Visit Central Michel Richard and you might notice a few new, peculiarly spelled dishes that lean toward fine dining—like “lobster begula” featuring lobster risotto that’s puckishly served in a caviar tin surrounded by clear pebbles impersonating ice. Or, onion “carbobara” that replaces traditional pasta with slippery ringlets of onions accompanied by shiitake, bacon, and egg yolk.
They’re reincarnated dishes from Citronelle—the shuttered Georgetown fine dining goliath where Washingtonians and the world first fell in love with Chef Michel Richard’s ever-playful cooking that married French cuisine and that of the U.S., where he worked for the majority of his career. Bringing back these time-capsuled plates is one way that Richard’s more casual bistro will keep his memory alive.
Richard was 68 when he died Aug. 13 after suffering a stroke. “It’s been a tough month and a half adjusting to not having him with us in the flesh,” Richard’s longtime general counsel and Central managing partner Chipp Sandground says ahead of this Sunday’s “Joie de Vivre” memorial service for his friend at the Embassy of France. Though Richard’s health “was never the greatest,” Sandground says, they expected him to be around for many more years.
“We’re very sad at his loss but grateful that he has a restaurant that bears his name—we’ll continue to operate it in his tradition,” he says.
Richard’s ebullient, Santa Claus-esque aura commanded loyalty—maybe even unconditional love—so there are more than a handful of people who clung to him throughout their careers. Not just Sandground but also Central wine director Brian Zipin and Central chef, general manager, and partner David Deshaies. That these close ties exist means Richard’s food will live on.
“There are a lot of people with bonds with Michel, but there is no bond more special and unique than between David and Michel,” Sandground says. “There’s a big fraternity and sorority of people who have worked with Michel, but David worked with him the longest.”
Sixteen years to be exact. “He was like a second dad to me, and culinary-wise he was a master, so it was good for me,” Deshaies says.
Deshaies, who hails from the Loire Valley in France, learned of Richard when he was a 22-year-old working at La Côte Saint-Jacques in Burgundy under Chef Jean-Michel Lorain. After two years at the job, he yearned to learn English by working in the United States. Fortunately, Lorain had two friends here: Daniel Boulud in New York and Richard in Washington, D.C.
“I was scared of New York, really scared,” Deshaies recalls. “I had a friend living in D.C. who said it’s a quiet life, cosmopolitan, much more European. Citronelle was doing 100 covers a night, it was fine dining. I loved that.” Lorain pushed, relaying to Richard that Deshaies was “a good kid,” and Richard agreed to sponsor his visa.
Despite coming from a three-star Michelin restaurant where he was a sous chef, Deshaies started as a line cook at Citronelle while he learned English. After a year and a half, he re-upped his visa instead of going back to France and was promoted to sous chef. Three years later, he became the executive chef—a position he held for eight years.
When Richard began a period of expansion in 2009, opening a Citronelle by Michel Richard in Carmel Valley, California, and Citrus at Social Hollywood in Los Angeles, among others, he asked Deshaies to be his corporate chef. Between opening new restaurants and putting on special dinners, Richard and Deshaies toured the country together. They say you don’t know someone until you travel with them.
“He was the best. We talked about food, food, food, food, food, girls, and food,” Deshaies says. “There’s nothing else we talked about, and we spent hours talking.”
He recalls how he and Richard would ravenously seek out greasy spoons after finishing in the kitchen at celebrity chef dinners in Napa Valley, Aspen, Los Angeles, and the like. “All the time, we’d finish in a crappy, shitty diner in town. We loved that because we ate greasy burgers and three or four beers. We were very happy.”
It was after this time period that Richard’s health began to decline, Deshaies says. He sold his other restaurants, leaving only Central. Deshaies returned to D.C. in 2012 to work at the Pennsylvania Avenue brasserie, but in a new role. He came on as a partner and continued to oversee the kitchen, but he asked to be the general manager so he could learn things like human resources and accounting in preparation for opening his own restaurant in 2017.
