(Published in July 2010 Issue)
As a contestant on season five of Bravo's Top Chef, Rich Sweeney made the most of his time on television. When creating the menu for his new Hillcrest restaurant, R Gang Eatery, he capitalized on the time he used to spend in front of the tube-or at least on the grub he consumed in the process.
"I thought to myself, 'what are the dishes that I always enjoyed when I was growing up?'" Sweeney says of the impetus for his contemporary-retro American cuisine. "One of my favorite things is Lipton Cup-a-Soup, because, when I was sick, that's what I had. And growing up, I was a huge fan of TV dinners. We've all had the Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and a brownie that's a little burnt on one side."
These days, Sweeney makes Salisbury steak with ground lamb and figs, and exotic curry spices enliven his chicken pot pie. Even the buttered Saltine crackers from his childhood (which he affectionately refers to as "ghetto Ritz") have been reborn, now appearing as home-made toasted butter crackers atop another of Sweeney's favs, mac 'n' cheese, the R Gang version of which is amped-up by smoked gouda and soppressata (cured Italian sausage).
"It's like playing American Idol with your food," says Sweeney. "Every season, the contestants get an old school song and they have to make it relevant for now. I want to take something old and make it grown up and sexy."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, rather than resorting to high-end enhancers like lobster and truffle oil, Sweeney is more likely to reach into his home pantry for flavor-bolstering ingredients. And he isn't scared to use items many foodies regard as culinary contraband. Think Cheez-Whiz, Velveeta and SPAM.
"SPAM is like peoples' dirty little secret," he says. "They like to eat it, but in Hillcrest, where everybody likes to look and see what's in your shopping cart, you don't want to be buying it." Sweeney took the salty, porky treat with him when he went to New York City for Top Chef. The result: his fellow chef-testants continued eating SPAM almost daily, even after he left the show.
"When you're a kid, you never look at a dish and question what's in it or say, 'gee, does it have the right amount of vegetables?' or 'what's the nutritional value?'" Sweeney says. "All that matters is, do you like it? It's Peter Pan-ish how people lose their ability to be playful with their food. Why does it have to be that way?"
R Gang's décor reinforces Sweeney's Never Never Land mentality-the outdoor patio is partially illuminated by the word "fun," spelled out in brightly lit letters that are visible from the street. That overriding attitude is perhaps best exemplified in edible form by Sweeney's dessert menu, which will soon feature a dish incorporating NECCO wafers and will always include a rotating s'more du jour. The latter is gutsy considering it was one of Sweeney's s'mores that got him eliminated from Top Chef.
"People say, 'you're actually doing that?' and I tell them, if I'm taking myself that seriously, then I need to not be doing this. I need to be able to laugh at myself," Sweeney says. "I got into cooking because I like playing with my food. I'm not talking about making mashed potato snowmen, but I'm going to have fun with what I eat."
And that goes double for what his customers eat.
R Gang Eatery
3683 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
619.677.2485 | rgangeatery.com
Photo: Richard Sweeney with R Gang sous chef, Rachel Feil