Michel Richard was a genius. That’s not a word to be used indiscriminately, though it often is. But it’s true. He was. One of the few.
It was easy to see the virtuosic brilliance in his dishes, the dazzling wit that made you smile before you’d even taken a bite.
What was not easy to see, in part because the brilliance was so blinding, was the world that gave rise to this invented world. A real world of pain and heartache. His food was an escape.
His father came to Brittany after WWII, to find work rebuilding the country. A drunkard, he beat his wife and abandoned the family when Richard was 6. His mother worked in a factory, and took the five children to live in a house with no running water. At 8, Richard had his first job — he was the family cook.
He learned how to use every part of the animals he killed, collecting the blood of rabbits to mix it with vinegar for making boudin. He thickened stews with the innards.
He later went to work in a bronze factory. His skin black with soot at the end of his shifts.
Somewhere around this time, he made a discovery: the Impressionists. He was enchanted by their renderings of reality. Renderings that improved upon the actual.
By 14, he was on his path, working 16 hours a day for a pastry chef in a town 100 miles away. This alone was brutal. But the fear of reprisal was just as harrowing. One slip-up, and he could be smacked around by the boss.
And so he learned not to slip up, to mind the tiniest, most insignificant detail. Three years later, he became a pastry chef.
After an army stint — he told me a story once about serving an inhumane higher-up his own cat in a stew, a story I have never verified, and never tried, believing it to be true in some form or fashion — he went to work for the great Gaston Lenotre, the granddaddy of pastry chefs.
Lenotre did not just make pastry; he worked confections up into arrangements that made people’s jaws drop in awe and wonder.
It was here that Richard learned that food could be more than nourishment; it could dazzle; it could provoke; it could prompt contemplation and even study.
More than that: it could take you out of one world — our fallen world, brutal and unfair — and into one that was more beautiful and even magical.
When he was making the transition from sweet to savory, becoming a chef and not just a pastry chef, fine dining was a more solemn and restrained business than it is now. He played his own game. I’ll never forget seeing him walk up to a diner at Citronelle who was gawking at Richard’s version of a Napoleon. The diner was right to gawk. “Smash it!” Richard shouted, standing over him. The man was too paralyzed with fear and perhaps too awestruck. “Smash it!” And so Richard picked up the spoon and, like a little boy, demolished his own creation.
He smashed things. Rules. Conventions. Should-dos. Expectations. So many of Richard’s greatest dishes were not just great-tasting. They were feasts for the eyes and the mind. His mushroom soup, which was made to look like a cappuccino, complete with a top layer of (potato) foam. (And let it be said that the soup itself was the most mushroomy I’ve ever tasted, as if the chef had produced not simply a broth but a liqueur.) A mosaic-like arrangement of eel and tuna set on a layer of Saran wrap over a bowl so that it cast shadows below. “Breakfast,” which was, in fact, an over-the-top display of dessert in the form of a grand room-service breakfast.
Very few chefs have a recognizable style. They have a genre, a way of plating, a philosophy, an approach. Richard had a style, in the same way that Van Gogh had a style, or that Woolf had a style. Distinct. Inimitable.
The razor-like line of his creations. The trompe l’oeil wit. The irrepressible need to overturn assumption and expectation.
He will be remembered for many things as a chef, but this has to be foremost among them — that no one did more to demonstrate that French cooking is not a period piece. That it need not be beholden to the past, to tradition. That it is possible both to honor the canon and revere the classics and also innovate. Swapping peak-of-season August tomatoes for beef in a steak tartare. Turning squid into capellini. Making caviar out of pasta.
Are these lessons that other chefs can be inspired by and follow? Yes. Will we see another like him? I somehow doubt it.
I’ve tasted the work of many great chefs — here in DC, around the country, and around the world. Great dishes, great experiences. But I have never left the table the way I left the table at Richard’s restaurants when he was there.
With a sense of lightness and possibility.
With a belief that life was, or could be, beautiful.
And this was yet another trick that he performed at the table. The ability to make life look better than it was.
Yet for all his genius, I think what I will remember most in the weeks to come is his vulnerability and unappeasability.
He oozed vulnerability. Many chefs are deeply, deeply vulnerable and either hide it or run from it. He didn’t. He used it as a spur to creativity.
He was up front about what he needed from people. Up front about what he felt he was denied. No amount of recognition or affirmation was enough for him. No amount of honors, accolades, commendations, or stars. There was a massive hurt there, a wound, and that wound was an open wound.
It was attractive in him, I thought, and not repellent.
It had its roots in the world that made him. The kitchen, the plate, his imagination at play in a new dish — these were escapes. But that world never left him.
There were hangers-on. People who wanted to be in his orbit, and share in the spoils. And he did not say no enough. He should have.
He was bad at business, and that was a terrible shame, too, because it deprived him, and us, of opportunities.
But I won’t remember those things.
I will remember his vulnerability, his unappeasability, his genius, his sense of wonder, his refusal to live outside of his imagination.
