A chat with "Top Chef" Richter
You may have seen Stefan Richter on season five of "Top Chef," where he was runner up to winner Hosea Rosenberg. Or maybe you witnessed his return in season 10 where his surf-and-turf concept fell flat for the judges. Either way, his charming personality and no-BS approach probably left an impression on you.
Richter, who is currently executive chef and owner of Stefan's at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica, was born in Finland to a Czech German father and a Finnish mother, who also worked as a chef. He grew up in Germany, where he was formally trained at the Hotel and Culinary School in Immenstadt and Bad Woerischofen, Germany and earned his Certified Master Chef diploma at Fachhochschule Würzburg-Schweinfurt.
Richter has worked in kitchens across the world, including Germany, Bangkok, and Canada. In the U.S., he gained experience at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Michigan and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. He served as executive chef at a number of restaurants, including Enoteca Drago, before opening a series of restaurants in California, Montana and Finland.
Recently, Richter hooked up with Sea Cuisine to promote a line of frozen fish products. He happened to be in town last week, and we met up for a brief interview.
Your first question is probably: was he as charming in person as he seems on TV? And my answer would be "yes, probably even more so." Richter has a big personality, for sure; but sitting one-on-one with him gave me the impression that he simply has a lust for life.
We met at Anodyne Coffee in Bay View, where Richter told me about his visit to Milwaukee, his new gig hocking fish, cooking at home and his role in the new Sylvester Stallone movie, "Reach Me."
OnMilwaukee.com: Have you been to Wisconsin before?
Stefan Richter: No, it's my first time. I've been to Minnesota before, but not Wisconsin. I love it. It's chill. The people are chill.
Actually, my friend Jennifer lives here. I just got a tweet from her. She keeps inviting me to come for Christmas. She lives…
(Stefan checks his phone.)
OMC: Oh! Cudahy! Yes. That's not far.
SR: How far from here is it?
OMC: Maybe 15 minutes.
SR: Oh! I'll have to remember that. I'd like to come back.
OMC: So, you flew into Milwaukee last night. Did you get a chance to do anything while you were here?
SR: I saw beautiful things. I saw the ballpark, the lake … I took some pictures. I love this state, I'll have to come back. I tweeted that I was here and the State of Wisconsin, the City of Milwaukee tweeted back at me telling me welcome, and to have a good time.
Here there's only nice stuff happening. People tweeting, taking pictures. It's a lot like Finland. California isn't like that … actually it's really nice because you have culture here. It reminds me of Europe.
OMC: So, maybe we should get started with the "official" interview.
SR: Sure, yes.
OMC: Rumor has it you started cooking at a really young age. Tell me about that.
SR: I was thirteen. I came home Saturday day night. I went out a little too late, and woke up early. And my dad said to me "as long as your feet are under my roof, it's my rules."
And I said "OK I'm going to move out and get a job." And I did. I became an apprentice to a chef, and that's how I started.
OMC: What are some of your best memories early on in the kitchen?
SR: Best memories? … Always going to my mom's work after school. She was a chef. She was working for a bakery. We'd just moved to Germany. She cooked meals for the staff, which was about 125 people. People were always happy, and it was a fun time. It introduced me to the restaurant world. I was in it.
OMC: It makes a difference when you're exposed to the industry early on, doesn't it?
SR: Well, yeah. I think when people are forty and they decide to be a chef … to go to culinary school … it's not good. It doesn't pay your bills in the first ten years. It's not a glamorous world in the beginning.
OMC: And it's not necessarily guaranteed to get glamorous either. Not everyone can be Stefan Richter, after all. (Smiles)
SR: Well, right.But, these days everyone has glamorous moments. Chefs are seen differently. People now see us as rock stars. So, everyone has glamorous moments. Before, people would come into a restaurant and they'd talk to the maître d. Now people want to talk to the chef.
OMC: Speaking of cheffing, how different is it to be cooking on a show like "Top Chef" than in a restaurant kitchen?
SR: It's a funny answer because you look at "Top Chef" and you can whip up a dish in a restaurant in ten minutes, no problem. Everything is prepped and chopped and ready for you. But, on "Top Chef" you have to run for the bowls, you have to think about what you're going to do. And then you have to cook what you're going to cook.
OMC: So, you really only have ten minutes to cook? On some reality shows, that time frame is fabricated.
SR: Not on "Top Chef." When it comes to cooking – when they tell you it's 10 minutes, it's really 10 minutes.
OMC: What did you take away from your two seasons on the show? How does being on "Top Chef" change you?
SR: You grow and you realize how important freedom is. How much you have to enjoy life.
It's tough. I think in the first month when you're locked up with people you get to know them, it's fun. But, after two months, there's nothing to talk about. You've heard all the stories about their life, their kids. And people get bored. That's how the fights start.
