Stefan Richter is in the middle of processing a thought when he gets up from our table on the patio of Zelo in Minneapolis to have a cigarette.
The two-time highly recognizable “Top Chef” contestant leaves the designated restaurant area, walking around a thin rope to the bustling sidewalk of Nicollet Mall — no more than a couple feet away from the table he left. It’s the place he’s deemed socially acceptable for a smoke.
As the Wednesday lunch crowd makes their way around him, he shouts over the traffic, “Gimme another question. What else ya got?”
For a chef who thrives on keeping things simple, he’s certainly an interesting character. Through the course of an hour-long lunch, he bounces effortlessly from one topic to the next, telling his story as somewhat matter of fact, rather than the highly entertaining tale that it is.
“I’m hyperactive,” he said. “If they would have had A.D.D. and O.C.D. and all the other acronyms back then when I was a kid, I would be on medication for sure.”
Hyperactivity serves the chef well. Richter owns several restaurants around the world, a catering company and is now partnering with Sea Cuisine on a line of high-quality frozen fish meals, which brought him to Minneapolis last week.
“I’ve been on TV for five years now and people always pitch me products – this or that – but I never took the step. I never wanted to. It was always like, ‘Eh, no. I’m not promoting that.’ But now I have Sea Cuisine – it’s super yummy,” he said.
The food he’s promoting takes Richter back to his roots. He grew up in a cabin on the lake in Finland, eating plenty of cod and salmon and anything else his mother, who’s also a chef, would cook up.
“My mom worked the graveyard shift and my dad worked the day shift. So they rowed across the lake — my dad went to work and my mom came back,” he said.
Growing up in the rocky wilderness did have one downside.
“I couldn’t even walk as a kid,” he said. “It’s funny but when I lived in the city, I had to learn to lift my feet. It was weird because I was used to roots and rocks and stones and stuff. I couldn’t walk on a flat surface.”
His family moved to Germany when he was 6 years old. When he became a teenager, he left the house after a dispute over his curfew.
“I had just turned 13 in June and was out with my friends and we started drinking a little beer — but it’s different in Europe,” he said. “Me and my friends were just drinking a couple of beers, staying out a little longer and I got home maybe 1 a.m. It was Sunday morning when I woke up, 10 a.m., and I went downstairs and my dad says to me, ‘As long as you stick your feet under my table, it’s my rules. You’ll be home by 12 a.m.’ And I said, ‘Oh really? I’m moving out tomorrow.’ I got a job, an apprenticeship as a chef, at 13. That was it.”
From then on, cooking was Richter’s way of life. He worked his way to executive chef at a number of restaurants before starting a catering company. Eventually, he was urged by friends to go to an open casting call for what would be the fifth season of “Top Chef.”
After several rounds of auditions, he made the final list of contestants. He had no idea what he was getting into.
“You don’t know. You have no clue. You think it’s just one camera running around and some bullsh– food cooking, easy and then boom, boom, boom, you cook and then you leave the competition and that’s it. It’s not,” he said. “It’s 18 cameras. Sound people. It’s a production. It’s huge.”
He describes the experience as interesting but awesome.
“There isn’t much relaxing – that’s why “Top Chef” is so good,” he said. “They make you run through hoops and jump and cook in minutes.”
Which, of course, is just fantastic TV.
“You get emotional. Think about it. You’re sitting in the stew room for five, six hours and you’re already living with these people for four weeks and at some point, you’re going to get party pants and drink. Guess what happens?” he said.
When he came back for Season 10, he was a veteran — he knew what to expect and perhaps, more importantly, he knew how to get on camera.
“The second time around, you get smarter,” he said. “You realize what’s important and what’s good for TV. I got a ton of face time in Season 10. People enjoyed that.”
If cooking is the star of “Top Chef,” drama is certainly its supporting actor. Richter said it’s all part of the fun.
“So much stuff ends up on the cutting room floor, I mean, tons of footage. They can edit you either way they want to. Season 5, I was a villain but I was not. I wasn’t a villain, no. I was a little snarky,” he said.
Not to mention, a flirt.
“Oh, Jamie (Lauren)?” he says, with a grin. “I was a little flirty with Jamie, sitting with Jamie and then with Kristen (Kish). We had fun together. You start getting to know people and you just take a liking to people, that’s it. That’s how it happens.”
