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When they turn the cameras back on, I, too, opt for the more-is-more approach to my performance.

I think I’m being subtle, but when the footage airs the following week, my husband will say, “Oh, Lizzie. What is wrong with you?” And I’ll respond, “I was giving it my all.”

I was trying to be the cuddly bear, not the bitchy bear

Although my newfound knowledge that the best clapping moments are faked on 3 Minutes to Stardom makes me feel kind of cool and in the know, chef Richard Sweeney has me beat by a long shot. In 2008, he spent two-and-a-half weeks on season five of Top Chef. Granted, as the fourth elimination, he didn’t stay quite as long as mega-restaurateur Brian Malarkey, who made it all the way to the 14th elimination on season three. But my soft spot for tater tots and big, effeminate teddy-bear men takes me to R-Gang Eatery in Hillcrest, where Sweeney reigns.


Interview with Chef Richard Sweeney about reality TV and "Top Chef"

We sit at a table for two, surrounded by brightly colored pop art, drinking water (me) and ginger beer (him), while he gives me the scoop. Pat Benatar croons “We Belong” from the overhead speakers.

The story begins with Sweeney trying out for Top Chef three seasons in a row before he got called back. Each time, he wore the same T-shirt.

“It’s an ‘I ♥ Hot Moms’ T-shirt, which was always meant to be a conversation piece. Inevitably, someone asks, ‘What is it you love about hot moms?’ And I say it’s because they’re usually married to hot dads, but I can’t find a boy-cut T-shirt like that. So it just kind of became this schtick.”

Sweeney speaks with exaggerated and somewhat ladylike gesticulations that add an unexpected dimension to his well-trimmed beard and bearlike body.

Eventually, the Hot Moms T-shirt did get him noticed. But not before Sweeney had worked his way up from recent culinary-school graduate to executive sous chef at the hip, downtown San Diego restaurant, Confidential.

Even after he received a callback following his interview for season five, the casting process included months of random, cryptic phone calls (which always ended with Sweeney still uncertain about whether or not he’d been cast), and a meeting with a psychologist.

“They want to make sure you’re just crazy enough for reality TV, but not so crazy you’re going to stab someone,” he says.

A couple of weeks after the meeting with the psychologist, he received an email with a confirmation number and a set of instructions: plan to be away from work for five or six weeks; pack for warm, humid weather; no recipe books or computers or iPods; and, yes, you can tell your boss, but if it gets out, we’ll put you on the next plane home.

In July 2008, Sweeney flew to New York, where his season would be filmed. A man was waiting for him at baggage claim with Sweeney’s name on a sign. The man wore an earpiece, and he turned out to be one of the associate producers of the show. Sweeney collected his bags and the producer told him that, once they got out to the van, Sweeney would be allowed to talk only to the driver and himself.

“So, we get in the van, and Jamie Lauren [another contestant] was there already,” Sweeney says now, almost breathlessly, reliving the adventure. “I mean, your natural reaction is to introduce yourself, and we were both like…”

He stops and mimics an awkward, silent wave.

“The whole idea behind this is that they want to capture the first time you meet each other. Everything has to be done on film.” He pauses to sip from the squat, brown bottle of ginger beer, then adds, “And it’s the most asinine thing in the entire world.”

When the van arrived at the hotel, an associate producer accompanied each of the contestants to the front desk for his/her key and then walked them to their rooms, which were spread out across different parts of the hotel, in order to keep distance between them. The producers held on to the room keys.

“They want to have complete control over everything you’re doing,” Sweeney says.

After leaving him alone for a bit, production-staff members came back to Sweeney’s room to go through his things and make sure he had no prohibited items, and no more than the allotted number of knives and tools. They also checked his clothing for brands and logos, covering up what could be covered and confiscating the rest.

Before leaving him alone again, they took his cell phone, wallet, keys, cash, passport, and credit cards.

“They take pretty much every connection you have to the outside world. Everything gets catalogued and put in a giant Ziploc baggy. You don’t get that back until they put you on an airplane to leave.”

The following morning at 6:00, Sweeney and the other 16 “cheftestants” met producers in the hotel lobby for bagels, coffee, and juice. There, they were instructed that this was a “TV timeout,” during which no talking was allowed, and which would last through the van ride to their first shooting location.

In episode one, Sweeney first showed up on camera at his introductory interview, during which he said, “The inner queen inside me is screaming to know, ‘Where is Padma [Lakshmi, the show’s host], and what is she wearing?’”

His next appearance was during the season’s first Quickfire challenge, which resulted in him slicing his thumb open as contestants raced to peel 15 apples each, using a knife instead of a peeler.

Sweeney’s run on the show lasted through episode three. Though he did get air time in the kitchen, more often the cameras caught him prancing around during off-time, or spouting spicy one-liners during his one-on-one interviews.

“Me and my little lesbian gotta go up against each other, which sucks,” he said of Jamie Lauren, when they went head-to-head in the first elimination competition.

“I think Tom’s really cute. He’s got great eyes. He’s a cutie,” Sweeney said of one of the judges in a voice-over while the camera showed him nervously presenting his dish of lamb sliders and orzo-feta pasta salad. “I’d buy him a drink if I saw him in a bar. Hell, I’d buy him three.”

Author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory

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