OLYMPIC BLVD — Stefan’s at L.A. Farm screams aristocratic eatery with every detail of its composition, starting with the rampant bulls with smouldering red eyes at the street entrance and following through to the richly appointed tomes that sit adjacent to the host desk.
And then there’s the Double Bubble.
A huge bowl of Double Bubble, splashing pink and yellow and blue hues across the otherwise muted earthtone palette like someone dropped a circus into the middle of a state dinner.
“People like it better,” said Stefan Richter, chef and owner of Stefan’s at L.A. Farm.
The five-cent-a-piece gum is more expensive than the chalky mints you usually get at the end of a fancy meal, and it leaves a whole lot faster, too.
“I’ve seen them take it by the bag,” Richter said.
People know him as the egotistical Finnish chef from the fifth season of Bravo’s reality program, “Top Chef.” A guy with mad skills and a tendency to speak his mind without much in the way of diplomacy.
In many ways, however, his approach to his business is not unlike the use of the bubbly confection at the front of his restaurant: fulfilling an expected program, but taking an end run around traditional methodology.
On the one hand, Richter’s cooking pedigree is A-list.
He worked in top kitchens in Europe, attaining degrees from cooking schools and achieving the title “master chef.”
In his mid-20s, he worked alongside a famed cadre of culinary masters as part of the creative team opening the Bellagio Hotel, Resort and Spa in Las Vegas.
Since, Richter made a name for himself at local restaurants, including the Drago Enoteca, before opening up his own catering company in Santa Monica.
About two years ago, he launched Stefan’s at L.A. Farm riding the coattails of his “Top Chef” notoriety, which lead to two more restaurants — one in Santa Monica and the other, Stefan’s Steakhouse, which opened in his native Finland just three weeks ago.
“If not for ‘Top Chef’ America, there would be no restaurant here and no restaurant in Finland,” he said, noting that the “B.S. reality show” created a domino effect that lead up to his current success in both countries.
Richter leverages that fame deftly, taking advantage of an inhuman energy and scattershot attention span to manage the kitchens he already has while opening a third — which he will not speak of — and writing a book titled “Dirty Dishes.”
The chef seems set for a lengthy career as a restaurant frontman, fated to end up as a picture on the box of a cookware line, except for that “other hand” — Richter’s plans have nothing to do with convention.
The now 38-year-old chef hopes to say sayonara to the restaurant business by the time he’s 45, with intentions of getting 10 or 12 successful restaurants off the ground and then selling them for a pretty profit.
“If I won that $300 million lottery, I’d be out of here tomorrow,” Richter joked from his perch on a slab of countertop in the L.A. Farm kitchen.
“Don’t forget your souz chef!” replied 23-year-old Troy Sazzman, who was promptly promised the reins of L.A. Farm.
Would he take it? Of course.
It gets down to the fact that Richter doesn’t want to be working to pay bills any longer than he has to, so he plays the game, with a personal twist.
It was only two years ago that he really mastered it, he said, when he started incorporating reinterpretations of homey foods onto his L.A. Farm menu, catering to the whims of his audience rather than his own desires as a chef.
It’s meant that L.A. Farm continues to thrive, even in a down economy where many of his friends are watching their restaurants struggle.
Would chicken pot pie show up on his dream menu? Probably not.
“But I sell 35 in an afternoon,” he said. “Do I put my own spin on it? Of course. You can’t have an ego.”
Retirement means the end of necessary compromise and the freedom to spend his time pursuing other goals, like ditching his Mercedes S550 and jumping in a 1980s tan “vannigon” — a Volkswagon camping van, for the uninitiated — for an outdoor escape.
Not that the Mercedes is a bad car. It’s just a “business car.”
It would also mean freedom from the constant grind entailed in keeping a restaurant open.
Richter has no food in his kitchen at home, except for a recent purchase of ham sandwich materials. He claims never to have cooked there, which makes sense when one considers that he’s probably never there for meal times.
Richter wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning and is at L.A. Farm by 7, figuring out paperwork, finances, orders and everything else that makes a restaurant go.
Standing in the L.A. Farm kitchen, he glanced to the side and pronounced,” I’m starving! What should I eat?”
And, although Richter owns a Zagat-rated restaurant or two, it’s not the pork cheek and caraway sausage on his menu he reaches for, or the gnocchi Sazzmann he is prepping a few feet away. It’s the cylindrical block of liverwurst hidden in a refrigerator under the line.
It doesn’t get used in the high-end fare served at L.A. Farm.
“This is just for me,” he says slyly, cutting off a slab of the bologna-looking substance and spreading it on a loose chunk of artisan bread.