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Michel Richard: Joie de Vivre Personified

The French chef's spirited nature is reflected in his innovative cuisine

MICHEL RICHARD is the formidable French-American chef and the ultimate host.

Those who know him describe him as effusive, generous, warm; also impish and flirtatious. His character is often personified in his cuisine, which fuses French and American, dramatic and whimsical, and is full of good taste and texture.

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Chef Richard is best known as owner of the Los Angeles restaurant Citrus and its three offspring - all called Citronelle -

in Washington, Baltimore, and Santa Barbara, Calif.

``He's a wonderful man,'' comments Julia Child, who includes him in her book ``Cooking with Master Chefs.'' ``For one thing, he's a great deal of fun. He's also a very good teacher and very original [with his cuisine]. We're lucky to have him.''

Recently, Richard visited Boston to promote his new book, ``Michel Richard's Home Cooking With a French Accent'' (with Judy Zeidler and Jan Weimer, William Morrow & Co., 366 pp., $30) and to celebrate a reunion with his first prot - Jackson Kenworth, who is now chef and owner of the Boston bistro Marais.

Although Richard plays well the part of celebrity chef, chatting and laughing with his clientele (remarking ``this is a small kitchen for a big belly!''), he is a serious chef through and through. If cooking is his religion, then he is a priest of food, he often says.

``People ask me `Michel, what do you do when you want to relax?' And I say, `cook!''' Richard said as he blanched garlic in front of a small audience at Marais. (Blanching garlic with the skin on removes some of the harshness, he explains. ``If you want to kiss your wife that same day, you don't have that haahhhh,'' he says, widening his eyes and his mouth.

One suspects the showman in Richard led him to install an exhibition kitchen at Citrus, a feature now common in many restaurants.

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Cooking can be entertainment, but it is really an art, and the chef must be the artist, Richard says. In fact, he once considered becoming a painter; but he would have starved, he says.

Richard says good chefs are born with an intuitive sense for culinary creativity. Growing up in Brittany, he knew he was a chef ``inside'' at age 4, when he started watching his mother cook. By age 13, he was working as a chef's apprentice, and about 10 years later he had risen to the position of top chef at Gaston Lenotre's renowned pastry shop in Paris. In 1974, Mr. Lenotre sent Richard to New York to open a pastry shop there. Richard later moved to Los Angeles, first opening his own pastry shop, and then Citrus restaurant in 1987.

Richard credits his success to rigorous training, hard work, and opportunity. ``America has been very sweet to me,'' he says. But this country sometimes rewards people who don't deserve it, he says, adding, without mentioning names, that America can be the ``greatest promoter of mediocre.''

Chefs who have worked for Richard say he is very demanding, but in a good way, always urging them to ``do better.''

``He's tough, but he is very fair,'' says Jackson Kenworth, who cooked for three years at Citrus with Richard. Mr. Kenworth says one of the best recipes he took with him was Richard's mashed potatoes (see recipe, below).

During Richard's visit to Boston he orchestrated lunch for seven people, including this reporter, as if we were guests at his own home. The menu ranged from hearty lentil soup to Crab Cakes a la Citronelle (crab rolled in phyllo dough, sauteed, and served with French cocktail sauce.)

Warm hospitality is key for restaurant success, Richard says. Good cooking equals respect. ``You want to please your friends. It's love. My restaurant is like my home.''

It is not enough to recognize Richard's love of cooking. He wants you to share in it, to revere it. ``Do you cook?'' he asks several people during lunch, followed by a ``Why'' or ``Why not?''

He prides himself on making French-American cuisine accessible, most notably from television shows and his book. ``You do not have to be scared of good food.''

A stickler for fresh, top-quality food, Richard is also crazy about crunchy textures. ``I am the captain crunch,'' he says, wielding a knife as if he was a pirate by the stove. The ``crunch'' inspiration came from his children: ``My babies, they love the crunch on the cereal - Rice Krispies.'' Texture is a driving force in his cuisine, he says: ``To all my dishes I add some crunch - to create a firecracker in the mouth.''

French food is soft, he continues. Other cultures understand the concept of texture much better. His brother-in-law, who is Chinese, hates whipped cream and mashed potatoes because of the lack of texture, says Richard, mimicking someone eating air. One of the most important pieces of equipment he has is a Japanese Benriner Turning-Slicer. It allows him to shred potatoes, for example, into long slender strands. Fried, they make a crunchy crust for seafood and meat or even a tasty side dish. This day, for example, he wrapped bay scallops in pancetta and then encased them in the crispy potato strips.

Ever aware of Americans' eating habits, he searches for the perfect balance between flavor and lightness. But food is meant to be enjoyed, he says. ``This is the only country where people discuss the fat content of a beautiful dessert while they are eating it. This is pleasure?'' he writes.

When you're eating food, don't be afraid to use your fingers either, Richard says, adding that he'd like to serve dinner without any utensils one night at Citrus. ``What sounds better?'' he asks, ``Burn-Your-Fingers Chicken or Chicken-Burn-Your-Fingers?''

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