Michel Richard is more than a mere connoisseur of fusion cuisine; he practically invented the French/California flavor.
Formally trained as a pastry chef from the age of 14, Richard moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and began branching out into bistro style cuisine. But the ambitious young chef was not content merely whipping up crepes in his "one-man-show" Santa Fe pastry shop. Instead he used what he learned about business management to launch a slew of successful eateries from California to Washington, D.C.
About a year ago, he brought his texture-rich "American cuisine with a French accent" to Revel in Atlantic City with Central Michel Richard.
"It's a classic bistro with modern seasonings and a little whimsy," says executive chef Michael Williams. "There's a lot of thought that goes into each dish, the flavor complexities. We offer complete dishes, where most other upscale restaurants may be ala carte, so all the ingredients complement or contrast each other based on the flavor and seasonings."
Williams, the former executive chef at Izakaya at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, said working with the award-winning restaurateur has been a unique learning experience. Williams graduated from the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing decades after Richard gained recognition for his light, witty cuisine, and then rounded out his international culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and Ottawa, Canada, and the Interna-tional School of Confectionery Arts in Maryland. But Richard always has been a little ahead of his time.
"Many years ago (about 1977) I was trying to sell tartare in my little pastry shop, but nobody wanted it. They weren't ready for this, so I ate it all," Richard says, of one of his top-selling dishes, tartare of filet mignon. "In 1987, I put it back on the menu and people loved it. Now people love raw meat."
Richard says what he loves most about the dish - which he serves with french fries and a crisp gruyere cheese garnish - is the light, zesty flavor from the vinegar, "beautiful presentation" and the simplicity of it, "If you forget something, nobody will know," he insists. And as with all Richard's creations, it has that all-important texture from the crispy-fried sliver of cheese.
The Frenchman loves to joke he stole a page from KFC's book after he first tasted the franchise's fried chicken - juicy inside, crunchy outside. But a sampling of his menu shows he did take notes on one of his favorite textures: crunch.
His ever-popular lobster burger, for example, is loaded with potato tuiles, paper-thin savory chips created using a pastry-making technique. Williams says such techniques allow greater efficiency in the kitchen while ensuring uniformity. For example, the tuiles are made precisely the same shape as the lobster burgers and specially made rolls, for uniformity of crunch with every bite.
Asked separately, both chefs say they respect the knowledge and passion for food the other has, as well as their professional style. On a recent Friday night, Williams could be seen in the open kitchen directing cooks in a calm, professional manner, "no yelling at the cooks, you must treat the employees as I do," Richard says.
And they share a talent for artistic presentation of food. Richard, who always dreamed of being a painter, loves to sketch his culinary creations and his comical interpretations of dishes such as the whopping 8-ounce lobster burger are included in his cookbooks, "Happy in the Kitchen" and "Sweet Magic." Meanwhile Williams has created much of the blown-sugar sculptures that decorate the sleek, edgy restaurant and whimsical desserts such as the snowman made of meringue or banana split served on a TV tray.
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Filet Mignon Tartare
•1 pound filet mignon, chopped to 1/4-inch dice
•2 shallots, finely minced
•1 teaspoon dijon mustard
•1 teaspoon soy sauce
•2 teaspoons ketchup
•2 teaspoons chives, minced
•1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
•1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
•1 garlic clove
•Tabasco sauce, to taste
•Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
•Frisee, for garnish
•Grated parmesan cheese, for garnish
•Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Combine the filet mignon, shallots, dijon, soy sauce, ketchup, chives, vinegar, and olive oil. Mix well. Using a rasp grater, grate the garlic directly into the bowl (or mince the garlic and add it). Add the Tabasco, salt & pepper to taste. (Michel likes it hot.)
To serve, place a 3-inch ring mold in the center of a serving plate and fill with 1/4 of the tartare. Do not press down on the tartare; it should be somewhat loosely packed. Lift up the mold and repeat on three more plates. Sprinkle with frisee around the plate, and drizzle with olive oil and grated parmesan cheese.
Servings: 4 appetizers or side dishes
•Four 1/2-inch slices tomato
•Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
•Extra virgin olive oil
•Fresh thyme leaves
•1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
•2 2-pound lobsters
•1/4 cup mayonnaise
•1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
•1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) unsalted butter, preferably clarified butter
•1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
•4 hamburger buns, homemade or store bought
•16 wafer-thin potato crisps
•1 cup mache
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place tomato slices on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with a light dusting of sugar, salt, and pepper, then drizzle lightly with olive oil. Top with the thyme leaves and garlic slices. Place in the oven for 30 minutes to 1 hour to dry slightly and concentrate the flavor.
Cool the tomatoes on the pan, then cover and refrigerate up to a day. Bring to room temperature before using.
Place enough water to cover the lobsters in a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Fill 1 or 2 large bowls (to hold the lobsters) with ice water. Place the lobsters in the boiling water for 2 minutes, then in the ice water until cold. Remove and drain thoroughly.
Working over a bowl, break lobsters apart and reserve any juices. To remove the meat, grasp the tail, twist and pull to detach it from each lobster. Twist off the claws. Discard the bodies or reserve for stock or another use. Twist to separate the knuckles from the claws. Use kitchen shears to cut through the shell on the smooth side of the knuckles, and pull out the meat. Using scissors, cut down the center of the underside of each tail. Pull the shell back and remove the meat. Cut the tail meat lengthwise in half. Remove and discard the vein that runs along the top of the tail. Cut the tail meat and knuckle meat into 1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces and place in a small bowl.
Pull down on the small claw pincers to loosen them and then pull them away from the claws. Crack the wide section of claw shell with the back of a chef’s knife and pull apart to remove the meat. Cut the claw meat into 2-inch pieces, and place in the bowl of a small food processor. Blend on high speed to a paste. Season with salt and pepper, add to the chopped lobster meat, and combine with a rubber spatula.
Divide the lobster meat into 4 equal parts and form each into a burger just about the size of the buns. Place on a plate and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours to firm.
Combine the mayonnaise and grated ginger in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If you have a second oven, preheat the broiler.
In a large ovenproof, nonstick skillet, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. Place the burger in the pan and cook on the first side for 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and cook on the second side for another 2 minutes. Flip again and cook for another minute. Transfer to the oven and bake for 4 minutes, or until warm in the center. To check for doneness, insert the tip of a small paring knife into the center of a patty, and touch the knife tip. If it is warm, the burgers are ready.
Meanwhile, split buns in half, place on a baking sheet, and lightly roast under the broiler. Or, if you do not have two ovens, turn the broiler on once the burgers are removed, and toast the buns.
Spread about half of the ginger mayonnaise on the bun halves. Using the remaining mayonnaise as glue, make 4 stacks of 4 potato crisps each. In a small bowl, toss the mache with the remaining teaspoon of oil.
Place the lobster burgers on the bottom halves of the buns. Top each with a slice of roasted tomato, a stack of layered crisps and about 1/4 cup of mache. Top with the remaining bun and a side of peach slaw, if desired.
Note: The lobster is initially undercooked. It is placed in boiling water to loosen the meat from the shell, then cooked again after the burgers are formed.
•1/2 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
•2 teaspoons sugar
•2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
•1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (use a rasp grater)
•4 unripe peaches (1 1/4 pounds), peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick julienne
•Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pour off any liquid in the top of the yogurt container before scooping out the yogurt.
In a bowl, combine the yogurt, sugar, lemon juice and ginger. Fold in the peaches and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or, preferably, overnight.
Makes: 4 cups
Recipes from “Happy in the Kitchen” by Michel Richard