“The last two years have been like going back to school,” he says. “I love it and now I feel confident that I can open a restaurant.” Deshaies has been training Chef Tony Roussel to execute the menu upon his departure, but Deshaies will remain in charge of the cuisine in a consultant role.
“David is a lexicon of what Michel created over the past decade and a half and even before because he learned what Michel was cooking years before that,” Sandground says. “He has a long list of things that we have thought about reviving. We don’t want to be kitschy about it, but there are ways to make it fun.”
That said, Deshaies vows never to retire the dishes that have made Central so iconic, including the goat cheese Caesar salad, the ahi tuna burger that used to be on the bar menu at Citronelle, “Michel’s fried chicken,” and the Kit Kat-mimicking “Michel’s chocolate bar.”
On the beverage front, Zipin says he’ll continue to pour the wines that have always worked with Richard’s food—classic French and American varietals.
Like Deshaies, Zipin moved to Washington, D.C. to work for Richard at Citronelle. “I left a general manager job in New York to be a bar manager and sommelier at Citronelle and took a pay cut because Citronelle was one of the best restaurants in country,” he says. His hope was that if all went well, he would be tasked with opening Central.
That goal materialized when a team from Citronelle was deployed to create Central in 2007. “It was a really inspired team that wanted to get it right for Michel,” says Zipin, who was the general manager, wine manager, and beverage manager at the time. Zipin says Richard wanted a “vibrant, fun, loud restaurant that serves food that chefs eat when they get off work.”
The finished product was more casual than Zipin expected. “It’s kind of like Fabio [Trabocchi], these chefs can only go so casual—this was casual for Michel at the time.” The restaurant was welcomed with open arms. Zipin recalls the first year when greats like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) and Danny Meyer (Union Square Hospitality Group) would fill the dining room. “It was insane,” he says, because they were serving 350 people a night.
Fast-forward to today. Zipin, who left to pursue other local ventures before returning to Central in July 2015, says the heart of the James Beard Award-winning restaurant hasn’t changed. “The industry has changed. There are more choices and more voices in the mix,” he says. “We can talk about small plates, we can talk about tasting menus, but they’re going to come and go. The brasserie, the bistro, the power of that will always remain.”
Central has meant a lot to so many. Over the past month, a memory book has been displayed in the restaurant, its pages scrawled with messages in gold and silver ink that say way more than rest in peace:
From a food lover and hunter of the ultimate dish, your chicken is like ice cream in that it melts in your mouth, best I ever had.
Papa Smurf, the pastry god, father Christmas, my dearest Michel. You are truly missed and impossible to forget.
My family considers Central the place to celebrate milestones, but also “our” neighborhood bistro. We always looked for Michel and his huge smile, bear hugs, and big laugh when we dined.
These diners, and countless others, should know that Central isn’t going anywhere. Sandground says there are five more years on the lease, plus a five-year option. “We’re up for another 10 years,” he says. “We think it’s a great location and will get better as the new hotel gains traction in town.” Sandground uses “the new hotel” as a euphemism for Donald Trump’s D.C. Hotel, which is directly across the street.
Sandground ticks off some other ways Central is planning to honor Richard’s memory. First, they’ll continue to support the charities that meant most to Richard, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Second, he plans to enlist Richard’s architect son to renovate the private dining room in a way that honors his father.
“It’s Central Michel Richard. We shorthand it Central, but to all of us, this is Michel’s restaurant,” Sandground says.
Zipin was able to observe Richard on his last visits to the restaurant. He’d come in three or four times a week, mostly during the day unless he had friends visiting. He’d sit on the patio or in the lounge having appetizers, port, or his favorite, coconut sorbet.
“Some people would stop by and say hello, others were intimidated. I don’t know why,” Zipin continues, still using present tense. “Michel is the jolliest guy in the world if you’re not a cook in his kitchen.” CP