Spike Mendelsohn — the restaurateur/chef at the helm of Good Stuff Eatery — basically has his own Top Chef franchise. After competing on Top Chef season four in Chicago, he moved on to Top Chef All-Stars and then to Life After Top Chef. Mendelsohn (and his famed fedora) has been at the forefront of food TV for quite some time. He’s the kind of chef the food-TV movement was made for (we’re thinking he was a talk-show host/Ryan Seacrest type in another life). We chatted with this new icon on trends, TV, and where he just loves to eat…
What would be your ideal food day?
"I would wake up in Montreal, and I’d go to Fairmount Bagel and have a bagel with cream cheese, chicken livers, and sliced tomatoes. Then, I would fly over to Vietnam and go to the street markets and have a couple of noodle dishes at different little shops. I’d do the morning Pho from the street; then I’d proceed to a little dumpling place in Saigon. For dinner, I would fly to Greece and have lamb on a spit with potatoes, Greek salad, and all sorts of Greek fare."
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How has the food-TV industry changed since you started?
"The food industry — TV-wise — has become supercompetitive. Everyone wants to be on TV; it gets diners in the chairs of their restaurants. There are all different types of competition shows these days. It’s been this crazy phenomenon with chefs and TV (and chefs being the rock-stars). It’s been pretty intense; you just cross your fingers and hope it lasts for your lifetime."
Do you think it messes up the priorities of young chefs coming out of school?
"Younger chefs are definitely excited about TV and going that route. The word ‘chef’ is a little bit abused these days, if you know what I mean. All these Food Network stars are chefs, but they have no restaurants. So, are they chefs? Are they TV chefs? It’s just so difficult to put a label on it. As far as the young kids (in my opinion), do what you want to do. But, if you want to be a restaurant chef and run a restaurant, then you need to go learn the basics. You need that training and experience of cooking at a restaurant and running a restaurant. Once you master that skill, it gives you a really nice base to go anywhere with. My opinion for younger chefs is get your formal training and learn how to cook before you jump to the next stage, because there’s no working backward. If you want to be the next Food Network star, then you need something to rely on. The TV stuff can go away any day; you never know what will happen. I’ve been in the kitchen since I was 13 years old — even younger. I worked all over the world and then decided to be on Top Chef."
How does that all play into Life After Top Chef? What made you decide to do it?
"I decided to do it for a couple of reasons. I wanted to show how the success of a show can really launch your restaurant. I also had the notion that people think we live these really lavish lifestyles, and we do. We have fun; we travel and things like that. But there’s definitely a behind-the-scenes that people don’t understand. There’s an actual restaurant — those people that work for you, work with you, support you, and make you who you are. So, to me, it was a great canvas to show people my team and all of the people that supported me and helped me get to this point, because a lot of people think it’s just you. When you see Gordon Ramsay, you don’t think of the people that helped him get to that point — his mentors and all the people that work for him on a daily basis. It’s an interesting perspective for people to see a little bit more about how we run our businesses. That’s why we did it. My parents always wanted to be on television, so I figured I’d give them that nod."
What do you think about the response to Life After Top Chef?
"I think the response wasn’t really that great. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. I think they should have done the show three or four years ago. I also think that it’s difficult to take four different chefs that live four different lives and make them coincide with each other when it’s naturally not happening. "For instance, you take a show like The Real Housewives. They’re all housewives, so they have that in common. They all live in the same city, and they all pretty much go to the same events. So, it’s a little more entertaining to watch something like that. Whereas in our show, you have me (I live in D.C.); you have Fabio Viviani, who’s in LA; you have Jennifer Carroll, who’s in Philadelphia; you have Richard Blais, who’s in Atlanta. And, yes, we see each other every once in a while, but it’s not like we’re on the phone every day or talking on the show. Being in the TV business, you learn a lot about production, and I think they just had trouble meshing those four personalities together to make a really interesting show. It was like they were running four shows at once, and it almost made you dizzy. It would have been better if they did a show with one chef instead of four."
