It’s all in his genes, or maybe he meant jeans. Rich Sweeney, former “Top Chef” contestant who got kicked off Season 5 for a bad case of the S’mores, is not only one of San Diego’s premier chefs, he’s also something of a local Bear sex symbol.
“I don’t like being a dick,” says Sweeney, as an explanation for his star factor. “I’m like a big cuddly bear that people want to snuggle with.”
Sweeney, 30, is one of a growing number of openly gay chefs who are (ironically enough) just now making a name for themselves in the restaurant business.
“There’s always been a stigma against gay people in the kitchen,” says Sweeney. “They think if you’re gay, you can’t be authoritative.” Sweeney says that his sexuality never came up in the first kitchen he ran till months into the game. “I said, ‘Yep, I’ll still yell at you and scream at you, but at the end of the day, I like boys.’”
Sweeney, who does think cooking is an inherited talent, owns R Gang Eatery in San Diego (“I looked like Spanky growing up”), a comfort food hotspot in a city known for big appetites, big diversity, and big dudes.
“We went for a kind of contemporary retro-American, which almost inherently means ‘bad for you,’” says Sweeney. “But it’s not a total belly bomb.” Sweeney says that the large Bear community in San Diego “come in and order, order, order,” but that the more fitness-prone have developed a taste for the spot too. “We did add healthy ingredients,” says Sweeney. “People talk about having to burn off the calories before they visit, or that at first they gained five or ten pounds but now they know what to avoid.”
Homemade Tater Tots are big at the restaurant (ask for Cheddar and Chive, Bacon and Blue Cheese, or, yes, White Trash), and make sure you order S’mores, Sweeney’s ode to his former Reality TV show. “I’m a big kid who likes to play with my food.”
Not everyone else plays nice. “There are people who will come to the restaurant just so they can bash your food,” says Sweeney about the “Top Chef” aftermath. “They don’t like the show; they’ll seek out Top Chef restaurants just to complain.” Sweeney himself is not complaining. He loved doing the show, even if it meant his grandparents discovering he was gay from the TV set. “That made for a very interesting conversation,” he says.
Sweeney grew up on Long Island, and before hitting San Diego seven years ago, worked in every aspect of the restaurant business, from seating people, to bussing tables, to washing dishes, to serving, and to cooking the food. It’s that background, he says, that helped make his restaurant a success.
“Not everyone who wants to open a restaurant understands the expense going into it,” says Sweeney. “They’ve never worked in a restaurant, they’ve never waited a table. They like going to restaurants, and they bite off more than they can chew.”
R Gang Eatery has been open for over a year now, and, for Sweeney, it’s a beautiful day in the Gayborhood. “In New York, your look dictated what neighborhood you went to,” says Sweeney. “Out here, there’s only one Gayborhood. All the bars mesh together, and you don’t feel out of place being a Bear and going to a bar full of a lot younger, Twinkier guys.”
I’m not sure what the ingredients would include, but I’m hoping the Twinkie Bear soon becomes an R Gang Eatery Staple!