Meet the man who many say should have won Top Chef Season 5 — but as far as he’s concerned, he couldn’t care less.
Let’s get one thing straight. Despite rumors to the contrary, Stefan Richter, 39, the celebrity chef who many say should have won season five of Bravo’s Top Chef, is not an arrogant bastard. He might even tell you he is, but don’t believe him. What he is, is determined to make every challenge a win (even when it isn’t) and resolute to keep anyone or anything from getting in the way of enjoying his singular life.
“I have very little time to have conversations, and if I do have them, they better be with people I enjoy being with,” says the Finnish-born Richter. “According to most people, that makes me a dick — a cocky, arrogant bastard. That’s what people think when you have confidence.”
That arrogance or confidence — depending on how you look at it — could have something to do with why he didn’t win the Top Chef competition. Despite winning eight of the nine cooking challenges, he lost to Hosea Rosenberg, the humble chef from Taos, New Mexico, who didn’t have the benefit of attending a fancy culinary school. The arrogance factor could also be why he wasn’t invited back to be on Top Chef All-Stars. If you ask Richter, he’ll tell you he could care less.
“It’s worked for me, I’m telling you,” the shaven-headed Richter says, blue eyes twinkling as he takes a drag off a cigarette and stretches out on the backyard deck of his Santa Monica home. “It was a big controversy at Bravo, but I’m happy I didn’t win. I have three restaurants now, and there’s not one person who doesn’t walk in and say, ‘You should have won.’ They all say I should have won. Do I get my panties in a twist over it? I could give a f—, honestly,” Richter says. “My life is good; I’ve done good.”
Richter acknowledges that without the publicity from Top Chef, he wouldn’t have been able to relaunch L.A. Farm under his own name or start a restaurant in Finland, where he’s earned rock-star status. “In this economy, without Top Chef, L.A. Farm wouldn’t have made it,” he says of his flagship venue. “That got me exposure to 8 million people. People told me I was crazy to open a restaurant in this economy, but I made it though. Did I get rich? No, I didn’t get rich off it. But with Top Chef, I had recognition and people came to the restaurants because of that.”
Still, it took quite a bit of convincing from his friends before Richter was willing to audition for the show. After working as a chef in such venues as the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara and Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills, Richter was enjoying an easy life skiing, playing and making $180,000 working three months out of the year catering bar mitzvahs and Christmas parties. But when the recession hit and opulent parties were on the wane, he softened to the idea.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Richter says about Top Chef. “I didn’t want to be with a bunch of wankers on TV, but my friends kept saying, ‘You should go. You should go.’’’
Richter, who attended top culinary schools in Germany and became a master chef at a very young age, says when he walked into the Top Chef audition, the six chefs ahead of him were all people he had fired at some point in his career. When it was his turn, it was clear his former employees had provided some forewarning.
“They [the producers] were like, ‘Who the f— is this guy?’” Richter says. With his self-described “hummingbird on cocaine” demeanor, he bailed out within minutes. “I told them, ‘Listen, I’m not good at this BS. This is a crock. I’m not interested. Goodbye. See you later.’” Richter left but received a call from the producers 15 minutes later, asking him to come back for a second interview. “That,” he says, “is how it all started.”
So despite not winning the season finale, as far as he’s concerned, it worked out for the best. “I don’t have disappointments,” Richter says. “They don’t exist for me. I consider them life-changing experiences. I get smarter and wiser every time I make a mistake. Do I miss certain things? Am I upset about certain things? Of course I am. Everybody is.”
Leo Bongarra, a longtime friend, works with Richter at L.A. Farm. He says he was living in Mexico when Richter called him to say he was famous and to come back to Los Angeles to help him launch his restaurant.
“But he’s not a dick,” he adds about the man who trained him to be a chef. “He just says whatever he thinks. That can make him tough to deal with — it’s just the way he is. The truth is, he’s absolutely loyal and fair with everyone. There’s not another chef out there like him. You can count on him 100 percent.”
He gets the same kind of laurels from his ex-wife, Shannon Colburt, nine years his senior, whom he married after knowing her for only 3 months, divorced, then married again and divorced a second time.
“He has his own style and is committed to quality,” Colburt says, harboring no resentment over their two failed marriage attempts. “Stefan thinks outside the box. He marches to the beat of his own drummer. He’s proven to the world he has what it takes to overcome any obstacles.”
As for Richter, he says his ex-wife, whom he now considers a good friend, taught him about unconditional love. He attributes their divorces to his being too young. “She loved me no matter what, no matter how much of a bad boy I was,” he says. “I always loved that woman and always will. If something happens to her, I will always be there,” noting that any woman who’s been with him longer than a month makes a lasting impact on his life and his playlist.
He says he would like to be a father, but isn’t so interested in the marriage part. “It’s time for me to have a child — with the right woman,” he says. “But does it mean I have to get married? I don’t think so. I have a hard time with marriage. I see it all the time, how people get caught up in the marriage bullshit. They’re married to people they hate, and they’re still with them. I’d kill myself.”
