Last Friday I sat down with TOP CHEF Season 5 finalist, Stefan Richter, at his LA FARM restaurant here in Los Angeles.
We first met about three years ago when I was still working in the sales department of a moving company. I came over to Stefan’s tiny cottage (one room with an attached kitchenette) in Santa Monica to give him an estimate of a moving cost. I knocked on the door and was greeted by this bald guy, who on top of his accent spoke so fast it took me a few minutes to adjust and to understand him. Talking to Stefan, in fact, is like playing racquetball. It requires reflex and focus. His words, like the ball, shoot out with such speed that they bounce around all over you, on the floor and against the walls. If you want a fair game, you better pick up your racquet and hit back. Otherwise he’ll talk you to death.
When I began to turn around in his apartment (again, it was the size of a shell of a pistachio, so to say that I WALKED AROUND would be an overstatement) one glance at his wall brought instant shivers to my back. There was a set of SHARP and SUPER POINTY KNIVES attached to a magnetic rack mounted above the sink in his kitchen. I had no clue what his profession was at the time, mind you. All I knew was that I was writing down an inventory at a stranger’s bedroom feeling the bald guy’s breath on my neck (have I mentioned the size of that place?) while from across the room the knives watched my every move, patiently hanging on the wall. And then he started flirting with me.
Ten minutes after I left, Stefan called me to ask if I was married or if I had a boyfriend. He made me laugh.
GIVE ME A GOOD PRICE AND I’LL MAKE YOU A VEGAN DINNER AFTER I’M MOVED. WE’LL CELEBRATE.
I jacked up the price and booked the job. The dinner promise was never fulfilled, but we did become friends and raised a few toasts together after all.
Many rivers have dried since those days. I am no longer a vegan, and funny enough now I cook for a living myself. Stefan went on the TOP CHEF, got a national recognition, and soon after opened two restaurants in Santa Monica, CA – STEFAN’S LA FARM and STEFAN’S ON MONTANA. He also has a book deal and a clothing line coming up later this year called COCKY CHEF CLOTHING.
It’s been almost a year since I saw him, and when I arrived at LA FARM last Friday all that past time went out the window when I heard Stefan’s:
SR: Hi Agi. You cut your hair! WHY?
AG: You no likey?
SR: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I prefer long hair on a girl.
AG: Yes, you’re very traditional in certain aspects.
As it was the lunch hour, the place was slowly getting busier and appropriately louder, hence we made ourselves comfortable at the private section of the restaurant – an elegant and quiet banquet room.
First, I wanted to understand what being a chef meant to him:
AG: Stefan, tell me what makes one a chef, beside schooling and/or training.
SR: Go to restaurants. Try their food. See what you like.
AG: What does make one a good chef?
SR: Look at the restaurant. Is it busy or not? That’s the deal. It’s not just about being a chef. It’s about being smart. It’s a business, too.
AG: Do you still enjoy cooking?
SR: Of course, I do.
AG: Do you cook every day?
AG: Do you ever cook at home? Does your refrigerator today have anything else beside beer in it?
SR: Nope. I don’t eat at home.
AG: What is the hardest part of your job?
SR: People. Dealing with the employees.
AG: Apropos, I talked to one of your employees. He said it takes a thick skin to work for you, but at the same time he’d never seen anyone cook like you do.
Stefan would never admit he enjoyed the compliment, but I did see a shadow of a smile tinkering in the corner of his eyes upon hearing it. I asked nevertheless:
AG: How do you feel hearing that?
SR: I couldn’t give a shit. I don’t care because this is business and people have to understand that. If I’m running a business, and my business doesn’t make it, they’ll all go somewhere else. They’ll get another job. If I fuck up this business, what am I supposed to do? Go back to Finland?
AG: You were doing pretty well on your own, before the show, before the restaurant. Your catering business is still thriving.
SR: I know, but still. I’ll look like an idiot if I lose this restaurant.
AG: So how is the business?
SR: It’s great. It’s been nine months. We do 240 lunches on average, 180 dinners.
AG: How is STEFAN’S ON MONTANA different from LA FARM?
