Checking in with Top Chef Stefan Richter

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Chef Stefan Richter has a passion for food, a passion he shared with the American public on Season 5 of Bravo’s hit series “Top Chef.” The Entertainer caught up with Chef Richter to see what he has been up to, and by the looks of it things have never been better.

After his stint on “Top Chef,” Stefan opened his first restaurant, Stefan’s at L.A. Farm, in Los Angeles. Doors opened in August 2010 and business boomed as you might expect from a chef of Stefan’s caliber and fame. Business is doing so well that Stefan opened a second restaurant last February, Stefan’s on Montana.

“Top Chef” challenges contestants to create original, unique, and delicious dishes full of exotic ingredients and interesting flavors. Stefan’s own creations in his Santa Monica restaurants are much more humble, but no less delicious.

Instead of intricate dishes like lamb chops with tabouli, hummus and yogurt; chicken paillard with grilled corn, mizuna, onion & grape tomatoes; and nectarine and strawberry tartlet with thyme, cream & lemon zest, combinations on his menus are much more navigable. Although dishes on his American menus don’t sound quite as exotic, don’t let your guard down. Chef Richter has his hands on everything coming out of the kitchen. Richter told us, “I cook the line everyday. ”

Stefan tells us that he owes much of his success to the show. “I couldn’t have done it without the show…especially in this economy, businesses are struggling and people are cutting back.” Just as many service industries have struggled in the down economy, so have restaurants. People are cutting back on how often they go out and where they go. That’s why Richter is dedicated to serving familiar foods at an affordable price. “We only serve American products. We sell only American wines, which helps keep prices down. We stick to local stuff, local fish, produce from California; we go out of the area for certain products, but I keep it as local as possible.”

“Five years ago it was a different world. Everything was great; it was hunky dorey. But in this economy you have to keep prices low, take care of customers, and give people good food.”

Owning a restaurant, or a business of any sort is a challenge – even for a top chef. “Owning your own business is a challenge. There is a constant back and forth. You have staff problems and there are all the business aspects to deal with. It’s not that glamorous. You have to sit there, do payroll, deal with staff, and make everyone happy.”

But with a good staff, his good friend and Sous Chef Leo working for him, Stefan has seen great success. A native of Finland, Richter called Germany home for most of his childhood.  He completed a three-year culinary apprenticeship in Germany, then moved to Switzerland to study at its rigorous Hotel and Culinary School.  In 1993 he earned his Certified Master Chef diploma from Fachhochschule Würzburg-Schweinfurt in Germany.

Stefan has cooked in some of the best restaurants in the country including Celestino Drago’s kitchen, the Villagio Inn & Spa in Napa, at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara as well as at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

“America has given me many opportunities. If I didn’t leave I would probably be chopping wood for someone else or something. But I came to America and have been cooking for 25 years. I love cooking but I don’t know how far I would have gone if I stayed in Germany or Finland… I love America; I’ve been here for 12 years and I wouldn’t go back for money.”

After spending over a decade in America, Stefan is just about as “American” as it gets. He’s living the American dream, is a business owner and just bought a “fixer-upper” home in California. The question is, for the most American of holidays – the 4th of July—what is Stefan Richter doing?

“The restaurant will be closed on the 4th of July. For me, I recently bought a house, a serious fixer upper. I’m going to spend the holiday in my backyard; I’m throwing a party with friends.”

And what is he cooking? Surprisingly enough, Stefan won’t be cooking his holiday meal. “I’m not cooking; i’m lazy. I’ll probably have a friend cook some sausages and have some Bud Light.” Perhaps more surprising than the fact that he isn’t cooking himself is the simplicity of the meal. But after all, what’s more American that a grilled hot dog and a Budweiser?

When asked about his advice for home cooks and aspiring chefs out there, Stefan has a few words of advice. After learning a little about Stefan it shouldn’t come as a shock that he likes to keep things simple. “People often make too much stuff. Like for Thanksgiving, I make stuffing, turkey, gravy, green beans, and cranberry sauce. I just keep in simple.” His advice: stick to the traditions you remember from childhood and don’t go over board with a million side dishes.

In terms of what to be cooking this summer, Stefan says to stay in season. “The best summer ingredients are whatever is in season. I love peaches with vanilla ice cream and simple things. It’s all about what’s in season and what is out. People have to realize you don’t always need strawberries. People come into my restaurant in winter asking for strawberries but they’re not in season. If they’re not in season they won’t taste good.”

So, take advice from a top chef: enjoy the holiday with friends and family, cook a simple American meal with local ingredients, and create traditions that you’ll remember for a lifetime.

San Diego resident for over 10 years, I now call this beautiful city home. Originally from the Bay Area, I'm a California girl at heart. I love the outdoors, fitness, food, and a good craft beer (from San Diego of course).

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