And, of course, there was the bromance with Fabio Viviani.
“We’re good friends. We always text each other constantly, ‘Hey, what’s up? What’s up? What are you doing?’ And then we don’t see each other,” he said. “But a week and a half ago, I went to a casting call for a bunch of chefs … and I walk into the room and there’s Fabio. It’s funny how it changes when you get to a certain point.”
Richter said he doesn’t have any regrets about his “Top Chef” days — except jokingly saying he’d work harder to sleep with previously mentioned fellow contestant Jamie Lauren, who made it quite clear her sexual preference didn’t include him.
“Listen, when you’re locked up for two months, things change,” he says with a smile. “Just call her and ask her. She’s a good kisser.”
Beyond the hook-ups and the “party pants,” Richter said the best thing that ever happened to him was losing “Top Chef.”
“There isn’t one person who hasn’t told me, ‘You should’ve won.’ If I would’ve won Season 5, I never would’ve been asked to do Season 10,” he said.
“I think people realized when you’re on Top Chef, Top Chef Masters or any cooking show, you get exposure. When you get exposure, you can run a business properly. Especially in this economy. Ask any chef, if you don’t have TV, it’s pretty rough to get people into your restaurant. There are so many restaurants and the economy is sh–y. You gotta have something to draw them.”
He’s striking while the iron’s hot, adding new concepts while he continues to grow his brand. Right now, that includes promoting his Sea Cuisine partnership and working on a burger spot for next spring.
He talks about the doors that opened because of “Top Chef,” most notably, his 2010 guest appearance on Entourage. He had two lines: “How is everything?” and “Thank you.”
From there, he managed a guest spot in a movie with Sylvester Stallone.
“Crazy,” he said. “When I was on ‘Top Chef’ the first time and I got back, I told my staff, you have to call me movie star. And they were like, ‘Eh.’ And then I did Entourage, and came back and said, ‘OK, you have to call me movie star now.’ And they were like, ‘No, TV star, maybe.’ And now I’m in ‘Reach Me’ with Sylvester Stallone — (sings) ‘movie star!'”
Richter’s got plenty of confidence but he’s also smooth. He slyly mentions he drives a Porsche, says he’d never endorse a Kia and is shooting a new TV show in Finland about his life, his food and his family (his mom guest stars on two episodes).
A few other tidbits from our lunch? He hates goat cheese with a passion.
“Can’t do it. Ugh. There’s nothing good about it,” he said.
He won’t eat a pizza with peppers on it.
“Oh my god, it’s the weirdest thing, I don’t know what it is, but they get slimy,” he says, making a face.
He only takes a carry-on bag wherever he goes — whether it’s five days in the Midwest or six weeks in Finland.
If he could choose a last meal, he’d want his mom’s cooking with, wait for it, a Milwaukee’s Best out of a can.
“It’s a good beer. I like it,” he said. “I serve it in all of my restaurants. In a can. Schlitz, too. People buy it because it’s funny. … Milwaukee’s Best is a good buzz. I love it. People always like these artisanal drinks. Eww. Really dude? Just have a beer.”
His biggest guilty pleasure food is a Heath bar.
“In Finland, a Heath bar is a dime,” he said. “You can buy it at IKEA.”
Richter said of all the judges he faced on “Top Chef,” the toughest was Emeril Lagasse. In Season 10, Richter was eliminated after making his version of Chicken Cordon Bleu — a dish Lagasse called “airplane food.”
“I think Emeril hurts the most. It’s just funny. It’s like waking up the next morning and the chick left a $20 bill. That’s how it feels. Oh no, really? Really Emeril? You’re going to call my Chicken Cordon Bleu airline food? He hurts the most,” he said.
He calls Tom Colicchio a “smart guy,” Padma Lakshmi “hot as ever” (Richter jokes that her new baby is his — “I asked for a DNA test but never got it”) and calls Gail Simmons “super sweet.”
He loves Minnesota and seriously wants to buy a cabin in our northwoods where he can vacation, and perhaps eventually retire.
“I’ve been here a day and a half. Whether I’m at the hotel, on the street, people are so nice here,” he said.
As we finish our meals, he passes on another refill of soda, telling our waitress he’s already buzzing with caffeine.
Instead, he orders a cup of coffee.