Interview with ‘Top Chef’ contestant Richard Sweeney
Published Thursday, 08-Jan-2009 in issue 1098
Local celebrity and epicure Richard Sweeney took time out of his busy day as Executive Chef at Confidential to speak with the Gay & Lesbian Times about his stint on Bravo’s hit reality show “Top Chef,” the San Diego restaurant scene, and his kitchen mantra of KISS: “Keep It Simple Stupid!”
Gay & Lesbian Times: What do you enjoy most about cooking?
Richard Sweeney: The almost instant gratification of knowing that something you worked hard to make is being enjoyed only moments later. It’s an edible art that is an expression of yourself. Plus, who doesn’t like to eat?
GLT: What made you decide to pursue cooking as a career, not just a pastime?
RS: I’ve tried a bunch of other professions – from waiting tables, to slinging coffee, slinging hooch, even managing a gym...none of them gave me the same joy as cooking. Anytime you find something that you are not only good at, but truly enjoy, you need to consider making it your career, if you can.
GLT: How would you describe your style?
RS: I’m a relatively simple guy – I like simple foods and flavors. You may not believe it by all the combinations and little pieces that go into my dishes, but the finished products are simple dishes packed with full flavors.
GLT: Who do you admire in the culinary world, and why?
RS: First and foremost, Larry Lewis (my culinary school chef, and Program Director at San Diego Culinary Institute). The man has an insatiable appetite for food and food knowledge. He works incredibly hard and all of his successes have shown it. Plus, he knows how to turn work off and relax – a skill he taught us that has come in more and more valuable as my career grows. Also, I’d have to say chefs like Thomas Keller. He’s not only an amazing chef, but people flock to him just to work in his kitchens. You know you are a true culinary success when culinary school students learn about you, and people dream of the day they will get to meet you, try your food, or even work side by side with you in your kitchen.
GLT: What motivates you each day (whether to cook, enjoy a beautiful day, or merely get out of bed in the morning)?
RS: On some days, nothing can get me out of bed (OK, maybe a Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit could get me out by 10 a.m.)! I like to look at each day at work as a new challenge. As a chef, you really never know what will get thrown your way when you walk into the kitchen – people calling in sick, vendors not showing up on time, equipment failure, etc. – so you have to always be thinking on your feet and ready to react to it all. That’s the kind of stuff that not only keeps me going, but keeps me sharp. I like to deal with the day to day challenges, and get to shape my cooking around it all. You never know when some curve ball can change the way you think about food and cooking, and make you look at things in a new way! Outside of work, I just love getting to enjoy what San Diego has to offer! Whether it’s enjoying some local event, of just going to the dog park, San Diego is a place where you need to get out and enjoy all the amazing weather as often as you can.
GLT: How long have you been in San Diego?
RS: I just hit four years in November.
GLT: What do you enjoy most about San Diego?
RS: I have a love-hate relationship with the weather. As much as I love to spend a perfect day outside, I hate seeing how amazing it may be out, and then having to head into work. Also, I grew up on the east coast, so I loves me some rain! And, as much as I may hate to admit it, I am finally starting to like the fact that life is slower out here than in NYC – it’s great when you can appreciate the slower pace, and not always going 90mph walking down the street.
GLT: What strengths does the local culinary scene have?
RS: I think since we are in such a great climate, we have a lot of opportunity for some foods to be year-round, not just seasonal. Even though certain foods do bend with the seasons, the fresh produce that you can find from local farmers all year long is pretty amazing! Also, we are starting to become a culinary destination. With all of the amazing chefs in San Diego, people are starting to realize that San Diego is not a joke when it comes to our food!
GLT: Would you consider San Diego a culinary hot spot?
RS: I don’t think we are a hot spot yet, but we are getting there. Being so close to LA and Vegas, many people think that those are the places to go for amazing food. Then they swing by SD on an extension of their trip, and realize that we are getting to have a lot to offer the foodies and the regular folks just looking for a great meal.
