Michel Richard, chef-proprietor of the Citronelle restaurant in Washington, DC, was voted Outstanding Chef at the James Beard Foundation Awards, one of the USA's most prestigious culinary awards, last week. He talks to Kerstin Kühn
What does winning the James Beard award mean to you?
It feels great. The award means that people recognise me as one of the best chefs in the country, that they respect my cooking and enjoy my food, and that is a great honour both for me and for my staff, as without their help I could never have achieved this.
When did you decide to become a chef?
When I was 10 my father left the family, so to provide for us five children my mother had to take on a night job at a factory. I started cooking dinner for us, and my brothers and sisters soon started to enjoy my food more than my mother's. I fell in love with cooking at a very early age and am still as passionate about it nearly 50 years later.
What is your cooking all about?
In France I cooked French food for French people, but when I moved to the USA 32 years ago I suddenly had to cook for people from all over the world. I have been influenced by all the different cultures in this country, especially the Chinese. They call me "Captain Crunch" now, as I think it's so important to have texture to your vegetables. In France there's no texture - all the vegetables are overcooked.
How has French fine dining developed in the USA over recent years?
French chefs are suffering in the USA at the moment. When I first arrived here there were French chefs everywhere, but now there's very few because more and more American chefs are starting to open restaurants, and they're great at what they do. Chefs like Thomas Keller have opened fantastic restaurants, and they really understand the market and know what Americans want.
New York is famous for its fine dining. How does the Washington, DC, scene compare?
New York is much busier than Washington, with lots of tourists and business people dining out all the time. Washington is less busy but it's a very sophisticated and beautiful city, and fine dining is getting better here all the time. There are some great restaurants already, and as people have more money to spend on dining out, more and more are opening up.
What have you been up to recently?
I published my latest cookbook, Happy in the Kitchen, about six months ago and it's been a great success and has won a number of awards. At the moment I'm working on a new restaurant opening, which will be called Central DC, located next to the White House. It will be a brasserie serving simple food, including salads, sandwiches and steaks. Americans don't really understand French bistro-type dining, so I'm doing this instead.