to get out of bed, to work on an idea he might have come up with while watching late-night infomercials. He also shopped in unexpected places (such as Home Depot, for the miniature power rotary saw he used to cut egg tops with the precision of a wood carver).
“That kind of joy is rare,” said former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, who as food editor of the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s once invited Richard to Thanksgiving and watched in amazement as he carved a whole turkey in what she remembers as 10 seconds. “I never saw him happier than he was at the stove.” Indeed, the second of three cookbooks with his name on it is “Happy in the Kitchen” (2006). Of cooking, Richard once said, “It’s a religion. You have to love it.”
As stunning as his dishes could be, in the end, the maestro understood its evanescent nature. Furstenberg remembers Richard telling him, “It’s supposed to be food.”
Despite the many accolades his work received, including the outstanding chef award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 2007, Richard never achieved the global renown of, say, Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian native famous for Spago in Los Angeles and gourmet pizzas everywhere. If there was a skill Richard lacked, it was a gift for business. His onetime establishments in Los Angeles, Atlantic City, Tokyo, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and elsewhere do not survive him. An attempt to return two years ago to Manhattan, where he opened a pastry shop for Le Notre in 1974, was met with a zero-star review from the New York Times for the Bistro at Villard Michel Richard.
In a 2006 profile of his then-employer, Cedric Maupillier, a veteran of both Citronelle and Central, told The Post: “Failure is not a problem. It’s not trying that’s the problem. That’s what Michel tells us every day.”
Richard tried. Boy, did he try! And more often than not, he seemed to get a kick out of doing so.