In the summer of 2007, I was working on a story for THE WEEKLY STANDARD about the cult of celebrity chefs. As part of my reporting, I spent time with Michel Richard, who then ran two restaurants, the acclaimed Citronelle and the brasserie Central Michel Richard. It was inside the gastronomic temple of Citronelle that I interviewed the chef.

Richard, wearing his cooking whites, was in exceedingly good spirits, having just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. He'd often been likened to Santa Claus, which I found to be an accurate assessment, right down to the "round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly." Some of the other cooks were setting up their mise en place and speaking to each other in French. On a nearby counter was a tray of glistening pink filet mignons. The maître d' (and Michel's brother-in-law) poured us two glasses of a 2005 Chassagne Montrachet. Later, Richard brought out an appetizer known as a surf-and-turf "mosaic" consisting of thinly sliced carpaccios of beef, scallops, salmon, and vegetables. Deftly scattered throughout this colorful dish were rice crispies, giving it the occasional crunch. "Voila!" said the chef. "Like Jackson Pollack."

On August 13, Richard died of complications from a stroke. He was 68. What follows is our conversation from June 12, 2007. It has been edited for clarity and length:

Victorino Matus: First off, congratulations on winning the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef.

Michel Richard: I knew I was the best chef in America way before this. Ha!

VM: Now at 3 o'clock I have a phone interview with Anthony Bourdain—

MR: —say hi to him for me. He's a good kid. He's a star. He's a really nice guy. Great writer, smart, woo! He's wonderful, he's charming. This guy has everything. A—hole.

VM: Bourdain recently posted this item on the web in which he goes after the Food Network, criticizing many of its stars.

MR: Oh yeah. I saw that. He doesn't like that little girl. What's her name?

VM: Rachael Ray.

MR: He don't like her.

VM: No he doesn't. Have you met her?

MR: She's cute. I could spend the night with her if she wanted.

VM: Do you watch any cooking shows? Do you have any time?

MR: [Shakes his head no.] I tell you something. Tell me if we should talk about it. I am wondering. Why do you have to act in this country to be part of the TV show? Why do you have to act like a clown or look like a clown? That's my only problem…. Why is there such little demand for professionalism, experience, being a pro? I don't know, sometimes when I look at it, some shows are really strange, really strange. How come we [have no respect for] what we put inside of our body. Some people, they have more respect for what they put, they are looking for the greatest gasoline to put inside of their car, and they don't care what goes inside of their own body.

VM: Is there one chef you are thinking about specifically when you mentioned "acting like a clown"?

MR: [He closes his eyes again.] I am not going to say. The thing I am sad at the TV Food Network, I complain there is no French chef.

VM: Hold on, let me think about this…

MR: [In high-pitched voice] No, no, no, no, no.

VM: Alton Brown.

MR: He is not French! Alton! Alton Brown? No. But Alton Brown is great. He is a great chef. He's very nice.

VM: But something happened. And it happened some time in the late '90s. You go to the bookstore today and you'll find more than 30 celebrity chefs featured.

MR: Because you see them on TV. I remember when I moved to this country 30 years ago, with the nouvelle cuisine, we used to have a section [in bookstores] on French chefs, Paul Bocuse, Verge. Boop! Gone. If you go to a Barnes & Noble, you're going to have a tough time finding a cookbook from a French chef. One thing that happened, when I moved to this country, 1974, there was no American chef in the kitchen. There was none. It was Asians, Latinos. They were not even chefs. They were helpers. And what happened with the nouvelle cuisine, some chefs, some young men in the 1980s, did decide to go to France and learned to cook in the French style. And they moved back here, and they did open their own shops, their own restaurants. And this country was very proud to finally have their own American chefs, and they promote them.

And the other thing that is fabulous and I love about this country, most of our young chefs here, they're all college educated. They went to college. And after college they decided to go to CIA and learn how to cook. I mean you have well-educated, intelligent, smart, young men.