What he wants is a strong, independent woman with a career. “I’d rather date a confident businesswoman over some chichi bullshit,” Richter says. “I entertain people all day long. Don’t expect me to come home and entertain you because you have nothing to do, because you have no career and no love for the things you do. Not doing it. Not interested.”
For the marriage-minded ladies, Richter has this to say: “If I hear about marriage on the first or second date, I’m done,” he says. “Turnoff. I don’t even know if you’re good in the sack. How can you talk about marriage when I don’t even know you?”
And don’t even think about moving into his house — unless you’ve both agreed that you’re going to be the mother of his child. He says that’s the only way it will ever happen. The same goes for women who don’t drink (“I’m in the restaurant business, how can I be with someone who doesn’t enjoy a glass of wine?”) or who are vegan (“not happening”), and please, don’t ever display a lack of confidence.
“If I go out on a date and you ask me, ‘So how do you think it’s going?,’ whatever was going on there is broken,” he says, pointing to his crotch. “You can chop it off, because it’s done. That is just such a turnoff.”
Whether Richter actually has time to date is another question. He spends most of his week working 15-16 hours a day at L.A. Farm and cautions that it’s not the glamorous life people imagine. And since he acquired his celebrity via a chef reality show, it’s not only his food that comes under public scrutiny.
He pauses to light up another cigarette, pulls out his iPhone and prepares to read from the screen. “I have good reviews on Yelp — four, five stars ― maybe three stars because it was too loud for lunch. This was my latest one: ‘Service was good, food was great. Everything is great, but Stefan was kissing a girl at the table next to us.’
“Who the freak cares? She’s single, I’m single. She asked, ‘Chef, can I kiss you?’ I said, ‘Yes, you can.’ Who gives a shit? Really? You’re going to judge my restaurant by my kissing behavior? I can date a thousand women a year if I want, and it’s none of your business. People just don’t get that. People get their panties in a twist all the time. ‘Oh … Stefan … hmmmm.’”
But he also knows a certain amount of that comes with the celebrity chef package. “Look at Wolfgang Puck,” he says. “Women threw panties at him 25 years ago.”
As far as other chefs in town are concerned, Richter says many are his good friends but there are those who hate him. He refuses to mention any names but sums it up by saying, “They think I have a restaurant because I was on a bullshit TV show, but I could care less. I’m a good guy. I treat my staff fair. I take care of business. My checks never bounce.”
The only child of parents who were happily married for 38 years, Richter says his father, who passed away seven years ago, used to say “One devil is enough” when people asked if he had siblings. His mother, a professional chef for 40 years, made him kid-sized chef coats to wear when he helped her in the kitchen. His parents moved to Germany when he was 6, and he stayed there until he returned to Finland to complete his military service. By that time, he had chosen his trade.
Years later, while skiing in Switzerland, he saw an ad in a magazine looking for chefs. He responded, and five-star-resort chef Christian Schmidt brought him to the United States to work with him at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Michigan. Richter relished the opportunity. Then came the offer from the Bellagio in Las Vegas with a $20,000 signing bonus, and things snowballed from there. “America is just the land of opportunity,” he says. “If you want to make money, you make money. If you don’t, you don’t. It’s just the way it is.”
Schmidt says Richter could have had a very good career at the Ritz-Carlton if it wasn’t for his entrepreneurial aspirations. “He has a creative approach to everything he does, but he can get cocky at times, and his flirtiness is his trademark,” he says. “It’s just the way he goes about life. He has something for the ladies.”
Schmidt had no idea that Richter had auditioned to be on Top Chef. “I saw one episode and it was just coincidental,” Schmidt says. “The show was on one night and my wife said, ‘Look, it’s one of your [former] cooks.’ And there he was. It was surprising, but also not surprising because Stefan has the kind of personality to fit right into a show like that.”
Richter’s grand plan is to retire by the time he turns 45. “My house in Finland is paid for,” he says. “If I pay my house off in Santa Monica in the next six years, I’ll have a million dollars to put in a bank in Switzerland where I’ll get 7 percent interest, tax free. That’s $70,000 a year. That’s all I need. I’ll be set for life.”
What does retirement look like for a hummingbird on cocaine? In his case, endless travel, skiing a few months out of the year, camping in his VW Vanagon, taking up surfing again, playing late-night online poker, dating singular women (thousands if he wants to) and having the time of his life.
Until then, you can find him at L.A. Farm, flirting with the clientele or debating whether to work the line or greet guests. Or maybe he’ll be sipping a Bud Light and hanging out with friends around the fire pit in his back yard. If it’s July, he’s taking a three-week motorcycle ride through the backwoods of Finland, basting freshly caught fish with beer drippings over an open campfire and, if you’re a pretty girl, offering you a bite of the best fish you’ve ever tasted — and a kiss.
Words: Copyright © Kim Calvert/2011 Singular Communications, LLC.
Photos: Copyright ©Todd Young/Young Studios.