Chef Rich Sweeney talks about R Gang Eatery, “Top Chef” and Anthology’s foodie event

Friday, October 8, 2010 12:40

SAN DIEGO – Chef Rich Sweeney has a wonderful sense of humor, and it even shows up on his menu at R Gang Eatery in Hillcrest.

He was once eliminated as a contestant on Bravo’s popular “Top Chef” reality-television show when his S’mores dessert turned into a disaster and the picky judges eliminated him.

Yet, a glance at the desserts available at R Gang Eatery finds S’mores on the menu.

“I’m having a little fun at my own expense,” Sweeney said with a hearty laugh. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re no fun. But I changed it up. And the S’mores casserole is one of our most popular desserts.”

Having fun is a recurring theme for Sweeney and his staff. “F-U-N” is spelled out in huge red letters decorating a wall at the restaurant.

“Our whole thing is to have fun with our food,” he said. “We went to be cool about food, not too serious. We want our customers to eat things because they like it, not just because it might be health-conscious or otherwise. You can eat anything in moderation.”

On Sunday, Oct. 17, Sweeney will be taking part in the Celebrity Chefs Tours, which will be taking over Anthology in Little Italy. The afternoon-long event includes a full meal, easy to re-create at home for the family or for an intimate dinner party.

Sweeney will present the main course at the event. He will be accompanied by Anthology’s Executive Chef Todd Allison, who will be demonstrating appetizers, and pastry chef Stefanie Gaxiola, who is famous for her appearance on “Cupcake Wars.”

Mixologist Garth Flood from Cowboy Star will be presenting the secrets to his favorite cocktails.

Only 150 tickets will be sold for this intimate event, so foodies better make their reservations quickly.

Sweeney hasn’t finalized his dish yet, but said he is leaning toward his recipe for maple and bourbon roasted tenderloin with ginger sweet potatoes.

The hearty dish is typical of the fare that he serves at R Gang Eatery. He likes comfort food.

He calls his restaurant upscale but casual, relaxed and funky.

“I would call it a really cool mom’s or grandmother’s home,” Sweeney said with another laugh.

“We fit in the Hillcrest neighborhood, which is upbeat and energetic,” he said. “It’s very much a reflection of me.”

Sweeney said he hand-picked the staff, seeking out people who were upbeat, peppy and positive in their outlook on life. “I was looking for tons of personality,” said Sweeney, who has ample personality on his own.

Now in his sixth year of living in San Diego, Sweeney, who hails from the East Coast, has the demeanor of someone who has put down roots. He has been partnered for four years now, and he likes the idea of growing the reputation of San Diego’s food scene.

TV shows like “Top Chef” and “The Next Food Network Star” have showcased chefs from the San Diego area, and that has helped to improve the culinary image of America’s Finest City beyond seafood and Baja Mexico cuisine.

“The San Diego food scene is still growing,” Sweeney said, noting that the area is still far behind places like New York City and Los Angeles, where cuisines of the world can be sampled everywhere.

He said San Diego was in its “teenage years” as a foodie town.

“We are trying hard to be a foodie town,” he said. “We’ve got more of the middle-of-the-road places … and “old guard” establishments, not a lot of upscale casual dining.”

And that’s where R Gang Eatery fits in.

“The first time I put pork belly on the menu, I only sold three portions of it and had to throw the rest of it away. But the second time around, I sold out in two days,” Sweeney said.

“It’s hard to get people to embrace things outside their comfort zone. But we’re working on it.”

R Gang Eatery serves brunch and dinner. The menu changes, depending on the popularity of entrees and other items.

Brunch prices range from $6 for a house salad to $15 for sautéed shrimp in garlic butter sauce over feta and cheddar grits with asparagus and tomato confit.

Dinner prices range from $13 for smoked gouda Mac n Cheese with toasted butter cracker crumb topping to $18 for the Not-So-Short Ribs with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, honey glazed carrots, goat cheese demi-glace and fried onion strings.

Sweeney was put on the spot when asked to name his menu favorites.

“It’s a toss-up between the short ribs and the Mac n Cheese,” he said.

When he has a rare night off – he even works Sunday nights at a bartender at Pecs – he blushes when he mentions that he would rather order take-out instead of cooking in his own kitchen.

“I have eclectic tastes,” he said. “I like Asian food, but I don’t have the ability to cook it. So I will order Thai, Italian or American food. But honestly, I appreciate any good food that is made well.”

The trouble is, after appearing on national TV in “Top Chef,” Sweeney cannot go places without being recognized.

“It’s weird to walk into a supermarket and people will be looking into your basket to see what you are buying,” he said.

Still, the fame he achieved via “Top Chef” has been mostly beneficial.

“It’s part of who I am, but it’s not the only thing I’m associated with,” Sweeney said. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to open my own restaurant this soon, otherwise.”

To make reservations online, click HERE.