I may not have my facts perfectly straight here, but hey, it’s my site and the story is as true as I can make it.
Michel Richard, who just died at 68, was a friend of mine. We met in the mid-’90s, introduced, I imagine, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, with whom I started working in the early ’90s. (A whole ’nother story, which I’ll get to sometime.)
Michel was a joyful character, perhaps a lousy businessman (until he opened Central, he complained to me about money whenever we saw one another), but a much-admired chef and a great lover of life, corny as that is.
Unlike most chefs, he knew how to enjoy the things he cooked. He also knew art, he understood politics, he could talk articulately about current events—he was someone you looked forward to hanging with. We taped together for Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs in 2002, and it was as good a time as I’ve ever had doing television; we spent two solid days together, morning until night, and I remember laughing nonstop. (We were with my producer and good friend Charlie Pinsky—who called Michel “The Elf”—which helped. Somewhere—I’m not looking for it—there’s a picture of us, three fat men blocking a doorway, grinning like fools.) We made insanely good lobster rolls (well, he did; mine were, I would say, pretty good); his “breakfast for dessert”— a variety of nonbreakfast foods shaped to look like bacon and eggs—was a ridiculously clever tribute to Ferran Adrià-type food, what idiotically came to be called molecular gastronomy.
Two other outstanding memories:
I was in Citronelle in D.C., shortly after it opened, so, 20 years ago. It was a stuffy, not-especially comfortable place, but Michel was at the height of his powers and the food was terrific. (Now we’d think it was too fancy, or at least I would.) As about half the room was on the dessert course—and the desserts were fantastic; more on that in a second—Michel appeared from the kitchen, bearing a brown cardboard box of Eskimo Pies, handing them out at every table. A small gesture, but in those days there was no other famous chef who would behave so playfully.
Two or three years later, in 1997, there was a fundraiser for the Beard Foundation run by Jean-Louis Palladin, the man who brought modern French cuisine to this country and almost unquestionably the most revered and perhaps most talented chef in the country in the early ’80s, when I began writing about food. Palladin was running a restaurant at the Rio hotel in Vegas (he was the first great chef to do that, too), and he was beginning to suffer from the illness that eventually killed him. (He died two years later, at 55; unbelievable to me now.)
There were two nights of festivities, one for chefs and hangers-on only, the other for a well-heeled public; I was there, as a sort of cook and as a reporter for Delta Sky magazine. (If anyone can find that clip, please post it or tweet it or something, but meanwhile, here is a link to my original, unedited piece, which I think is worth a glance. It’s slightly embarrassing, but remember that this was 1997. And it’s only slightly embarrassing.)
Everyone there—seven or eight “name” chefs (Ripert, Boulud, Vongerichten, Daguin), plus some helpers like me, under the supervision of Palladin—was responsible for a dish, but only Michel was in charge of desserts. He was an anomaly, a pastry chef who went on to become a head chef (still rare, but even more so then), and, as I recall (my piece doesn’t do it justice), his dessert was astonishing.
What didn’t make it into that piece—I’m not sure why—was a comment Jean-Georges made to me as all of the chefs gathered to watch Michel work: “Everyone is in awe of him,” Jean-Georges said. “He’s a wizard.”
He was. And he even looked like one.
Photo credit Michael Vonal