Food

'Top Chef's' Stefan Richter, ready for prime time

Let's get this out at the start: Almost nothing said by the main character of this story, chef Stefan Richter, is accurately quoted. Otherwise, it would be a bleepin' tiresome story to bleepin' read all the bleepin' way to the bleepin' end.

Like this: Someone says, "Hi, how are you?" And Richter replies: "Bleepin' hot." About his in-your-face reputation, he says, "I don't bleepin' care what people bleepin' say about me." About his teeny home kitchen: "I don't bleepin' cook at home."

Not that it's so unusual to come across a swearing chef. But with Richter, the obscenities, in an impressive, Finnish-accented variety, just seem to bubble out, uninvited, unintentionally, unrelentingly. Mostly, they're all in good fun.

So it's an accomplishment that he got through "Top Chef" linguistically. Culinarily, he almost got through, losing out to Hosea Rosenberg in the finale of Season 5. Plenty of Richter's fans complained he was robbed. And subsequently he redesigned L.A. Farm in the Lantana Center in Santa Monica, opening it in August 2009. The Los Angeles Times' restaurant critic gave him two stars, saying, "I'm sure he knows how to make a foam, but you won't find one here. He's going for smart, contemporary cooking that everyone can relate to and flirting only occasionally with the cutting edge."

Richter's merry prankster bravado, hedged by repeated victories in "Top Chef" kitchen challenges, helped make the season compelling for Bravo. The guy wasn't even fazed by skinning an eel.

None of it did Richter any harm either.

" 'Top Chef' made me rich," Richter says one morning. "Well, not yet. But it will."


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Richter, 38, has been cooking since he was a teenager, in Europe and Asia, and he earned a master chef diploma in Germany. He was executive sous chef at the Bellagio in Vegas and executive chef at Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills. Still, without "Top Chef," he says, "I wouldn't have two restaurants. I wouldn't be a superstar in Finland," where he plans to open a restaurant later this year.

Who knows if he would have gotten his cameo on the season premiere of "Entourage" either.

With his blue eyes and shaved head, he's cute enough for the egocentric "Entourage" gang. But though he's criticized for being arrogant, his defenders say it's just talent and that, in fact, he's softhearted.

"He wasn't misrepresented, because he looks great on ['Top Chef']. He won pretty much everything but the finale," says fellow competitor Fabio Viviani.

"He's very intense, he's very organized," says Leo Bongarra, his 31-year-old chef de cuisine and his pal. "You've got to follow his line. Otherwise you are going to hear from him."

Richter says he's always himself, no dissembling or posing. Unless he's spreading good cheer among the diners at L.A. Farm. He flirts with everyone, young, old, female, male, responding to diners' requests for him to come to their tables. "You're a priest and a shrink," he says.

He sometimes says things that make a listener wonder: Did he mean that? Is it true? Like when he says he's got a law degree and passed the bar exams in Germany and Finland.

Richter loves Los Angeles, cooking, the outdoors, Levi's and Marlboros, In-N-Out burgers and the band Journey. He has no use for goat cheese, dishes with too many ingredients or chefs who don't pay their dues in a kitchen. He's got no visible tattoos — "so I can wear a suit and a short-sleeved dress shirt," he says — but he does have ones that say "Finland" in English and Finnish and a dragon he got in Thailand.

He's an unabashed booster of his adopted land. "I got here and I got all the love and all the things I ever wanted," says Richter, who came to the U.S. in 1998. In return, he says, he tries to serve only American products in his restaurants.

Richter is a bit of a clean freak, a neatness nut. He says he gets a weekly mani-pedi; he spent months getting his restaurant kitchen organized just so. He tries to miss no opportunity: At the nail salon or in taxis, he says, he always leaves business cards around.

Richter, an only child who grew up in Finland and Germany, recently bought a small house a few blocks from L.A. Farm with his girlfriend, Laurel House, a fitness author and healthy living advocate.

In the yard, he wanted a birch forest; he settled for 17 trees. His showpiece is out back — hanging couch, rugs, cushions, fire pit and barbecue for relaxing with friends. There's even a little urinal in a corner — because boys like going outside, he says. Their black lab Beignet uses it too.

It's "kind of like camping at home," Richter says. Beers and sodas are stored in a refrigerator in the garage — exactly lined up can by can.

House says she and Richter try hard to attend to their relationship. They've both been married and divorced twice (him to the same woman) and they're trying to have a baby — he promises to quit smoking before he becomes a dad. They both work hard, and they seem to have an easy, teasing way with each other.

As a surprise, he put a House Benedict on the menu at his cafe, Stefan's on Montana. The dish acknowledges her eating habits: poached egg whites with a tomato hollandaise.

"When we have a really good day, we hold each other and say, 'This is why we're together,'" says House, a girl-next-door beauty with a wide smile.

They met at a tequila tasting.

"He wanted to go on a date to Denny's because he thought it would be romantic," she said. On the next dates: chicken wings, pot stickers.

"I called my mother and said, 'I can't do this.' If this is how he eats, I can't do this," House recalls. But soon afterward, Richter opened L.A. Farm and had no more time for Denny's. Now, House spends many evenings at the restaurant so they can be together.

Though he works hard, Richter says he's no longer a workaholic. He plans to retire at 45 (owning 10 or 15 restaurants, perhaps, he says) to the farm he owns in rural Finland.

He has fantasized about being stranded on an island in Finland — how he would build shelter, how he'd use fish heads to lure birds he could kill for food. He wants to spend five days in the wilderness with House — no food, just a tarp and a flint and some water. "See if you can make it work. I just want to get out of the hassle for a bit."

He tries, he says, not to take work too seriously. Richter and Bongarra say they figured out the L.A. Farm menu the day before it opened. "You just make sure you make something sexy and good," Richter says.

His food can be as playful and flirty as he is. Diners can order tater tots with Hidden Valley ranch dressing, or a "Like a Big Mac slider." For dessert, there are lollipops, in red wine and other flavors, frozen in liquid nitrogen. Near the door of both restaurants, there are big bowls of Dubble Bubble.

One recent night, Richter joins several other chefs to cook dinner, a course each, in an event to benefit the James Beard Foundation at Santa Monica's Huntley Hotel. In the kitchen, he issues a challenge: to get his venison dish plated and out for 130 guests in six minutes. With a flourish, he takes off his watch and sets it on the table.

"Let's go! Now! Servers, let's go! Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!" (Fill in the missing expletives as you wish.)

He misses his challenge by a minute, but he's laughing. It's all in good fun.

mary.macvean@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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