Michel Richard: Citronelle’s Master Chef

by Katherine E. Tallmadge
The Georgetowner

It’s a busy weekday afternoon in late November at Michel Richard’s Citronelle. The steady flow of customers is clearly warming the exuberant Richard’s heart. An assortment of elegantly dressed businessmen and women, tourists, and VIP’s stride through the restaurant and settle into tables where they prepare for an unforgettable dining experience.

From the moment you enter Citronelle, it is apparent that Michel Richard had a hand in the design. It is California fresh and bright, with accents of French glamour and a touch of Richard whimsy. The main dining area is covered in the warm, earth tones of Provence.

But the visitors come here less to bask in Citronelle’s decor — though beautiful it is — than to experience extraordinary cuisine that will be prepared by one of the nation’s — if not the world’s — great chefs and his staff.

In the enormous, glassed – in exhibition kitchen, Richard is presiding intensely over a plate, as several specialty chefs scurry back and forth with the dish’s various components. Like an artist with a palette, Richard takes an ingredient here, an ingredient there, places it just so, and voila! Each plate is an art piece worthy of a master. When it’s finally presented at the table, it’s difficult to disturb the arrangement. But worth it. Each deconstructionist bite carries a variety of textures and a symphony of flavors. This is not any ordinary culinary experience.

“I must give my customers the best,” says maestro Richard. “I want my customers to feel good, feel respected. I want them to feel like they’re coming to a second home, where they’re being taken care of by people who care.”

Richard (pronounced Ree-char) exudes perfection, attention to detail, and a need to please. His heart and talents seem boundless. He is widely regarded by his customers and colleagues as a genius.

“He’s D.C.’s new star,” says Francois Dionot, founder and director of the internationally respected French cooking school, L’Academie de Cuisine, in Bethesda.

“In my book, he has replaced Jean-Louis Palladin in Washington,” says Dionot, referring to Washington’s beloved and critically acclaimed chef formerly of Jean-Louis at the Watergate, who now has restaurants in Las Vegas and New York City.

Richard’s style is light, fresh and intelligent, focusing on innovative combinations, witty presentation and always an element of texture. Richard was a pioneer in creating the revolutionary French/California cuisine that is now so prevalent on the West Coast.

Richard says his life’s pivotal moment — when he knew he wanted to be a chef — occurred at the age of eight. He spent two weeks in the kitchen of a family friend’s restaurant. “The well-dressed ladies in the dining room, the white hats, aprons, and all the food — I fell it love with it,” he says.

But it was at age 14, when “God made me a chef,” he says. At fourteen, Richard apprenticed in a restaurant-run patisserie in Champagne, France. Three years later he moved to Paris when he quickly rose to the top position at Gaston Lenotre’s esteemed pastry shop.

But like many other chefs of his generation who came of age during the Paul Bocuse era, Richard wanted to move to America. The opportunity came in 1974 when Lenotre opened a pastry shop in the U.S. Unfortunately, America was not yet ready for Lenotre’s sophisticated French fare and the patisserie closed.

But Richard was not ready to move back to France. In 1975, he moved to Santa Fe to run a pastry shop serving simple meals. A year later he bought the shop and found the rewards of ownership creatively energizing and financially rewarding. But his talents were too large for Santa Fe.

“Santa Fe was not a dream for an ambitious young chef,” he says.

In 1977 he moved to Los Angeles and opened Michel Richard to instant success. He began traveling back and forth to France eating, learning, and cooking in three star Michelin-rated restaurants.

In 1987 Richard opened Citrus, adapting his native French cuisine to the tastes of Southern California. The critically acclaimed Citrus put Richard on the culinary map. In 1987, Traveler’s Magazine voted Citrus “The Best Restaurant in the United States,” and in 1988, Richard was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who in American Food and Wine.”

Next, Richard opened Citronelle in 1988 at an astonishing location in the Santa Barbara Inn Hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But even this dream-like venue was not enough to quiet his ambitions.

Richard opened Citronelle in Georgetown in 1994 after years of attracting the glamorous and powerful to his West Coast restaurants. Four years after opening the D.C. restaurant, Richard decided to focus all of his efforts in Washington.  So, in early 1998, Citronelle underwent a $2 million renovation and Richard moved from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to direct the kitchen full time. He now considers Georgetown his flagship restaurant.

Some may wonder why Richard chose Washington over New York City. For Richard, the answer is easy.

“I love the sophistication of Washington. It’s a piece of Europe — I feel like I’m in Paris — L’Enfant designed the town after all!” explains Richard. Though Richard says the move from Los Angeles was easy for him, his wife didn’t share those views and their marriage came to a crisis when she insisted they stay in Los Angeles.

“She complained I would work too many hours,” says Richard. But they both decided to throw themselves into Washington life and they moved their four children to the area. “We love each other too much,” says Richard.

Since opening Georgetown’s Citronelle, Richard has won more culinary awards. He was a nominee for the James Beard Chef of the Year Award for 1996. That same year he received the prestigious Five Star Fleur de Lis Award. Conde Nast Traveler magazine recently named Citronelle one of the “World’s Most Exciting Restaurants,” an honor shared by only 50 establishments worldwide, and only eight in the United States.

