When Michel Richard speaks, you listen. Otherwise you might get punched.
“Sit your little butt down,” he orders. “Let’s talk about fried chicken!” The chef is seated at the bar of Bradley Ogden’s namesake restaurant, surrounded by his publicists and business partner. Although he’s in town for business meetings, he seems uninterested in attending to the minor details of his latest project. They bore him. Richard may be dressed in layman’s clothes, but mentally he is perpetually wearing chef’s whites. He flails his arms while explaining the makings of his signature dish.
“We start with bread lumps,” he says in his thick French accent. Does he mean bread crumbs? “Lumps!” he exclaims, delivering a lump of his own as his fist taps my shoulder. “These are fresh pieces of bread, all different sizes, not small dry crumbs.” He pauses for a moment, and then—apropos of nothing—shrieks, “Ah-ha!”
This exchange, as bizarre as it sounds, is entirely characteristic of the good-natured, eccentric Frenchman. He just can’t help but be excited about his craft. The mere mention of a green bean—“No, haricots verts!”— can send the man’s head spinning.
“You can never get tired of food,” he says. “I don’t want my food to get old. Physically I can get old, but my food shouldn’t. I’m always going to have fun with it. I’m always going to be excited when I create a new dish.”
This month, Richard will introduce himself to the one town that can match his boundless energy. Central (pronounced sen-TRAL), a 24-hour, 300-seat outpost of his modern brasserie in Washington, D.C., will open in Caesars Palace, replacing the former Augustus Café.
Regarded as one of the godfathers of California cuisine, Richard is long overdue for a Vegas debut. So what took him so long? “Deals have fallen through before,” he admits. “And people asked me to come here 10, even 15 years ago. But in the end, I just wasn’t ready. I was waiting for the right time and the right location.” The chef has had plenty to keep himself busy in the meantime, including a collection of restaurants in D.C. and California, multiple James Beard awards and two cookbooks (one aptly titled Happy in the Kitchen.)
Outside the kitchen, he occupies himself with artistic endeavors. Richard pulls his iPhone from his shirt pocket and finds a photo of his latest creation. He points to abstract arrangement of colorful squares. “I paint my dishes with aquarelles,” he explains. “These are the layers of a sandwich: the tomato, the eggplant, the greens …”
As he interprets the painting, his manner is accessible rather than pretentious. It’s a natural match for his current cooking philosophy. “For so much of my life I was deeply involved in fancy restaurants,” Richard says. “But what Las Vegas needs right now is the democratization of good food. There is nothing wrong with a good burger. If you want to serve french fries, make them the best french fries.”
At Central, Richard promises to deliver those superlative burgers and fries. And of course, there’ll also be that fried chicken, encrusted with golden bread lumps. Richard seems confident that the dish will make diners scream as loudly as him.
“What will separate us from existing restaurants in Las Vegas?” he asks. “We’re just going to be better.” He laughs and humbles himself. “At least we’re going to try to be better. When diners are on their way out, they’ll be making reservations for their next meal.”