I will remember going to the Phillips Collection with him some months ago, and just walking around, taking in the work of the masters.
And him with his keen and observant eye. His hungry, his devouring eye.
Michel richard, 1948-2016
A Eulogy for My Mother
I stand before you today, and I know that I am envied.
Yes, even in my pain — a pain for which no drug has yet been invented.
I am envied, as I have been envied all of my life, because I could claim this woman, this gorgeous woman, this unstoppable, undimmable lifeforce, as my mother.
A world of beauty and meaning in those words, and yet they don’t begin to speak to all her many and varied parts, all the multitudes she contained — she was my best friend, my confidante, my dining partner, my conspirator, my teacher, my soul mate.
Most labels were too narrow and too thin to define or hold her.
And that was true almost from the very beginning: her given name, Esther, did not tell the world who she was, and so she became Itsy, and evolved into an Itsy.
A perfect name, really.
Yes, the cute spunkiness it connotes, but even more than that — its explosive ts, right there in the middle, in the heart.
To utter the name is to strike a match, and could any image could be more fitting?
A light in the dark, a charge in the air.
I am descended from a rebel and a subversive. I will leave you to ponder who was whom.
In truth, actually, each was a rebel and a subversive. Both flouted convention. Both heeded their own, inner dictates. Both impressed upon me, from a very young age, the need to be an individual, at every turn reminding me that if I let it, if I was not vigilant, my irreducible self could be reduced, all right — or snatched from me as quickly as could my life; some, poor souls, surrender it willingly, blending in or never bothering to explore its contours or test its outer limits.
Many years ago, during her time in the Health Center at Prince George’s Community College, all the folks who worked in administration were sent on a team-building retreat — one of those dreary exercises in corporate-molding that office workers are occasionally subjected to. For one of the “games,” participants were asked to answer a multi-page questionnaire. The results were then tabulated, with respondents handed a colored piece of paper — red, blue, green, orange, yellow, black, white, pink, purple — and directed to a large, open room. There, they gathered in groups. There were large clusters of red, and blue, and green, and orange, and somewhat smaller clusters of yellow, and black, and pink, and white. There was no cluster of purple — only Itsy, standing alone against a bare white wall.
She was initially embarrassed, and why not — to have been so exposed! To have everyone in the room look over at her and stare, and wonder at this poor lonely soul standing by herself!
But her discomfort did not last long, and by the time she arrived home she had done what she always did when something troubling or confusing had happened— she converted the experience into story. Mastered it with words. Found the hidden core of meaning in the telling. Found, even, the humor in it, the absurdist humor. So that as the weeks went on, and she retold this story over and over again, she was laughing about it — laughing and, yes, proud: a moment of confirmation, a vivid and graphic demonstration of what she had known all her life.
My mother saw herself as a misfit — her word, not mine — but the funny thing, the amazing thing, quite frankly, is that the thought did not alienate her; no, she reveled in it. Being a misfit meant that you thought for yourself, that you were your own person, that you would not — could not — be reduced.
And this is why so many of us have gathered today to honor and to cherish her. Because that fierce refusal to succumb or to slow down is the purest expression of the life force — and we were lucky, dearly, dearly lucky to have been nurturted and sustained by it, and to grow and develop and thrive because of it.
Some months back, I was riding in the car with her one night, returning home from dinner, and I was talking about a friend of mine who lately had been lamenting getting older and feeling, as they say, one’s age. I said I understood.
“I don’t,” she said.
“No. The first time I felt my age — the very first time — was about two years ago.”
What an astonishment she was!
She never ceased to astonish me.
To astonish me, to buoy me, to open my eyes to the things right in front of me that I sometimes miss, to moments sacred and small, to people, to books, to traditions, to life … to life.
I picture her, now, eating chicken on the bone, or — forgive me, kosher-keepers — ribs. Oh, she loved her some ribs. As a teenager, my mother was discovered at a barbecue restaurant on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Not like Lana Turner was discovered, no, but close — the owner of the restaurant spotted this young, vivacious woman eating ribs and was so struck by the way she ate them — the sheer gusto with which she attacked the rack, but then the attention, the tender patience, she gave to each bone— that he gave her a job sitting in the window and eating.
No doubt this was simply an opportunity to advertise his restaurant, but in my mind, now, when I think about that moment, I see an installation: a simple and beautiful display of how to live. To live, that is, as she did, not just that day in Atlantic City, but every day — even, yes, the days that shake us into a reckoning of the essential fragility and mystery of our existence: with love and with lust, with care and with devotion, gnawing at the bone, patiently and methodically stripping it of every last morsel, leaving nothing to waste.
Ever since my father died, six years ago, people would see us walking hand in hand to a restaurant or a movie theater, and they would smile and say how sweet and kind it was that I was looking after her. Looking after her — as if what I was doing was entirely for her benefit, when the truth was that often I was thinking only about myself, the chance to spend a few uplifting, sometimes joyous hours in the presence of so immense and generative a spirit, to have it affirmed, powerfully and repeatedly affirmed, by her words, by her laugh, by the mere fact of her zestful being, that the hard, sad business of life is worth it.