VM: What about the flipside? You don't have the kind of apprenticeships you once did, Escoffier at 13, Pépin at 14—he didn't finish high school.

MR: Me neither. We didn't finish. When you apprentice at 14, you don't finish high school. You have your Certificat d' Etude, I don't know how you say in English, and then at 14, you become an apprentice for three years. At 17 you have your CAP, Certificate for Professional Cooking, and then you work. I tell you one thing. It was easier for us, when you're 14, because we didn't have to pay to learn—and I never received a salary either. My salary for a month when I was an apprentice was $10. How much money do I make now per hour? I can't say it!

VM: Celebrity chefs wouldn't be here if not for us, right? We're driving this, the ratings. We love the entertainment value of it. Gordon Ramsay, the yelling, the screaming.

MR: That's why I said you have to be a clown. Gordon Ramsay, that's not the way he is. He's a nice person. The thing is, first, in this country, if I treat my own employees the way Gordon Ramsay treats his own employees [on TV], I would be in jail by now.

VM: So what about you? Where's your TV show? Do you want one?

MR: Of course I want one. But if I were on a TV show, I would just want to show, you know, see the way I cook. How much I care. And technique. Fun. It has to be funny. But I think the French accent doesn't help much. But I am stuck with my French accent. It's very sexy. Oooh la la.

VM: If you had a show, wouldn't it take away from your other work here in the restaurant?

MR: We'd shoot 36 shows a year, if I did one…. I like my kitchen. I like being a restaurateur. And when I do a TV show sometimes, you have to be very well organized. I don't want to feel guilty. I used to have 10 restaurants all over the country and Japan, and you always feel guilty. When I was in the plane, I used to feel guilty because I was inside of the plane. When I was inside of the plane I always feel guilty too because I wasn't with my wife and my kids. When I'm working in one restaurant I always feel guilty because I was not in the other restaurant. The problem of the TV show is that it takes too much of your time, you feel guilty. "Oh my gosh! I need to go to my restaurant, take care of my restaurant!" I am sure it is the same problem for Emeril Lagasse. Every day his show is on TV. Every hour. He needs to do those shows. Or maybe some of the nights the restaurant doesn't need him anymore. Maybe he should give it up, but, anyway, he did very well. He's great. He's great. He has enough money now.

VM: Jacques Pépin complained about young chefs, still in cooking school, who expressed their opinions about master chefs like Michel Bras and how they wouldn't do certain things his way, and Pépin would say, You wouldn't do it his way? You don't even know how to hold a knife!

MR: [Laughs] That's right. He is right. First, the problem we have, even before anything, they have to educate their palate. You've been eating hamburgers and hot dogs all your life. If your palate doesn't know what the food is supposed to taste like, you can't cook. You have to taste it. You have to eat it, take your bite. And then you have to know how to cook. You have to learn. They want to be creating. You have to know the classical. You have to know the way grandpa used to cook. Those people, for the past 2,000 years, they prepared everything for us. They showed us how to cook. They grew the vegetables. We cannot forget what they did for us. And the young go, "Oh, we don't need that." But they did everything for us. These cooking shows—one second, one second.

[Something in the kitchen catches Michel Richard's eye. He goes over to a young commis and scolds her, loud enough so the whole kitchen staff can hear. "Don't waste the bread! Please!" "I'm sorry, chef," the young girl apologizes. When another chef comes over, Richard turns to him and says, "She's wasting the bread! She threw it in the garbage!" Everyone else is silently focusing on their stations. He then returns to the table with a tray of wafer-thin crackers to be used in a dessert.]

VM: What is this?

MR: Butter. It's a puff pastry. We serve that with a little Napoleon. Crispy.

VM: We're not supposed to like butter.

MR: [The customers] don't like butter. They ask me, "Do you have butter in your sauce?" But the first thing they do, they take half a pound of butter, and they spread over a piece of bread and boop! They don't like butter, but they eat butter all day long.

