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Transcript of Spike Mendelsohn’s Interview
Kate Nerenberg (KN)
Spike Mendelsohn (SM)
KN: How do you like being in DC so far?
SM: I love DC. Its a huge change from NYC, that's for sure. The people just seem to be a lot more laid back here. New York is just really fast paced and the people really accept me down here, its just nice. Its been a really nice welcoming on the hill.
KN: And you're originally from where?
SM: I'm originally from Montreal, and I spent some time in Spain for about 3 to 4 years and did the World's Fairs over there and then moved to Florida for awhile and spent most of my life there just growing up. Then I just traveled. I lived in France, Luxembourg, Vietnam. Pretty much everywhere, Greece.
KN: What'd you do on your Top Chef video application?
SM: My Top Chef application video, I took… there's the Chinatown in New York, right down the street from my restaurant [a Vietnamese place called My House]. I get all my produce and proteins from there every morning. So [my business partner] Mikey and I went on a tour of Mulberry meat market and we just went and talked, went to all the purveyors, and they're all Asian so it was kind of funny— you felt like you were in Vietnam, so it was fun, that's about it. I took 'em to a couple of my favorite spots in NY to eat and that's about it.
KN: And how do you feel about the outcome of Top Chef?
SM: I loved it. I mean, I thought it was a great show this season. I thought we brought, the group of chefs brought a whole nother dynamic to the show that they didn't really have before. I was happy Stephanie won, she went with a really focused game plan and executed it really well. I went in and did what I wanted to get out of it.
KN: And what did you get out of it?
SM: I just— I wasn't really too worried about winning $100,000, I wanted to make it far in the competition, but without like compromising my personality, who I am as a person. So, I really tried to show exactly who I am, I didn't try to fake it, I wasn't so always focused on the food because I was trying to cozy up to the camera a little bit. I mean that's what happened. I got an amazing amount of marketing, I have a restaurant now, so it was fun.
KN: Are you keeping in touch with any of your buddies from Top Chef?
SM: Yeah, absolutely. I keep in touch with Andrew all the time, Stephanie, Richard Blais, all of them, pretty much all the New York peeps, a couple people on the other coast, like Eric, Jenn, the girls.
KN: What have you been doing since you got here? Have you been going into other kitchens, talking to other chefs?
SM: Since I've been here, I've been eating out a little bit.
KN: Where have you been eating?
SM: I've been going to BLT [Steak] a lot. [Executive chef] Victor [Albisu]'s a good friend of mine. He's the head chef over there. I went to Central, I went to Cafe Atlantico, the Jose Andres place. I've been to a couple of bistros, neighborhood restaurants. For once in my life, I get to kind of enjoy.
KN: What are you liking so far about the restaurants you've been to and the chefs?
SM: I think BLT was… I always have an amazing meal. I've been there more often than the other restaurants. I think its great. I love steak, I'm such a big meat person, and he does it perfectly so I love that place.
KN: Have you been hanging out in any other kitchens?
SM: No, not really. I'm really busy getting my restaurant open. Its a build-out of a building that hasn't been a restaurant before so I mean, all the permits, the gas lines, the hoods, there's a lot more things to do than to just take over a restaurant space, we've been doing the build-out so its been pretty interesting.
KN: So what are you trying to do with your food here?
SM: I really wanted something to give back to the fans, its strategic concept in opening. I mean, I have the restaurant group, Sunnyside group, on the third floor, the first two floors are occupied by the restaurant. I wanted to come up with something just to give back to the fans and I thought, what better way to do it than with the classic burger? Pretty much everyone loves burgers and if you don't like burgers, I have a mushroom burger on the menu, so if you don't like that… its just really simple. I mean, you know, there's a lot of eyes on you after you go on a reality show and I think your first move after the show is a pretty important one. I wanted something without so much pressure; the pressure of opening a restaurant is one thing, but then executing a menu… You know, in this case its only really burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Its fairly simple, instead of opening my dream restaurant, my fine dining restaurant where I have to worry about 50 billion things on the menu and components, I figured its a really great way to enjoy everything after the show, all they have to offer and go to different cities and promote myself, without having to so much make it about the food. Its a pilot store for franchises, its the first of many, I'm also having a different concept in DC, I got a tapas place around the corner, I want to open up a Vietnamese place much like the restaurant I had in New York City so I got a bunch of options.
KN: Have you met any chefs here that you feel like would be good candidates for Top Chef?
SM: Yes. I've met a lot of great chefs here. Victor from BLT, actually, is hopefully going to be on next season, if not next season, the one after. I've met a couple other…
KN: What do you think of Tom Colicchio?
SM: I love Tom, laid back guy. Everyone thinks he's so serious. He's got a job to do when he's on the show, after that the guy grabs a guitar, a beer and plays songs all night long.
KN: Do you have a kitchen tool that you can't live without?
SM: Not really. Probably my spoon, yeah, it's not really a tool but you can do a lot of things with a spoon.
KN: What would you say is the best you've ever received, either on Top Chef or…
SM: Umm… the best advice I've ever received is actually from Tom, Tom Colicchio, and he says, its along the lines of simple food goes far ways if you don't over confuse it and that's a motto and a philosophy that I love to embrace and I'm trying to embrace it. But as a young chef, you always try to over-crowd dishes and confuse them and the more experience and as you grow, you simplify your dishes and that's the mark of a true chef: you can make something very simple taste amazing.
