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French chef Michel Richard, who revitalised DC cuisine, dies at 68

Paul Zimmerman, Getty Images North America/AFP | Chef Michel Richard pictured at Amtrak National Train Day on May 10, 2014, in New York City.

Michel Richard, an innovative and enormously influential French chef who helped turn the faltering Washington, DC, culinary scene into America's best dining city, died Saturday at 68, his assistant told US media.

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Richard, who was born on March 7, 1948, in Pabu in Brittany, died of complications from a stroke, his spokewoman Mel Davis told The Washington Post.

Richard began his pastry chef apprenticeship at the age of 14, moving to Paris three years later to work at the famed Maison Lenôtre, the food blog Eater reported. In 1974, Lenôtre sent Richard to help open the short-lived Chateau France pâtisserie in New York.

But Richard’s first real US success came in 1977, with the opening of the Michel Richard Pastry Shop in Los Angeles. In 1986 he opened Citrus, a restaurant fusing French and Californian cuisine.

Richard liked to use colours, textures and flavours in unexpected combinations, even designing desserts to resemble breakfast foods. "We create an eggshell using white chocolate, and we fill that with lemon meringue 'yolk'," he told Food and Wine magazine. "It looks exactly like a regular egg, but when you eat it, it’s light and beautiful."

Kentucky Fried inspiration

He was fond of recounting how a visit to Kentucky Fried Chicken influenced his approach to cuisine when he first arrived in the United States.

“For me it was a revelation,” he told the Post. “It was sooo delicious: moist and crunchy. In France, we don’t have a lot of crunchy food. I discovered texture in this country.”

He later added crunchy textures to many of his creations, earning him the nickname of “Captain Crunch”, the Post said.

After arriving in Washington, DC, in 1993, Richard's flagship Citronelle restaurant had an impact on the city's culinary culture that "cannot be overestimated" and which lured other chefs to Washington, the paper reported. One of its signature dishes was what Richard called faux “begula” caviar – couscous coloured with squid ink and served with lobster. The restaurant closed in 2012.

He later opened a second high-end restaurant in Georgetown, Michel Richard Central, which offered a French twist on American classics. "This is my American bistro, with a French accent," Richard proclaims on its website.

“I love American food, and I’m French,” Richard once said. “So I make great French fries!”

America's best restaurant city

Washington was honoured by Bon Appétit magazine this year as America's best restaurant city – an accolade likely earned, at least in part, by Richard's culinary influence.

“Michel was a master of restaurant technique, like nobody else, but I don’t think that was his greatest contribution,” Mark Furstenberg, a baker and DC-area restaurateur, told the Post. “Michel became the centre of the chefs’ community in Washington. He became, for all of us, an inspirational and social leader.”

Richard's holdings expanded to include restaurants in Las Vegas, New York and Tokyo. He also designed menus for airlines and Amtrak trains.

Richard won the James Beard Best Chef in America award in 2007. He was the author of three cookbooks, "Michel Richard’s Home Cooking with a French Accent", "Happy in the Kitchen" and "Sweet Magic".

"I am completely saddened by the news of a great chef & close friend's passing," tweeted Thomas Keller, who won the James Beard Best Chef award in 1997 and whose California restaurant French Laundry is considered one of the best in the world.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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