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Jacob Richler Remembers Chef Michel Richard

Michel Richard

Michel Richard was an original.

The legendary French-American chef – who died Saturday, aged just 68 – started out as a trained pastry chef.  After rising to the top of that profession, Michel Richard switched horses and took on the savoury kitchen, self-taught. In each discipline, his creations were often mischievous and whimsical.

He was big on trompe l’oeuils – especially when it came to riffs on that pastry kitchen mainstay, the egg. He made savoury faux-hard boiled eggs out of fresh mozzarella wrapped around a yellow cherry tomato, and sweet ones out of white chocolate-encased lemon meringue. He even did faux fish eggs, combining Israeli couscous and squid ink for a risotto nero that he served it in a full, small tin – as a dead ringer for Beluga caviar (the label read Begula).

Michel Richard

But for all that aesthetic frivolousness he was rigid about flavours that belonged together, or didn’t.  He emphatically hated cilantro; I learned this from listening to him bellow at the contestants, when a few years back we served together on a S. Pellegrino young chef judging panel in Napa.

More to the point, for all the modernity and smart Californian inflections he brought to French cuisine, he was essentially a culinary classicist: “No one has ever invented anything that tastes better than grilled turbot with béarnaise and pommes vapeur,” Richard told me once, emphatically.

This was fifteen years ago. We had just met and were settled in for digéstifs at the bar at Clio, Ken Oringer’s great restaurant at the Elliot Hotel, in Boston. The occasion was a James Beard dinner – for which Richard had turned up alarmingly late from his Washington restaurant Citronelle, barely in time to slice up his oxtail and pied de veau terrine which he was packing, carry-on. It was magnificent. So was Nueva Latina master Doug Rodriguez’s ceviche. And if memory serves, Andrew Carmellini – then making a name for himself at Café Boulud – served a knockout smoked squab. But the dish that had Richard agitated, and was the reason Richard and I had fallen into conversation belonged to the chef I was travelling with, Susur Lee.

“Venison with sea urchin – and Japanese mountain potato? That’s not cooking. C’est dégueulasse!” Richard exclaimed, making no effort to conceal his contempt – other than to expressing it in French.

For my part, I always rather enjoyed the contextual and textural juxtapositions of that Susur classic of rare meat, slippery yamaimo and gooey uni. But all the same, Richard was making a valid point. Veal and uni were not made for each other like turbot and béarnaise and turned, steamed potatoes with parsley. Very little is.

And the next time I eat that dish – soon, I hope – I will raise a glass to chef Richard.

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