Michel Richard, 58, is a native of France who began his career at the age of 14, in the pastry kitchen of a restaurant in Champagne. After a move to Paris, where he spent several years running Gaston Lenôtre's pastry shop, Richard came to the States in 1975, initially to Santa Fe, N.M., where he opened his first restaurant, and then to Los Angeles, where he opened an eponymous pâtisserie while continually returning to France to hone his culinary skills. He went on to open Citrus in Los Angeles, Citronelle in Santa Barbara, Baltimore and Philadelphia and Bistro M in San Francisco before deciding to focus exclusively on one East Coast restaurant, Michel Richard Citronelle in Washington, D.C., which he now considers his flagship. His current restaurant empire also includes Central Michel Richard, in Washington D.C.; an outpost of Citronelle at Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, Calif., and Citrus at Social in Los Angeles. Richard recently spoke with Wine Spectator about dessert wines, his favorite 1985 Châteauneuf-du-Papes and the importance of an empowered sommelier.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Michel Richard: When I was 20 years old I tried drinking wine but I didn't like it very much. Then a friend introduced me to a great bottle of wine, which was a Corton-Charlemange, and I fell in love with it. After that, it was tough for me to stop! [Laughing] I think my problem with wine up until then was—it's like taking a person to a bad French restaurant; they're going to hate French restaurants until you introduce them to a great French restaurant, so they know what it can be.
WS: What are some of your best memories involving wine?
MR: I think the best memory for me was having 1982 Krug Brut Champagne in Los Angeles with my brother-in-law, about 20 years ago. It was an absolutely fabulous Champagne that had the flavor of vanilla. Now I realize the bottle is about $600, so we'll probably never drink that wine again. [Laughing]
WS: Throughout your career, how have you kept yourself educated about wine?
MR: With all my sommeliers, we taste wine together every two weeks. They try to introduce me to new things, what they're interested in, and I talk to my customers about wine. The problem is that I have a tough time tasting. I don't like to spit—I want to drink it! [Laughing.]
WS: You got your start as a pastry chef. What are your favorite wines to pair with desserts?
MR: I think the best things in general are [Muscat de] Beaumes-de-Venises and Moscato d'Asti. Banyuls goes very well with chocolate, pear and almond desserts. I also think Port is a good match with chocolate. At Citronelle I used to create a kir royale, but instead of using cassis liqueur I made a praline liqueur and sold it with ice cream. I love sherry with sheep cheese, and E. Guigal's Condrieu with blue cheese.
WS: How do the wine programs in your four restaurants differ from each other?
MR: At Citronelle in D.C., we sell more French wine than at my other restaurants, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux. Pinot Noir is selling better than a few years ago—it used to be a tough sell. At Citronelle in Carmel and Citrus at Social we sell a lot of Oregon Pinot Noir and wine from Santa Barbara and Napa, and a small amount of French wine. At Central it's mainly American wine, and not expensive. The price of dinner at Central is maybe $50 [per person] so we try to keep the wine affordable.
WS: When you say American wine, do you mean primarily California?
MR: It's from all over the country, but yes a lot of California and Oregon wines. We have some local wines from Maryland and Virginia on the list but we don't sell very many. They are where California wines were 30 years ago, but constantly improving. For now it's good to drink them very young.
WS: What wines tend to pair well with your cooking?
MR: My food tends to be a bit spicy or peppery, and it goes very well with Syrah or Bordeaux from Pomerol or St.-Emilion. We serve vermouth with my oxtail soup and a peanut or chestnut soup with foie gras. And we like to pour Riesling from Weinbach with black cod, because it's a bit of a sweeter fish.
WS: How do you work with your sommeliers—are you very involved, or more hands-off?
MR: Mark [Slater], the sommelier at Citronelle in D.C., and I have been working together for almost 20 years. When I discover wine through travel or read about something good, he always tries to get the wine for me. He did this recently with Georges Vernay Condrieu. I find I have to be very careful with sommeliers, because if you force them to buy wine they don't like, they will never sell it. I want the sommelier to love the wine.
WS: Is there a "dream wine" that you would love to have for one of your restaurants' wine lists or your own personal consumption?
MR: I would love to have a bottle of 1985 Château Rayas Réservé; it was superb the last time I had it but it's impossible to get. Or the 1985 Château de Beaucastel.
WS: Do you have any plans to expand your restaurant empire into other cities?
MR: Our dream is to open a restaurant in New York, another Central. We've looked at a few locations. I hope to do it within two years. I think a place like Central—a good American restaurant—will do very well in New York. I am an American now and I go for simple food. I like the idea of a beautiful restaurant where you can have a great burger or a great steak and a great bottle of wine or good beer. And I love New York. It's the most exciting food city in the world. In Paris it's mainly French food, but in New York they have the best French, the best Italian, best Japanese, the best wine, the best of everything.