Chef Michel Richard, 1948-2016

I am not a foodie, and it’s fair to say that recipes are not my favorite reading.

But still. Though I may not be able to pick out every ingredient in a dish served up at Central Michel Richard, I recognize exuberance and joy when I see it.

Every photograph that you might see of Richard has that quality just sort of bursting out of his face. Since most of the photographs include food on a plate, or being readied to serve, it’s natural that this should be so.

Richard, who died Aug. 13 at the age of 68 after suffering a stroke earlier last week, seemed to have several qualities that recommended him not just to a gastronomical hall of fame, but also to a hall of fame for people who inhabit the idea of joie de vivre, a joy in all of life, especially its extraordinary pleasures. He had appetites, and taste, and it seemed, from the praise and sadness arising from his death, that the appetite was large and the taste exquisite.

He was French, but he was a Frenchman — a chef, no less — who loved being in America. The French thing is in everything, of course, but particularly in the pleasures that make life bearable: food, drink, romance and so forth. In the language of food, things go to another plane entirely.

Something about him was buoyant, light, like a soufflé; it’s as if in his enjoyment of what he did — and presumably in its consumption, by himself and others — he became consummately himself, levitating in the ability to imagine the fresh and, beyond that, the new. The pictures are of a man with a generous beard, a face made out of whatever the ingredients of glee are, the arms outstretched often. I remember indistinctly seeing him at a dinner in which he and other Washington chefs were being honored, and it was one of those things where there were numerous courses with different wines for each course (which may account for the indistinctness). What I remember is his obvious expression of joy.

A native of Brittany and Champagne, he started out as a pastry chef and was taught by the famed Gaston Lenôtre. In his various guises as chef, owner, pastry man, he ended up here and opened Citronelle in Georgetown, a place that elevated the city gastronomically speaking, as did Central.

He was famous for making something out of the plain-spoken nature of regular American food: fries, burgers, candy. He made a chocolate confection inspired by Kit Kat bars, resplendent on the Safeway and CVS counters, and also dove into the crispy world of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is said to have accounted for the crackling parts of some of his entrees, including, of course, Michel’s Fried Chicken. He was a James Beard winner.

I avoid recipes, but I like menus. Here are some choices from Central: Eggceptional, Pistachio Crème Brûlée, Charcuterie Tower, Lobster Burger.

For Washington chefs, and world chefs for that matter, he was a category all his own, not so much as a businessman or owner, but as a tinkerer, an adventurer, an explorer, who could put disparate tastes together and come up with a brand new taste. He was daring, joyfully so.

He wrote books, too, including “Happy in the Kitchen.”

More than anyplace else, we’d bet.


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