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Kitchen Nightmare

A legendary chef gets skewered.

3:15 PM, Jan 15, 2014 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Today would not be a good day to hang out with Michel Richard. I've been around the award-winning French chef when something's not right—the vegetables in the soup aren't fully cooked, bread is being wasted, a waiter's shirt is verging on the untucked—it's not pleasant. Normally Richard is a jovial fellow, often likened to Santa Claus. But probably not today. The New York Times finally ran its review of Villard Michel Richard, the chef's first New York outpost, located in midtown Manhattan. I read it on my phone and blamed the mobile version for the lack of graphics—why is the star rating missing? In fact, critic Pete Wells had given the restaurant zero stars.

It wasn't a bad review. It was devastating—possibly as mean as Wells's critique of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar. The only difference is Guy Fieri has yet to win the James Beard award for outstanding chef in the United States or be inducted into the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France. And yet here is just a sampling of Wells's review of Villard Michel Richard:

Think of everything that’s great about fried chicken. Now take it all away. In its place, right between dried-out strands of gray meat and a shell of fried bread crumbs, imagine a gummy white paste about a quarter-inch deep. This unidentifiable paste coats your mouth until you can’t perceive textures or flavors. It is like edible Novocain.

What Villard Michel Richard’s $28 fried chicken does to Southern cooking, its $40 veal cheek blanquette does to French. A classic blanquette is a gentle, reassuring white stew of sublimely tender veal. In this version, the veal cheeks had the dense, rubbery consistency of overcooked liver. Slithering around the meat was a terrifying sauce the color of jarred turkey gravy mixed with cigar ashes. If soldiers had killed Escoffier’s family in front of him and then forced him to make dinner, this is what he would have cooked.

I imagine someone had to break the news to the chef. And I can picture him closing his eyes, taking it all in, and wanting to be left alone. On one occasion, I asked Richard about a negative review of a meatball restaurant connected to his name. He said he didn't read reviews, but then went on about everything that was wrong with the writeup and said, "They slaughtered me before I was born," which I took to mean the critics didn't give the place enough time. Richard asked why critics must destroy a place and put at risk dozens of jobs. I repeated Ruth Reichl's line about a critic being responsible to the readers, not the restaurateurs. He didn't care much for that—or for the vegetables in our soup that were still al dente. (I thought they were fine, which brought the response: "Then you know nothing about cooking!" The French love their vegetables soft. Americans, not so much.)

Wells seemed puzzled by the incongruity between Villard Michel Richard and Central Michel Richard here in D.C. The latter far exceeded the former, but why? "Perhaps the restaurant was awful because Mr. Richard wasn’t actually involved," the critic wondered. "It’s true that he is not the owner, but neither does he have the kind of licensing and consulting deal that has often made the names of Gordon Ramsay or Todd English little more than celebrity endorsements."

Or:

Villard Michel Richard may be a symptom of the deal-making culture that afflicts the restaurant business. Too many chefs are being tempted with too many offers from too many developers and investors. Hotels especially know that a famous name lures travelers, who won’t realize until it’s too late that the food being served has nothing in common with the cooking that made the name famous.

But in the midst of the skewering, Wells mentions, almost off-hand, that "a union contract limits his ability to hire and fire cooks, but that didn’t keep Paul Liebrandt and Justin Bogle from pulling off formidable technical feats when they ruled this kitchen." Richard once worked in a union kitchen, where even if the cook at the meat station is overwhelmed, the cook at the fish station won't lift a finger to help him out because he doesn't have to. (On a related note, as Kyle Smith pointed out in Forbes regarding the union rules that governed Hostess Brands, "If cakes and bread arrive together and are headed to the same place, they must nevertheless be split onto separate trucks; drivers are forbidden to load products onto their trucks.") Another chef who once worked at the Jockey Club told me he'd never work in a union kitchen again—after a walk out, he had to wash every single dish himself. In Eater.com's post about Wells's scathing review, one reader comments, "I am in support of a living wage, but in my experience a union house harbors cooks that care more about pay, hours, and benefits than what they put on a plate. Good luck. This chef is fighting a losing battle." Another sarcastically adds, "At least the cooks make $20+ an hour and get full benefits."

It's been a rough few years for Michel Richard. His temple of gastronomy, Citronelle, was ruined after a flood in the Latham Hotel. His café, Michel, in Tyson's Corner, Va., closed after barely a year. And then there was the fiasco behind that meatball place with his name attached to it. (The Washington City Paper asks, "Is Villard Michel Richard the Meatballs of New York?") Enough is enough, you might think. But even at 65, Michel Richard is nothing but resilient. And he has no plans to retire—Richard will point out that his contemporaries like Wolfgang Puck (age 64) are busier than ever and that even Paul Bocuse is still puttering around. (Bocuse is 87 years old.)

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