Michel Richard
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Michel Richard

Phyllis Richman / March 2006

Food Arts presents the March 2006 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michel Richard, whose unbridled delight and whimsy have been a Roman candle sparkling over the American culinary scene for nearly 20 years. Trained in his native France as a pastry chef, Richard switched gears in 1987 to open Citrus in Los Angeles, where he presented savory and sweets with a light, colorful California breeziness based on classical French techniques, with a hint of Disneyland. Soon he built a Citrus empire that stretched from Philadelphia to Tokyo. Then, a half dozen restaurants later, he packed up his wife and five young children (he now has six, ages 12 to 35) and moved to Washington, D.C., to concentrate solely on Citronelle, where he presides today over what many consider one of America's great kitchens.

No one—including he—can be sure of what's going to come out of Richard's mouth. He usually sketches on a legal pad or whatever is available when his 24/7 ideas demand expression. These illustrations anchor his thoughts and direct his kitchen staff. "The seeds of new recipes are taking root in my head all the time," says Richard, who nurtures these seeds like a gardener and builds them into recipes like an architect. "I'm inspired by the weather, the flowers, the colors, other cuisines that I taste."

In the fall, local apples become sorbet with segments of edible "stained glass", translucent apple tuiles. Washington's summer heat inspires cool trompe l'oeil Japanese sushi, with potato or pasta instead of rice and duck or mushrooms masquerading as raw fish; he calls it Sushi d'Ici (for Sushi D.C.). He turns eel into a carpaccio that looks like a sheet of lace; foie gras becomes a savory crème brûlée; and his porcupine shrimp, wrapped in shredded-wheat kataifi, has been widely copied, even by Joël Robuchon.

At 9, Richard was cooking for his family in Pabu, in Brittany, and at 14 he decided to be a chef because "I loved the outfits." He apprenticed in a pastry shop and by 17 he was with Gaston LeNôtre in Paris, where he quickly rose to the top. That brought him to New York City in 1984 to run LeNôtre's short-lived outlet there; he then moved on to pastry shops in Santa Fe and Los Angeles.He taught himself the full cooking repertoire in California after he met the late Jean-Louis Palladin, whose daring, lusty cooking at the Watergate Hotel in D.C. made Richard want to follow his lead. Since Palladin's death in 2001, Richard has assumed his good friend's role as the scout leader of D.C. chefs, encouraging get-togethers for peer support (and fun) and last year producing the first edition of DC Chefs, a magazine showcasing the city's kitchen aces.

Even at 57, Richard can hardly curb his enthusiasm. In September he plans to open an American brasserie called Central. In October his second cookbook will be published. A few months later, he and bread baker Mark Furstenburg (Breadline, Washington, D.C.) expect to open a bakery together. Then Richard intends to write a dessert book. After that? Richard shrugs and pats his girth: "Losing weight?"