GLT: What, if anything, is San Diego missing?
RS: I think that San Diego’s causality is it’s biggest detriment. People think that putting on a shoe other than a lip-flop is dressing up. I think that that can take away from some restaurant’s credibility – not in a matter of dress code, but in how people perceive their surroundings. I can’t say that I want tons of white table-cloth, jackets required establishments, but they are few and far between here. It’s like we want the reputation for being a culinary hot spot, but we really don’t want all the work that goes with it.
GLT: What is your favorite dish to cook (if you can pick one!)
RS: Hmmm... just one, huh? I’d have to say that one of my favorite things is a simple pasta dish of grilled/sautéed chicken breast, garlic, shallots, olive oil, fresh basil, and some crushed red pepper. Just a light, simple dish that is so flavorful, just by letting the ingredients speak!
GLT: What drew you to Top Chef, and why did you decide to audition?
RS: Top Chef started just as I was getting into culinary and started school during the second season. I thought that it’s one of the few true talent-based reality shows. You can’t fake being able to cook – or if you can, you can’t keep it up for long! Plus, cooking is something that (almost) everyone does on a daily basis, so I think that many people can get into the show. I was kinda prodded to audition by some friends, and my family, too. They were all calling me and telling me when and where auditions were and really pushing me to go for it. When it really came down to it, having my boyfriend, Steve, tell me to go for it helped, since I knew we’d be apart for a while during filming. When your significant other is telling you to go for an amazing opportunity, it’s a kind of support that you can’t find elsewhere. Plus, come on, three words...Tom’s blue eyes, LOL (as if it didn’t come up enough on the show!)
GLT: Was the ‘Top Chef’ experience what you were expecting?
RS: I was honestly expecting to go further in the competition, but I think that that’s my only missed expectation. I knew it was going to be competitive, and insane, and an amazing opportunity to meet killer chefs – and it was all of that, and more! It was a life-changing experience, and I’d totally do it all again!
GLT: How has your fame affected your work at Confidential, at all?
RS: Well, I have had to manage my time better to be able to do interviews and talk to guests, plus do all of my regular work. I’m the working Exec at Confidential, so I do all of the paperwork stuff, and menu planning, but also work on the line or (at least) expedite every night that we’re open. It’s also helped me to be able to expand my culinary horizons. I never thought that I could get into Molecular Gastronomy, but (seeing the way Fabio used it in some of his dishes) I am finding some applications in my style of cooking that I can try it out.
GLT: What makes Confidential unique?
RS: I would say that our small plates set us apart from most restaurants who stick to a traditional style of dining. I would say that Confidential is unique in that we are an upscale restaurant that doesn’t get too full of itself and pretentious. We still like to have fun, and I’m all about playing with your food – whether it’s in a food you can get your hands into, or taking you on a spin of traditional foods, with non-traditional ingredients.
GLT: What plans are next? New restaurants? Styles? Ingredients?
RS: Right now, I’m planning to stay at Confidential. I’m still looking at the possibility of opening up a spot, but can’t quite do it alone, and I’m not sure if that’s the direction I want to go right now. I know that it’s definitely on the horizon, just maybe not in my immediate future! Right now I’m really getting into embracing the international aspect of Confidential’s menu, but I am also working with the owners to decide what direction we want to go, together. Maybe we’ll change it up and go in a totally different direction and I’ll get to try out some other styles of food, plus tie in some of the cool new tricks I’ve been teaching myself!
GLT: What is your motto in the kitchen?
RS: KISS – Keep it Simple, Stupid! I think that too many times, people want to make the food more than what it is, and they lose sight of what the food should really be about – the ingredients. No one says that you have to load up on sauces, or all kinds of weird ingredients, and pile it all on one plate. I like to take a step back and try to strip some food down to its core. Don’t get me wrong, I can get into it and go REALLY over the top with ingredients, sauces, and combinations, but I like the simple flavors of good food cooked well.