How is the Philadelphia expansion going now that Good Stuff Eatery is opening there?
"We’re opening in Philadelphia. I have nothing more to say about it as of now. Philadelphia is an amazing city, and we’re really happy that we have the opportunity to go there, among many other great restaurateurs, chefs, and places. We hope that we bring in a place that the locals really love and that they’ll enjoy, just as the people of D.C. have. We’re looking forward to opening that location."
Are you filling a void there?
"I wouldn’t really label it as a void; they have a bunch of burger places there. I just think our concept will mesh well with the people in Philadelphia. They’ll enjoy our restaurant; I think it fits in really well. There are some cities that it wouldn’t make sense to go to, but Philadelphia is not one of them. We’ve had our eye on it."
The fedora is a recognizable thing for you. Are there other chefs or restaurateurs that sport an item you’re loving?
"Bobby Flay has the fedora thing going on, too. Guy Fieri’s backward sunglasses and bleached hair. Tattoos are really in — but everybody has tattoos."
Should chefs and restaurateurs be fashion icons?
"Hell, yeah. We’re part of the nightlife; we’re always out. Chefs should definitely be fashion icons."
Who would you like to compete against, that you have yet to be in the arena with?
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What ingredient would you want to be assigned?
"Chipotle, so I could beat him at his own game."
What ingredient would you dread?
"I really wouldn’t want to have liver."
Of all your Top Chef seasons, what was your most memorable quickfire?
"Definitely my first season. It was the last episode; I actually got kicked off at that elimination challenge. We had to fabricate a whole side of aged beef — Tomahawk Steaks. It was to my advantage, because I have good butchering skills, and I killed it. It was one of those moments when I was like, “yeah!” (because everyone else did so badly). The thing about being a great chef, in my opinion, definitely has to do with knife skills."
What was the most memorable thing that judge Tom Colicchio (on or off the camera) ever said to you?
"Tom came up to me after a panel [I did] in Aspen and tapped me on the shoulder. I had just finished doing my panel; I didn’t even know he was watching, and we were talking about celebrity chefs versus real chefs. I was amongst Jacques Pépin, Ming Tsai, and Tim Love. I was the young guy and had a lot of opinions, so after my whole thing, I wasn’t sure how I came off. I didn’t know if I was being a little aggressive, or a little douchey, but Tom came and tapped me on the shoulder later and was like, 'Hey, really nice panel, bro. Loved hearing what you had to say.' So, that made me feel good. That was pretty awesome."
Speaking of great restaurateurs, what are some you’ve always looked up to?
"Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, Drew Nieporent, the Maccioni family, Gerard Boyer in France (he was a pretty integral part of my career), and Anthony Bourdain obviously — not as much as a restaurateur, but as a pioneer of food and this industry."
Do you see yourself as having a similar tone as Bourdain? I feel like there are almost two schools of thought now in how chefs are coming out and speaking about food…
"I’ve definitely idolized Bourdain since day one. I was reading his books in culinary school. I had a certain type of connection with him. I traveled to Vietnam for a year-and-a-half, because he had talked about it in his book (about what an amazing experience it was). He was always one of my role models, and today we’re friends. We hang out, and it’s always kind of a pinch-me thing. Like, seriously? I’m hanging out with Anthony Bourdain?"
What are your favorite cities for food? Where do you go to there?
"Montreal is one of my favorite cities for food; it’s my hometown. I go to Schwartz’s Deli. It’s a Jewish deli and one of my favorite places. I always love Au Pied de Cochon and Moishes Steakhouse. I love D.C.; it’s a great food city these days. I go to Rasika and The Source a lot. New York; I love all New York restaurants, so naming one or two restaurants there wouldn’t do it justice. I love going to all the New York restaurants whenever I have the chance."
If you had to narrow it down?
"Babbo by far is one of my favorite restaurants in New York City."
If you could have a dinner party, with any five people living or dead, who would be there?
"I would invite Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Mario Batali, Gerard Boyer, the Maccioni family, and Michael Jackson."