The 10 Dishes That Made My Career: Michel Richard of Villard Michel Richard

The James Beard Award-winning chef looks back on four decades of straddling French and American cooking.

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Photo: Susie Cushner

“You have crumbs all over you,” Michel Richard tells me.

I have just bitten into a warm, divine pain au chocolat at the French chef’s majestic new venture, Villard Michel Richard, inside the recently overhauled New York Palace hotel, and he is quick to brush the eruption of golden flakes from my skirt.

It is one of the coldest mornings of the year and Richard does not remove the scarf wrapped around his neck for the duration of our interview. His Tumi luggage sits beside my feet. When we are done chatting, he will hightail it to Penn Station for the Acela to his longtime home of Washington, D.C.—where locals return again and again for his playful food at Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant Central Michel Richard (there’s a Las Vegas outpost at Caesars Palace, too). It’s also the city where Richard made waves with his now-shuttered flagship, Citronelle, at the Latham hotel in Georgetown. “I need to go see my wife,” he says.

These days, much of Richard’s time is spent in New York, where up the hotel’s grand staircase diners will find the Gallery at Villard. In a world where tiny, casual neighborhood joints command three-hour waits, the eight-course, $185 tasting menu at Gallery is a jarring throwback to fine dining. By contrast, the Bistro, with its sexy wine cube and gilded ceiling, is a more accessible—and no less striking—spot to fill up on mini gougères, salmon surrounded by braised lentils, and Richard’s famed sous-vide fried chicken, served boneless over mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Pomme Palais is the brightly lit grab-and-go bakery where you can buy turkey meatball sandwiches and Parmesan palmiers.

If people want to meet me, I’m at Villard. I want to feed them and make them fatter.

This marks Richard’s second go-round in New York. He first arrived in 1974, from Paris, where he worked beside acclaimed pâtissier Gaston Lenôtre, who was eager to open his first pastry shop stateside. “I was paying $200 a month to live on Queens Boulevard and 59th Street,” Richard recalls. “I was young, ambitious, and dreaming of being successful, except the shop didn’t succeed; Monsieur Lenôtre closed. But I didn’t want to go back to France.”

Growing up in Brittany, Richard knew he wanted to be a chef early on: “My father was a baker, but my parents divorced when I was very young and I don’t remember him at all. My mother was not a great chef, but she worked in a factory and cooked for us five kids all the time. As the second oldest, I also had to prepare food for my siblings. I made jam with peaches from the trees in the garden, and my mother used to give me 10 francs so I could buy steak and potatoes every Thursday. At nine, I was sautéing steak with butter for my brother and sister. When I was eight or nine, a kid took me to his father’s restaurant, and from the back door I could see all the chapeaux and the flambéing, and I fell in love with it. It became my dream to work in my own kitchen."

Los Angeles allowed Richard to plant the seeds of his own restaurant empire. There, he opened Michel Richard, followed by French-Californian mash-up Citrus, which paved the way for his arrival in D.C. Central Michel Richard made such a splash on the capital’s dining scene, it garnered a James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in 2008.

New Yorkers may not be as familiar with Richard, nor his affinity for texture and clever presentation, but he is eager to make their acquaintance. “If they want to meet me, I’m at Villard,” he says. “I want to feed them and make them fatter.”

Here, Richard discusses 10 of the dishes—including many his own creations—that have helped him straddle the line between French and American cooking for the past four decades.

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