SR: MONTANA is simple, local. It’s inexpensive here as it’s inexpensive there. Main course here, Steak Frites is $17. You’ve got to be smart about it. The economy is bad.
AG: What’s your favorite cuisine?
SR: I don’t know. Let me think about it for a second. I don’t have a favorite one. I like everything. I love food. I love to cook, anything. That’s why I do it for a living. By the way, isn’t it funny? Look at my wine rack. There are two different bottles in there…
…And just like that Stefan gets distracted as his ADD gets the better of him. When he rearranges the bottles on the shelf, I manage to get him to sit back on his tuchas for a few more minutes. I wan to know if anyone else besides me sees the similarity between him and another chef, über famous British star Gordon Ramsay. Both are hyper, cocky and swear like … chefs. I’ve been watching Ramsay’s show called THE F WORD…
SR: Like fuck? (laughing)
AG: Like food.
SR: A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a normal thing in a restaurant business. There’s an old saying: if you can’t take the heat, stay away from the stove. If you want to be in this business, you have to shut the fuck up and deal with it for a while.
However, unlike chef Gordon who says anyone can develop and train their palette, Stefan is convinced it’s a talent one must be born with. “You either have it or you don’t.”
Beside the passion for making food and European heritage, we don’t have many things in common with Stefan. The more so was I surprised and pleased to learn that he gives a damn about his carbon footprint.
SR: I only have American product – American meat, American wine and beer. The economy is bad in America. Why would I bring shit from Europe and put a carbon footprint out on something on top of that?
AG: Where do you get your produce?
SR: I get California produce, so I go to a farmer’s market. Certain farmers drop off their tomatoes here, their potatoes, etc.
AG: What’s next for you?
SR: I’m writing a book that I have to finish by the end of the year.
AG: And what’s the name of your ghostwriter? (laughing)
SR: No, for real, I’m writing it myself. Do I have an editor that will go through it and correct it later? Absolutely. But I am writing it. I started it about 7-8 years ago.
AG: So tell me about the book.
SR: It’s about my life – stories, recipes, bullshit. Every chapter has a recipe.
And some day, down the line, he also “wouldn’t mind a couple of kids with the right person”. In the meantime, it’s all about business.
AG: Are there chefs you look up to, someone you would consider a mentor?
SR: Not really. Do I think there are great chefs that I respect? Absolutely. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], Thomas Keller… They are great business people. But do I look up to them? I regard people with whom I have valuable business.
AG: At last, but not least, what dish would you recommend to my readers if they wanted to make an easy and yet gourmet meal?
SR: Risotto. If you have a date make a risotto. It’s easy and you can make it vegetarian or with meat. There are a lot of options.
I left the Finnish chef at LA FARM and I headed over to his other restaurant, STEFAN’S ON MONTANA, to check out the new, local breakfast-lunch-and-dinner joint.
When I was bending over the menu trying to snap a photo, an older gentleman approached me, and inquired if I was anybody’s friend at the place. “I’m friends with Stefan Richter.” I offered to which the man reached out his hand and introduced himself (and his wife sitting nearby with their dog) as the co-owner of both restaurants.
Later, I texted Stefan:
JUST MET YOUR PARTNER. FUNNY, YOU NEVER MENTIONED YOU HAD ONE. A LOVELY MAN.
To which Stefan replied:
Followed by another message from chef Richter a few minutes later:
YOU LOOKED GOOD. NICE BUTT. JUST A COMPLIMENT.
Many things he isn’t. You can’t expect to have a deep, existential debate with Stefan. He is one opinionated guy and will offer his point of view on any matter in the world. Most of the time, however, it’s just a fluffy cloud of clichés and one liners with no substance. One thing he is though is his business. A typical only child, he doesn’t know how to share himself, his attention, his time, unless it is beneficial for his affairs. People either love him or hate him. While the first admire his confidence, the latter are put off by his cocky attitude. Whichever way you see Stefan, he is a greatly talented chef and a successful businessman.
I’m quite certain we’ll be hearing more of Stefan Richter in the future. In the meantime, someone get me a cocktail. I’m exhausted.