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Ellen Sterling

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Michel Richard: From KFC to Caesars Palace -- a Journey Powered by the Love of Food

Posted: 10/03/11 07:24 PM ET

2011-10-03-MichelRichardSmaller.jpg If Chef Michel Richard were a drink, he'd be Champagne. Why? Because when he talks about his life and about food he absolutely sparkles, bubbling over with enthusiasm.

Richard is frequently in Las Vegas these days, commuting between there and his Washington, DC base where he owns Citronelle. In 2007, that restaurant earned him the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef award and the restaurant was cited for Outstanding Wine Service.

He is one of a growing list of celebrity chefs who have restaurants in Las Vegas: Central (pronounced "Cen-trahl," as French), Richard's restaurant that opened last month at Caesars Palace, a 24/7 gourmet outpost. The move to Las Vegas is one that pleases the chef.

"I love Las Vegas," he says, with that enthusiasm noted above. "This is the best place to open a restaurant. The weather's great, it's a great location because everyone comes here."

But the road from his birthplace in Brittany, France, to the highly regarded Citronelle, to the James Beard Award and, now, to Las Vegas, was not easy for Michel Richard.

He explains, "When I was very, very young my father left my mom with five kids. My mother worked in a factory. I was the cook for my four brothers and sisters. They told me I was much better than my mom. They gave me three stars. When I was 14 my mother asked me, 'What do you want to be?' I told her I want to be a chef and she told me that, first, I had to be a good pastry chef.

"I did that for 20 years. When I moved to this country I opened my first pastry shop and café in Santa Fe. There were lines out on the street to get in. Then I opened Michel Richard Pastry Shop in Los Angeles."

In 1987, when he opened his first restaurant, Citrus, in Los Angeles, Richard became a chef as he'd dreamed of all those years ago in France. Restaurants in Santa Barbara, Baltimore, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Carmel and Washington, DC followed over the next several years. In 1999 Richard opened Central Michel Richard in the nation's capital.

Las Vegas is the second Central location. There are breakfast, late night and lunch/dinner menus. These include, in part, a lobster burger, a crab burger, matzo ball soup, tuna carpaccio, eggs prepared in many styles, cereal and a dazzling variety of pastries and other desserts.

The space the restaurant occupies is bright and airy with lots of sunshine and light wood furniture. There is a witty touch to the décor with huge plates hanging from a light fixture and piled in a corner of the long bar just to the left of the entrance. The look of the restaurant isn't serious at all and, in fact, encourages patrons to relax and have a good time.

2011-10-03-MichelElton.JPG The staff at Central, it is worth noting, is very accomplished and knowledgeable. If a patron asks for a recommendation, they don't say something like, "Well, the fried chicken very is popular." Instead, the several staffers I spoke with take ownership of the food, explaining the construction of each dish they are asked about and telling the patron what they like about it.

Richard's approach to food is based on two factors. The first is location: "If I go to Japan, I won't eat French food. I'll eat Japanese food. People come to America to eat American food."

The second factor is quite surprising. It dates back to the time when Richard was sent to New York to open an American outpost of famed pastry chef Gaston Lenotre's pastry shop.

He recalls, "When I moved to New York in '74, I was a poor man. I didn't have money for a restaurant. I went to dinner with a friend and we stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was the first time I ever had crispy food like that. Crispy! It was wonderful."

So it was that the Colonel's chicken became the model for Richard's. "My fried chicken is very special," he says. To make it, he cuts the crust off a fresh-baked "French bread with an Italian accent" and takes the soft inside to use as the "crispy" on the chicken. (It is, I must report, delicious.)

Richard's pastry background, by the way, is very much a part of every menu at Central. They are beautiful, unique and, in a word, scrumptious. There are things, like the chocolate bar, one cannot find elsewhere. And even those desserts that are fairly common are extraordinary in Richard's hands. For example, I've come to believe that you've never had a Napoleon until you've had his. The custard is as smooth as the finest whipped cream and the pastry buttery and flaky. Perfect.

Chef Richard acknowledges that opening a restaurant is a process. Not everything is perfect from the start. "The food is getting better every day. The most difficult meal is breakfast. You see, we don't eat breakfast in France like we do here."

Central is busy all day with a rush after the nightly show at Caesars -- now alternating between Celine Dion, Rod Stewart and Elton John -- lets out. In fact, after John returned to Caesars Colosseum on September 28, the opening night party was hosted at Central. (Photo above right)

While he prefers his home in Washington to living in a hotel, Richard is in Las Vegas several times a month right now. "I feel like a kid," he says. "There's no city like this one, like Las Vegas, in the world. Everybody is happy."

That last statement may be true, but it's also true that no one is happier than Chef Michel Richard.

Photos courtesy of Michel Richard

 

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