#7 Michel Richard and Citrus

Citrus Christmas card 93'

Michel Richard is the benchmark I measure every chef against. No one has come close. His original flagship–Citrus on Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood was a leader in contemporary California Cuisine in the early 90’s. A  favorite with the critics and a James Beard Award winner, Michel Richard was a very successful celebrity chef. The first day I met him, he made a grand entrance into the back porch prep area of the restaurant. The prep crew consisted of about ten Mexican ladies. They were mostly wives and family of all the am line cooks. There were babies and kids in the prep kitchen too. Lots of laughter and above all, a tremendous amount of work being done. On my first day as a student intern I worked with “the ladies” as Michel called them. Michel came in with an entourage–seems he always had someone following him, whispering in his ear. He entered the prep kitchen, said a grand “HOLA  ladies” to which they all replied “Hola Michel”. He kissed his favorites and then got to me. Now, you have to understand how insane this was. I was 24, a student with very little experience, meeting one of the top 5 chefs in the country. I wanted to speak but I believe I got nothing to come out. I had been working with the ladies all morning prepping vegetables and making these heinous eggplant-tomato terrines. The ladies spoke no English and taught me with patience and gentle smiles. But there was a lurking intensity. I knew things had to be perfect. Michel was taking all these terrines to an event the next day. I don’t think I slept that night. Scared he would unmold them and yell “MERDE! Idiot girl!”  This is sick but I have to mention that on this first day, about an hour into my shift–I got my period–a week early. I stood bleeding in that screened off porch kitchen surrounded by mounds of tomato and eggplant–unable to stop for a bathroom break. No way I was gonna ask to be excused from terrine making to go take care of business. I remember thinking well, I have an apron on and there is a towel draped across the back string so no one will see the blood spreading across my checks in a sickening slow motion horror movie kind of way. I can make it through, no problem. But back to Michel. He kissed me on the cheeks with his ticklish graying beard. Shook my hand and said “welcome to our kitchen Cheri”. And he was gone in a whirl. Like a devilish tornado.

Michel was a very busy chef back then. Opening restaurants on the east coast, he was not around much . So when he was around it was intense. He walked into the kitchen and everyone went silent and lowered their eyes. Preparing to be scrutinized(always) or recognized for something good(rare). He always showed up during the rush to make something special for friends or oversee the 5 course degustation menus made for the VIPs. Once he got an idea- he moved like a guided missile thru the kitchen. Intensly focused and quiet- he would sneak on to your station and steal things you would curse him for later. We would watch in awe as he would make something extraordinary. Completely original. Completely delicious. He made it look easy.

Gregarious and animated, he used to do the triple cheek kiss thing with me– then snap my bra strap and laugh this big throaty laugh. Kind of an asshole–a typical chef. Magnetic. I loved and admired him. Sometimes he had a cigar with him and always had a bottle of Michelob, frosty cold, at the ready.

I was the first “girl” to work on his hot line and be paid for it. Citrus was always full of students who would work for free. It was a huge honor to be a part of the paid staff. His food was very clean, brite and modern. He was well known for his inventiveness. He was in a word–brilliant. He was the kind of chef that I wanted to be. And I wanted to impress him. I worked my ass off at that restaurant. Moving from sauce to fish and then to the meat station which was the top spot below the sous chef. I called the tickets and directed the timing of an 8 man line. It was so amazingly intense. There was no room for error. Michel threw a plate of duck at me once and demanded to know if he should take the duck off the menu–or was I finally “going to get it fucking right”!!!! The duck needed to be cooked to the liking of the chef running the window. Alain Giraud’s medium rare and Michel’s medium rare were a little different. If Michel walked in while you were putting up a duck for Alain–you were screwed!  This environment taught me skills at a rapid pace. I am forever grateful for that.

I also had two big moments at Citrus.

The first, I call my “backdoor moment” (a line cook would say something dirty here:)

On the morning of a party for Julia Child’s 80th birthday, I stood at the backdoor of the restaurant with my hand wrapped around the handle. My heart pounding. I could hear the happy voices of Michel, Jean Luis Palladin, Paul Bocuse and Julia Child thru the din of kitchen noises. I flashed back to the previous night when a serious Michel yelled he would put me to death if I overcooked their steaks. I was bleary from a rocking dinner service when Paul Bocuse just walked in the back door with Julia Child behind him. I was cooking their dinner. Me. Fuck. The steaks were fine and I drank three beers in rapid succession with my homies sitting on a brick wall in the parking lot.

Back to my moment….This was a luncheon to kick off an entire weekend of celebrating Julia Child, her birthday and her commitment to French food. So, there I stood at the backdoor scared to death that I would fail or be humiliated in front of these culinary giants. I wanted to run. I was going to puke. But, I collected my mind. I took a couple of deep breaths and told myself I was tough. I told myself “you can do this”. I pulled open the door, walked in and was put to work. It was a glorious day. Multiple courses. Celebrity chefs and winemakers from all over the world. True magic. Once in a lifetime. I met some of my idols and Julia too. She was warm, goofy and totally exhausted. I imagine it was hard to keep pace with the French and the other chef swill masters.

So, when things get stressful in my life, I remember that moment–that choice to believe in myself. I knew I had courage or balls if you will. I think of it often.

The second moment was something Michel said to me. One night he called me out to the dining room and offered me a glass of armagnac. He told me he believed women were better cooks then men. Said we were smarter too and that was why there weren’t many of us in professional kitchens. He told me I was a “good cook”. Told me to never give up, no matter how tough things got. He advised me to read cook books and stay in tune with trends. (That was the best advice I ever paid attention to) The other shit he said–how I could travel with him and be his assistant–but “don’t pack your underwear”–I choose to chalk that up to the armagnac.

Anyway, without Citrus and Michel, I may never have believed in myself as a chef. Never would have seen such crazy creativity and commitment to excellence. Faced with ordinary kitchen work early on, I honestly believe I would have left kitchen life behind for something else. There was nothing ordinary about Citrus.


~ by abmccune on May 9, 2010.

3 Responses to “#7 Michel Richard and Citrus”

  1. Could you please stop being a chef and just start writing about it full time now?? Thoroughly enjoyable – I gobbled up every single one of your delectable words!

  2. Loved this one! We just watched Julie and Julia so it was like 10x as cool.

  3. Abby, you’re singing my song! Love it!

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