I did enjoy it. After all, I went back for a second season. But, freedom is goo Wow, you type really fast.
OMC: Thanks. It comes in handy. I didn't know that when I took a typing class in high school.
SR: Nice. I'm a two-finger typer. Sometimes I use my thumb for the space bar, but that's it.
My grandmother was a secretary for a big soap company for a long time. So, when I needed something typed, I gave it to her. Plink, plink, plink, it was done. That probably wasn't a good thing.
OMC: Because you never learned to type?
SR: Right. Although I did the same with green beans. I'd bring them home and she'd clean them for me. Snap, snap and they were done. She loved having things to do.
OMC: Alright, let's talk about fish. You'll be a good sport if I ask you how a chef ends up hocking fish sticks, right? Because that's what everyone is thinking.
SR: It's not fish sticks.
OMC: But, it's frozen fish – so that's what people are thinking.
SR: I'll tell you how I got involved. I realized for myself that after working 15 hours a day when you go home from work after 11pm, you're completely starved. You taste, taste, taste, but you haven't eaten anything. And you're starving. I got tired of stopping at McDonald's, and I wanted something healthier.
Chefs don't cook at home. They really don't. Maybe for friends, but we really don't cook much otherwise. And we all get older, and we don't get healthier. So, we need things that are fast.
The product is really, really good. You can Google my name. I don't put my name on any product. I don't need the money. I have eight restaurants, I'm good.
OMC: So, this is about promoting a great product for busy people?
SR: Right. Moms cooking for a family of four … it's easier to pick up fast food. But, with this, you can just pick up fish, put it in the oven. And I'm creating recipes that take maybe 10 minutes to go with them.
Honestly, you should try the potato crusted cod. It's really beautifully done.
It's about enhancing your product. I'm not a believer in cooking everything from scratch at home. If you're a house husband and you're home every day, that's what you do. But, I use chicken broth from a can at home. I make my own sometimes when I have a roasted chicken. But, if I have a date and I'm making risotto… There's nothing wrong with canned chicken broth.
OMC: I've always had a bad impression of frozen supermarket fish. How is this different?
SR: Sometimes they take fish that is dead, that they can no longer sell fresh and they freeze it. That isn't good frozen fish. Sea Cuisine takes fresh fish, freezes it, breads it. It's not old fish. I'd rather have frozen fresh fish than old fresh fish.
People bitch about frozen fish. But, look at king crab. Shrimp. It all comes frozen. I get fresh Maine lobster at the restaurant, but that doesn't happen everywhere. I can't get it in Finland. Well, you can have it flown in, but people don't want to pay $150 for lobster.
OMC: What do people need to know about dealing with frozen fish?
SR: For me personally, if you take it out of the freezer in the morning, put it on a plate, and cook it for dinner, it's faster. But you can't leave it there, or it becomes old fish. So, thaw it and use it the same day. It's yummy. I wouldn't sell something I didn't like.
And fish sticks are good too. If you don't put them in the fryer. They're better than fast food.
OMC: Since we're in Wisconsin, we probably eat more lake fish than some – perch, bluegill, walleye. What are some of your favorite simple preparations for lake fish?
SR: My favorite preparation for whitefish is served with French green lentils, carrots, celery root, fish stock. I love lentils with my fish. It's German.
OMC: And now, the obligatory question – tell me about "Reach Me" this Sylvester Stallone film you're going to be starring in. It comes out tomorrow (Aug. 16), right?
SR: It's funny because I'm in the building at Lantana, the production is upstairs. It's a very short scene, but I'm in the movie.
OMC: And who is your character?
SR: I play the rock star for a second. It's actually a funny story. I got back from "Top Chef" season five, and I said to my staff, "You can call me a movie star now." And they said "No, you're not a movie star, you were just on a reality show."
And then I went on Entourage. And when I got back I said to my staff "Now you have to call me a movie star." They said, "No, you're still not a movie star."
Now my staff has to admit, I'm a movie star.
OMC: Was it fun?
SR: Yes. But, it's not for me. The script. I'm too A.D.D.
OMC: And you have a new show coming up?
SR: Yes, I did the show in Finland. We're pitching the show in America as we speak. It's about the life of Stefan – behind the scenes, cooking, hanging out. It's what Stefan wanted to do, what I would love to do. Not what the production studio wanted. I did some really cool stuff.
OMC: Such as?
SR: I went back to my old army base and cooked pea soup after 20-some years. I made the sexy version. I doctored it up.
I was a kitchen cook in the army for a year. It's funny because I went there – maybe three, four weeks ago – the second kitchen manager was still there. Thirty seven years he's been there. It's very funny. It makes you think.
SR: People need to live life. Enjoy life much more. We only have one version to live, and you can't buy a second one.
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