Michel Richard, 68, formative LA chef

michel-richard.jpgMichel Richard, a French-born chef who made an impact on both coasts, died over the weekend at age 68. He had suffered a stroke earlier in the week. His Washington, D.C. restaurants are being credited with helping to transform that city into a dining destination, but he's more familiar to us in Los Angeles for an earlier set of restaurants. His Michel Richard pastry shop on Robertson Boulevard near Third Street opened in the 1970s and was popular for decades — “I still remember when Michel opened it,” Wolfgang Puck told the New York Times in 2013. “It caused traffic jams." He then opened Citrus on Melrose and Citronelle on the beachfront in Santa Barbara.

Per the Washington Post, "his empire grew to include restaurants in California, Las Vegas, New York and Tokyo, and he designed menus for airlines and Amtrak. But for nearly 20 years, Mr. Richard’s primary theater — and culinary laboratory — was Citronelle, in the now-shuttered Latham Hotel on M Street NW in Georgetown." The only restaurant he was still running was Central Michel Richard, a high-end bistro in downtown Washington.

Citrus opened in 1987 at the corner of Melrose and Citrus, in what was then considered a daring move east of La Brea. "The restaurant is as hot as a firecracker, with people pushing eagerly through the door and tapping their toes while they wait for the ever-turning tables," Ruth Reichl, then the Los Angeles Times food critic, wrote in her first review of Citrus that March.

What is it about this particular restaurant that makes it, at barely two months old, so busy that when you call on a Wednesday for a Saturday reservation, there are already 10 people on the waiting list?

That chef/owner Michel Richard was already L.A.'s most famous French pastry chef was probably a plus. On the down side, however, is the undeniable fact that many people wondered whether he had what it takes to run a restaurant....Richard was wise enough not to make this a wildly expensive restaurant. Portions are large, service is smooth and the most expensive entree on the menu is $18.50.

We come then, to the one thing that was not easy to predict: the food. And this is the big surprise, for Richard does not cook like a pastry chef. His dishes are bold, original and not remotely fussy; the only hint of his pastry past is the amount of attention paid to the look of each dish.

This is remarkably pretty food.

Richard won numerous awards from the James Beard Foundation. He also was the author of three cookbooks, "Michele Richard's Home Cooking With a French Accent" (1993), "Happy in the Kitchen" (2006) and "Sweet Magic: Easy Recipes for Delectable Desserts" (2010).

In 1989, Richard's partner Andre Coffyn was shot and killed during a holdup while closing Michel Richard for the night. Nikki Finke, then a staff writer for the LA Times, wrote that year about how the killing sparked conspiracy rumors in the local French community and changed Richard. "If I drive, I'm afraid," Richard says. "If somebody gets close to me, I'm afraid. If I hear some noise in my home, I'm afraid. The feeling won't go away."

Some weekend reactions to Richard's death.

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