Richard travels the world in search of new ingredients and inspiration. He sleeps with a note pad by his bed because it’s not unusual for him to wake at 4 a.m. with a brilliant idea for a recipe. “Food is what I think about all the time,” he says. He considers himself a modern French chef, with access to ingredients from all over the world and a variety of cultures. “My pot is a melting pot of cultures and flavors,” he says.

But he can only be a great chef if he has superior ingredients, he says. And he makes the effort to find them because “it’s so fabulous every morning to get the ingredients– it makes me feel so good!”

“But it`s a fight,” he admits, as he describes the live scallops he buys at $5.00 a piece. Or the “unusually fragile and flavorful” Santa Barbara shrimp which must be flown out the same day they’re caught for him to use them the very next day. Richard wouldn’t consider using anything frozen. Everything must be fresh, seasonal and perfectly prepared. “The haricot verts aren’t cooked until they’re ordered!” he says.

His perfection is applied down to the smallest of details. Even the ground pepper is specially chosen for its sweetness (“sawak” from Indonesia) and ground at the last minute. He uses four different types of salt. And garlic is carefully roasted and sliced just before serving to prevent oxidation. Spices and herbs are roasted, ground and prepared in his kitchen “at the last second” for maximum flavor.

Richard uses unusual and exotic ingredients daily. Instead of lemon on his sauteed Santa Barbara Shrimp, he incorporated kumquat, because it is more “delicate” and gives him “more control” over the result. He uses $60.00 8-oz. bottles of olive oil, because it’s “the best oil in the world,” and one whiff of its fruity aroma tells you why.

Among top chefs, Richard is renowned as a genius with ingredients. He uses surprising combinations of textures — such as crunchiness and silkiness, and flavors — such as salty and sweet, with stunning results.

“Michelle started the trend for food having enormous contrast of texture,” says L’Academie de Cuisine’s Dionot. “His obsession with crunchiness and presentation are his trademarks.”

Richard’s training as a pastry chef gave him an appreciation for presentation. He’s one of the few chefs who started as a pastry chef. Pastry is more of a presentation than other courses and always has something crunchy with it. Most cooking never had those fine details, but Richard is one of the country’s innovators, says Dionot. “He made an impact and brought it to Washington.”

An astute businessman, Richard has plenty of ideas for improving his restaurant. He has designed a small sidewalk cafe for 30th Street that would be the new entrance to Citronelle as opposed to entering through the hotel lobby of the Latham Hotel on M Street.

“The neighborhood asked for a certain design and we think they’ll like what we came up with,” says a hopeful Richard. He admits they may not do much business outside, but he says it will be important for the restaurant’s “visibility.”

It’s ironic that a famous chef like Michel Richard would be concerned about curbside appeal but it is this attention to detail that makes Citronelle such an extraordinary restaurant, unmatched in its range and quality.

Katherine Tallmadge is a nutrition consultant, writer and speaker in Washington, D.C.

MICHEL RICHARD CITRONELLE: INNOVATING THROUGHOUT THE DAY

Washington received a new reason for a wake-up call recently when Michel Richard Citronelle began serving breakfast, making it one of the nation’s few five star restaurants to offer the morning meal.

As with everything else at Citronelle this is no blase affair. Richard has created some eye-opening dishes that include Lobster Hash with Tomato and Basil Hollandaise; a Chive Omelet with Smoked Salmon, Asparagus and Creme Fraiche and an extremely popular, non-fat Chicken Sausage.

Richard’s command of pastries makes for wonderfully delicate croissants as well as Toast d’Brioche and Pain aux Raisins et Pomme.

The same elegant service that the restaurant is known for at lunch and dinner is also standard for breakfast including the specially designed Bernardaud China and Christoffle Silver.

“Breakfast does not need to be boring,” says Richard. “It’s the most important meal of the day and I want my customers to enjoy their food as much in the morning as they do in the evening.”

Other recent innovations at Michel Richard Citronelle include the restaurant switching to fixed price options at dinner rather than a la carte. Guest are able to choose from three dinner menu ranging from $35 to $65 to $100 per person.

The change allows the restaurant to better showcase its range with more numerous courses and seasonally appropriate fare. Richard loves the fixed price approach because it lets the kitchen guide the patron through the day’s best work and prevents the temptation of intimidated diners from ordering a “green salad with dressing on the side.”

The really adventurous may want to consider an evening at the Chef’s Table where, for parties of six or more, Richard will dazzle you with specially prepared dishes in the midst of the hyper-activity of a world-class kitchen. The cost is $150 per person excluding wine but Richard guarantees he will prepare food to “your heart’s desire.”

And finally, the restaurant is open for the holidays including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. The special New Year’s Eve dinner is $200 per person. There can be no better way to celebrate a new year than to enjoy the wonderful food and atmosphere at Michel Richard Citronelle.

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