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 as Stefan's at L.A. Farm 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 day. "Well, not yet. But it will."

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 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.


His likes

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.


Another farm?

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.



Braised red cabbage

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, plus marinating time

Servings: 10

Note: Recipe (and commentary) from Stefan Richter of Stefan's at L.A. Farm

2 pounds red cabbage

1/2 pound shredded apple

1 cup orange juice

1 cup apple juice

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 tablespoon salt

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons blackcurrant jelly or cranberry jam

1 stick cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 cup red wine

1/2 cup duck or bacon fat, more if desired

Scant 2 cups sliced onion

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water, divided

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Julienne the red cabbage into 2-inch-long strips and place in a large bowl along with the apple, orange juice, apple juice, red wine vinegar, salt, sugar, jelly, cinnamon, cloves and red wine. Cover the bowl and marinate the cabbage overnight in the refrigerator.

2. Heat the duck or bacon fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and when hot, add the onions and cook until they're just softened, stirring occasionally. Add the cabbage mixture on top of the onions and add a cup of water.

3. Cover and simmer over low heat until the cabbage is thoroughly tender, about 1 hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so. The liquid should be mostly absorbed by the cabbage. If the cabbage is too liquidy, remove the lid and continue to simmer until the excess liquid is reduced.

4. Thicken the cabbage liquid with a slurry: Make a slurry by whisking together the cornstarch and the remaining 2 tablespoons water until smooth. Slowly add the slurry to the cabbage, stirring constantly, until the liquid thickens. If you feel really healthy, add 2 to 5 more tablespoons of duck or bacon fat. This makes about 6 cups cabbage.

Each serving: 213 calories; 2 grams protein; 26 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 10 mg. cholesterol; 17 grams sugar; 379 mg. sodium.


Pretzel knodel (pretzel dumplings)

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Servings: 10

Note: Recipe (and commentary) from Stefan Richter of Stefan's at L.A. Farm

2 tablespoons butter, plus more for sauteing

1 chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped parsley, plus extra for garnish

2 tablespoons chopped marjoram

1 tablespoon salt

1 pound baguettes or soft pretzels, cut or broken into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes

2 cups whole milk

4 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 clove garlic, chopped

Pinch of white pepper

1. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and saute the onions until they are translucent.

2. Stir in the parsley and marjoram; cook briefly (until aromatic) and then set aside to let the mixture cool.

3. Place the cubed bread in a large bowl and season, if desired, with salt. (If you used salted pretzels, you may not need to season at all.) In a small saucepan, heat the milk almost to boiling and pour it over the cubed pretzels. Set aside to cool and go relax for 15 minutes.

4. When the bread-milk mixture is cool, mix in the onion-parsley mixture and the eggs. Add the bread crumbs, garlic and white pepper and mix well. If the mixture seems too soft to hold a shape, add more bread crumbs until it is thick enough. The mixture should be firm enough to form into dumplings that hold their shape.

5. Bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer. Dip your hands into cold water and make a test dumpling, about the size of a large golf ball. Lower it gently into the simmering water and cook. If it doesn't hold up, add more breadcrumbs to the mixture. Once you've found the right consistency, shape the mixture into 20 dumplings.

6. Gently lower the dumplings into the simmering salted water and cook until they are puffed slightly and cooked through, about 7 minutes. When they are boiled and sexy, you can take it up to another level and brown them in a saute pan with a tablespoon of butter and some extra chopped parsley. That's what I do.

Each serving: 215 calories; 9 grams protein; 28 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 96 mg. cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,031 mg. sodium.


Crispy duck breast

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 10

Note: Recipe (and commentary) from Stefan Richter of Stefan's at L.A. Farm

5 large (about 1/2 pound each) or 10 small duck breasts, skin on and boneless


White pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cloves garlic

5 sprigs thyme

2 sprigs rosemary

1 knob of butter (I read that somewhere and it sounded cool), about 2 tablespoons

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Season the duck breasts with a pinch each of salt and white pepper -- no salt no flavor!

2. Heat a cast-iron pan over high heat until it is nearly smoking. Add the vegetable oil and then add the duck, flesh-side first. Let her sear until she gets some color, about 2 minutes. Flip it over to the fat side and sear for 2 more minutes. Add the garlic, thyme and rosemary along with the butter and put the pan in the oven until it reaches the desired doneness, maybe 7 minutes for small breasts and 12 for large.

3. Let the meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes before you slice it to serve.

Each serving: 217 calories; 21 grams protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 14 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 122 mg. cholesterol; 0 sugar; 72 mg. sodium.

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