VM: Daniel Boulud said with regard to all these celebrity chefs we see on TV today, let's wait 10 or 15 years and see who's left standing.

MR: I'll be dead. I'm 59. I'll be 74.

VM: You'll still be around.

MR: Maybe.

VM: I've heard some tough stories about the hazing of apprentices. How bad was it for you?

MR: It was tough because that was the way they learned the profession, too. In 1961, 1962, when I was an apprentice, it was tough. If you made a mistake, bam! [He pretends to swipe the back of his head.] After three or four [hits], you stop making mistakes. And the many, many hours. It's okay. You know, it was tough.

VM: I think Gordon Ramsay still does that, throwing food.

MR: How come? He has no respect for food? Why do you have to throw the food?

VM: He was probably upset it was overcooked.

MR: You know I've been eating overcooked food. Different countries, they cook different ways. In France, we overcook the vegetables. Here they serve the vegetables raw. The French, they love the pasta overcooked. The Italians, they eat al dente pasta. Even Gordon Ramsay, when the food is overcooked, give it to a Latino employee. They love overcooked food.

VM: What would happen if Escoffier and Carême were alive today and saw a channel solely devoted to food?

MR: They are the ones who started this. And I'm sure if Carême were alive right now, he would be on TV. And Escoffier too. The other funny thing about Escoffier is we see a picture of him, he is always dressed like a gentleman. I never saw him wearing a chef hat. We see Paul Bocuse always wearing the chef hat and the chef coat. I think Paul Bocuse was a big star. And next time, maybe, I think each chef is going to be online with his own show. I think so.

VM: Why do people watch these cooking shows? Because it seems we like watching but we don't necessarily replicate the recipes.

MR: They don't cook. Even my cookbook—do they read the recipes? I'm not sure. They like to watch. They're a bunch of voyeurs. They like to see the magic. They like magicians. When you see a magician, do you want to recreate his magic? Some, they do try. But most of them, enough to understand. When you go to a restaurant, Daniel or Per Se or wherever, and you see the food, "Wow, this is so nice." And then, if you are able to see the way [the chef] is doing it, it doesn't mean you want to duplicate it. You just want to know how did he do that. The first time I prepared a soufflé, not the soufflé but the puff potato, did you see that? The first time I saw that, I was working in a restaurant, that puff potato was like [gesturing big with his hands], French-fried puff—one day I saw the magic—wow! I was so happy to see it. Did you want to do it? I do it now because that is my profession but I was happy to see it.

VM: What about food critics? Do you worry about them?

MR: I tell you one thing. I don't worry. Because if you run a restaurant like we do here, we do a good job. Sometimes these critics tell us something we did was not okay, it's okay. It's more or less with my mom or my kids. When you make a mistake, they tell you. This newspaper sends me a guy. He says, "I went to your restaurant. Your foie gras was overcooked." I don't mind. It's fine. It's fine. We are not perfect. And we don't say we are perfect. On top of that, the critics are so nice to me.

VM: What caused the change in our food culture? Was it the Food Network, Emeril?

MR: Emeril was part of it. Even the Food Network changed their whole thing. One thing the Food Network did, [they made you] express yourself in front of the camera. I did TV. I did NBC, ABC, a lot of TV shows. "We give you three minutes!" Normally I need half an hour. "No, no! We give you three minutes!" Three minutes you try to do a recipe that normally takes you half an hour. "Stop! Out!" We had a tough time expressing ourselves in front of NBC or ABC or CBS or whatever. But now at least they give us some time to express or to show our technique. We have time to show the TV voyeur, we have time to show our personality. That's why maybe they love Emeril. Because Emeril was able to show them his great personality…. We did one of his first TV shows together. It was maybe 20 years ago, and we did some video together, Emeril and myself. I think it was for Time-Life. I don't think we sold even one cassette.

Upon the conclusion of our interview, I thanked the chef for being so generous with his time. "You are very welcome," he said. "Now get the f—k out!"