The new chef of the Conservatory restaurant approaches cooking with a twinkle in his eye

CULINARY PEOPLE

November 04, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

When Michel Richard laughs -- which is often -- it's a little clue about why the food prepared by this rigorously trained French chef is sometimes described as "playful."

"My food has lots of texture, lots of crunch, crunch, crunch," says Mr. Richard, who last week was named to oversee the Conservatory restaurant in the Baltimore Latham Hotel (formerly Peabody Court). "We use lots of spice, chilies -- but not in a strong way, in a light way."

Mr. Richard, 44, was born in France and began working in restaurants when he was 13; he became a pastry chef and worked with the legendary French pastry master Gaston Lenotre. When a Lenotre pastry shop opened in New York in 1974, Mr. Richard was sent to run it.

But, like many people who come to this country, Mr. Richard found the West beckoning. He went first to Santa Fe, where he opened a pastry shop in the La Fonda Hotel, but Los Angeles was calling, and in 1977, he opened a pastry shop there. More pastry shops followed, and the Broadway Deli cafe, but Mr. Richard wanted a place where he could offer a full menu -- "Home cooking with a French accent," he described it.

In 1987, he opened Citrus, his restaurant which quickly gathered rave reviews and multiple awards, from, among others, the California Restaurant Writers' Association, The Wine Spectator, the James BeardFoundation, and the Los Angeles Times. In 1991, he opened a restaurant called Citronelle at the Santa Barbara Inn, in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"I really regard him as one of the two or three best chefs in the city," says L.A. Times food critic Ruth Reichl. "He's one of those chefs who really loves to cook, and it shows in his food. He's incredibly playful with food. He was trained as a pastry chef, and his food has the kind of beauty you'd expect from pastry on the plate."

Mr. Richard was lured back to the East Coast, at least in business terms, by the new owner of the former Peabody Court, CapStar Hotelsof Washington. The company, which also owns the Santa Barbara Inn, asked Mr. Richard to open a new Citronelle in its Georgetown Latham hotel. (The restaurant, which will include a street-front pastry shop, will open in January.) And when CapStar bought the former Peabody Court in August, it asked Mr. Richard to take a look.

"I came to Baltimore and it's a very beautiful city, and I said, Why not?" Mr. Richard recalls. "Baltimore is very charming. It reminds me of part of France, the north of France. I was in Baltimore for two weeks [recently] and the season was so beautiful. . . . We don't have seasons in California," he says, with that characteristic chuckle.

"Michel's known for his fun and his life," says Hoyt Bacon, CapStar's vice president for marketing. "Lots of chefs are great chefs, but they don't have the personality. He has a personality that just won't quit. . . . We believe there's a market for a restaurant like that in Baltimore."

"Like that" does not mean exactly like the Conservatory, which under former executive chef Michael Gettier won four-star reviews and a four-diamond award from the American Automobile Association. But Mr. Richard is in no hurry to make a lot of changes.

"We're going to change the food a little bit" in the Conservatory in coming weeks, he says. But for other changes, "we're going to wait a few months," he adds. CapStar plans to close the restaurant in early January for renovations; it should reopen by the end of that month. Mr. Richard plans to lighten the formality of the restaurant and the food. "We'll be more in the 1920s style, more romantic," he says. Although CapStar hasn't decided yet what the revamped restaurant will be called, it may be another Citronelle.

Mr. Richard says his dishes are essentially rooted in French cuisine, but he borrows liberally from prevailing ethnic and regional cuisines. He likes adding Asian and Mexican flavors, and he likes a lighter approach to ingredients. "We just cut down on the fat. And we have a few tricks to make the food crunchy."

Mr. Richard's arrival on the East Coast is eagerly awaited by at least one potential rival, Chef Jean-Louis Palladin, of Jean-Louis at the Watergate in Washington. "He's my best buddy!" Mr. Palladin exclaims.

The two met about 10 years ago in Los Angeles, when Mr. Palladin complained there was too much butter in Mr. Richard's croissants. "Of course he was upset, but we became best friends," says Mr. Palladin who invited Mr. Richard to come see how things worked in his kitchen at the four-star Jean-Louis.

"He picked up not my food, but the mind I put into my food," Mr. Palladin says. "He surprises me all the time, he is so intelligent, so creative . . . I think one thing I don't have is the precision he has." Pastry has its own laws, Mr. Palladin says, that must be followed with great precision if dishes are to work. "I am creative, imaginative, but he has the technique of a pastry chef, too. I have my own pluses, but I will never have that."

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