KN: And do you think you learned a lot of that on Top Chef?
SM: I think I learned a lot on Top Chef. Especially, they paired us up with contestants like, such as Richard Blais. He's a really professional chef, he's 35 years old, he's very accomplished, very experienced, traveled the world. To be able to rub shoulders with him and see how he approaches food and his philosophy was a huge learning experience of its own. Under pressure, I feel like I could step into any situation these days and not feel the pressure because Top Chef can put you through hell. So now I can take on anything.
KN: Are you getting meats and produce locally?
SM: Yeah, everything's local.
KN: So what are some of the places you are getting it from?
SM: I'm using Coastal Farms for all my produce, they are based out of Maryland, I'm using Capital Meats, a purveyor up on the Hill. Everything is farm fresh and local.
KN: Tell me about the fedora.
SM: The fedora… Its not a big big story behind the fedora. I love wearing them. Some people are into tattoos, piercings, I'm into fedoras and hats. People have been sending me fedoras now and that's kind of fun, I don't have to buy them anymore and thats pretty much it, I like the straw fedora mostly.
KN: Did you wear this in the kitchen at Le Cirque?
SM: Actually no, Le Cirque was much more of a professional kitchen. Its what you call a brigade, its a highly intense French kitchen so there's nothing like that going on, I couldn't even have a beard. But, when I was in my own kitchen at My House, I definitely had my hat on.
KN: What about this scene in Top Chef with you and Marc in the hot tub?
SM: [laughs] It was… I don't know, just a, just wanting to enjoy some time, have some champagne and I had the idea of bringing some, making a bubble bath and trying to get some of the girls in it, but Marc's the one who volunteered, so you gotta take it as it comes
KN: What would you suggest to any chefs out there who want to make it onto Top Chef?
SM: You should be prepared, don't think it through, because you've obviously worked very hard to get to a certain point in your career. You don't want to go throw it all away if you're not the type of person to go on a reality show, if you feel like you'll clam up in front of cameras and embarrass yourself, you want to think that through obviously before you sign the papers, and you should probably have a game plan about how to capitalize after the show because you the true winners are the people that use the show to do something with it afterwards. If you go on a show of that nature, and go back to your regular job after that, there's no sense in going on the show, so try to have something lined up after the show.
KN: Who would you say are some of your mentors, other chefs?
SM: Gerard Boyer is a world-famous chef in France, he had 3 Michelin stars for 20 years, and I worked at his chateau in the north of France for about a year, that was my apprenticeship and he seriously set the standard. He did everything perfectly. It was a Relais & Chateaux [property], he had 19 rooms, and a 3 Michelin-star restaurant under the same castle, under the same roof. He did everything perfectly and it was amazing. I look at Drew Nieporent and Sirio Maccioni as far as restaurateurs, they inspire me in how they do business. So its a good blend, the people who inspire me is a good blend of chefs and business people and restaurateurs, and I think thats the point where I'm at right now, a young restaurateur-chef and that's what I kind of like about it.
KN: How do you feel about, there's all these restaurants closing, just today we found out that Butterfield 9 is going to be closing…its American, local stuff, French influence. In this economy, and you said you're going to open up a bunch of other places…
SM: Well, like I said, I've had this spot for about a year, I've been sitting on it, trying to figure out what I want to do. And part of me, a restaurateur and chef, you gotta follow the trends, look at the economy, see what people want. Right now, I'd say we're in a somewhat of a recession, and the economy is not doing so well, so people aren't really going out as much and spending the big bucks. So you'd never see me right now, or even in the next couple years, open up a fine dining restaurant where its $120 a head to eat. Thats why I opened a burger place, everyone's going to be out the door, full stomach and happy for $12 and I want to appeal to the masses, its about feeding people, once you are in the business of cooking for yourself, you might as well get out of it, you're here to cook for people, you're here to entertain. So that's my philosophy, the other restaurants I'm going to open are going to be on the same check average, probably not $12, probably be more like maybe anywhere from $45-$50 a head, a little bit more upscale, but still not fine dining. That's what you gotta look at, you gotta look at the neighborhood, the demographics, its all about business.
KN: When do you hope to open those other places? How much can you tell us?
SM: I can tell you I have another location on the Hill, really really close by. I don't want to disclose the location because the deal's not completely signed, but I have another location on the Hill, for a more of a Mediterranean feel, not sure if it'll be Italian, Greek or a mixture, something along those lines, my background a little bit… And I'm looking to get into the airports. I have people approaching me for the airport deals, franchises. I have a place in Adams Morgan on 18th street. Is it 18th street? There's a corner space that I'm taking over to open a Good Stuff [Eatery] so I got about 5 more locations of Good Stuff and something on H street, I got a lot going on, but the best part about it is I brought all my friends which I'm real surprised they came down from New York with me, they moved down here with me, to launch the restaurant group and to launch all these restaurants. It's fun. We're bringing a little bit of New York to DC.
KN: Is Spike your real name?
SM: Spike I've had since I was about 2. Evangelis is my real name but everybody refers to me by Spike.
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