She knew how to live.
This was her genius, and my friends will tell you that I do not use that word, that woefully overused word, often. But she was — she was a genius at living.
Living without supposed-tos, without should-dos, without fear, without doubt, but instead with openness, with curiosity, with a sense that each day you first open your eyes you are embarked upon an adventure.
This attitude, this hunger for experience, was not something she adopted as a widow, a willful effort to endure what could only, barely, be endured, though let it be said that she blossomed over the past few years — yes, blossomed in widowhood. Standing free of my father, of that charismatic and indomitable presence, she began to widen the circle that had closed around her as he struggled with depression and his art became his world.
She went on book tour with me, road tripped with me, hosted a book club to expose herself to challenging works of literature she might otherwise not read and (what the hell) cooked all the dishes too, baked a couple challahs every Friday night for Shabbat dinner, learned to cook Indian food, learned to like not just that cuisine but also Ethiopian and sushi and Pakistani and Laotian and Egyptian and many others, too, joined a support group, joined a Yiddish group, taught calligraphy to students at Georgetown, wrote and co-produced a play about a woman who returns home for Passover with her lesbian girlfriend, went to honkytonks, welcomed Harry Belafonte to her table at the St. Regis, and (as anyone who was privileged enough to attend will tell you) presided over parties, countless parties, at which she was always the vital center — none more memorable, perhaps, than my birthday two years ago, when, having invited everyone to bring a passage of something interesting or witty to read, she proceeded to stun, delight and upstage everyone in the room with her selection: the hilarious, foul-mouthed ravings of the sex-obsessed, faith-wrestling narrator of Charles Simmons’s 1960’s cult classic Powdered Eggs.
And that long list of action does not begin to touch all the myriad gestures of kindness she extended to so many, the handmade cards sent to someone who was sick, the batch of sweets whipped up for someone’s time of need. There is not enough beauty in this world, my mother knew, there can never be enough beauty.
Not least, no, certainly not least, she took people in. Some people rescue animals. My mother salved souls. All the strays among us, the ones without enough love, the ones without enough attention, the ones who are lonely or hurting, the ones who do not fit anywhere else. No matter the person’s age — her friends span those in their twenties to those in their eighties; and no matter the religion, or culture, or ideology that keep so many of us at some kind of remove from one another.
She took people in, she gave them a place at the table, she supplied them a home, a spirtual home, and from that moment on — from that exact moment of embrace— she remained deeply, fiercely loyal to them.
Looking around the sanctuary, I can count at least a half-dozen people who would tell you that they wish she had been their mother, and dozens of others whom she mothered, consciously or not, whether they asked for it or not, whether they knew it or not.
The house I grew up in was a small house, and particularly after my father made his swerve and left his directing job and became an artist — became himself — money was tight. We struggled. We made do without a lot of things that other families took for granted. There were times when a large repair was needed, or sales of paintings were scarce — bad times, when the walls seemed to close in on us, to cut off our air. I remember these details; I cling to them, and will never forget them. But more often I remember the house as being boundless, enormous, a space of infinite possibility. It was a salon we lived in, where models (including, sometimes, my mother) shed their clothes and posed, where dinner went on for hours as discussion turned to debate, as ideas were explored and challenged, as writers were invoked as if they were neighbors just down the street, as books grew to become more than places to escape but talismen to treasure, as a life of art and truth, of seeking and beauty, came to see the most natural thing in the world, and, eventually, the most thrilling.
In her mid-50s, she took a job writing catalogues for a sports car repair company called Coach Masters in a Beltsville industrial park — this, after writing technical scripts for years, including, possibly, the first in the country to teach cashiers automated check-out. The first person she befriended at Coach Masters was a passionate 19-year-old autodidact named Leon Shartsis. Leon had essentially been excommunicated by his respectable, conventional middle-class parents, who despaired of what would become of this poor lost soul, kicked out of college, bouncing around the East Coast, working as a mechanic. My mom saw a fellow traveller, and brought him in, and for a few years there in the early-mid 80s he became a fixture of our boisterous, argument-rich Seders that stretched on until midnight, hipping me to slivovitz and the worldly philosophers. He once told me that he had glommed onto her at Coach Masters because of her wit and irony, their mutual disdain for phoniness, and because he had no one else with whom he could talk existentialism.
My friends were all jealous of what I had, the world I possessed. Their own parents were narrow, dull, pinched, and they were jealous. I was a lucky bastard, is what I was, soaking in this refuge of wit and culture, soaking in this superabundance of love, a love that overflowed and never smothered, no, never, but which was infinitely generous, and extended outward in a hundred, a thousand, different directions, endowing me with the fearlessness to tilt at life, to seek, to embrace, to risk, secure in the knowledge that I did not go forth alone, that a rich and radiant light illumined my path.