Chef Spike Mendelsohn is arguably one of the strongest personalities and toughest competitors to emerge from the Top Chef franchise. Anthony Bourdain recently called him "the craftiest motherf***er" that Top Chef All Stars has ever seen. I'm not sure if that's a dig or high praise, but Mendelsohn seemed pretty pleased with the comment. For many popular cheftestants, participating in the series opens up a world of possibilities, but long before joining the popular reality series, Mendelsohn was already a seasoned professional with an impressive resume.
Mendelsohn comes from a long line of cooks and grew up in the family restaurant, first working the line as a sauté cook at the age of 13. After his formal education at the Culinary Institute of America, Mendelsohn worked at the critically acclaimed Les Crayeres restaurant near Paris, at Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Napa Valley, and at the legendary Le Cirque restaurant in New York City, which he eventually left to help open Mai House.
The young chef now has two Washington D.C.-based eateries under his belt: his burger joint, Good Stuff Eatery, and a pizza spot, We, the Pizza. I caught up with Mendelsohn to chat about hamburgers, his strategy on Top Chef, and the challenges of working with family.
If you didn't grow up in a restaurant, do you think you would have discovered your passion for food and cooking? Probably not. I'm actually not sure what I would have ended up doing by this age. Growing up in a restaurant family, cooking just becomes second nature. For a while, I tried to do anything but cook. I was really interested in marine biology and studied it for many years. There was a time when I really thought I'd become a marine biologist, but obviously that didn't pan out.
What was your game plan going into the Top Chef competition? The first time, I wanted to make a name for myself and I really had nothing to lose. In Top Chef All Stars, people probably noticed that I'm more laid back and not as competitive. I don't have anything to prove anymore. Top Chef provided a good life for me and it presented a lot of opportunities, so this is like paying back the favor. This time I'm just there to have fun.
I don't know if people understand that Top Chef is really just a cooking game show. Everything is working against you on the show, from time constraints to the judge's specific palette and opinion. It's actually amazing that anyone wins. The show doesn't define who I am, but a lot of the contestants take it very seriously. What's important to me is what I do in my everyday life and the long term goals that I accomplish.
You've worked in some very upscale restaurants, but when it came time to open your own restaurants you decided on a hamburger joint and a pizza place. Why do you think so many chefs are going back to the basics and focusing on simpler food? I think it's a generational thing. Fine dining, white tablecloths, tasting menus—it all seems really played out. I can only speak for myself, but when it came time to have my own place I wanted something hip, cool, and casual. I didn't want anything pretentious. I wanted to focus on classic American food done right. Fine dining is only enjoyed by a small segment of society, but a place like Good Stuff Eatery appeals to the masses. Plus, as a business owner, I wanted these places to make money, so what better way than serving food that appeals to everyone?
Growing up, were burgers a rare fast food indulgence, or a part of your everyday eating? They definitely weren't a rare thing. I grew up eating burgers all of the time, and my favorite were my grandpa's. He made a really great burger and my favorite thing that he did was wrap them in wax paper.
You run Good Stuff Eatery with your parents and your sister. How is it, working with the family? Obviously we all worked together when I was growing up, but it took a 10-year hiatus for us to warm up to working together again. In families like mine where everyone has a really strong personality and opinion, it can be really tough. We survived the battle and have all sort of molded into our respective titles and duties, but it took a while. I'll tell you this: I wouldn't recommend that other families start a restaurant together. It takes a special kind of family to get through it together.
The main focus of Good Stuff Eatery is burgers. How much of a good burger is about the quality of beef and how much is about the technique? I'd say it's about both, but what's as important as the quality of beef is the right fat-to-meat ratio.
What's your philosophy on burger buns? A good bun is really important and personally, I really like potato buns, which we use for almost all of our burgers. One exception is Spike's Sunnyside, which is a play on a croque madame. It's my riff on a classic sandwich, but in burger form. I also think the brioche gives texture and sweetness and it does a good job of sopping up the yolk from the egg.
Can you make a great burger using ground beef from the supermarket? Absolutely, but like I said, when buying regular ground beef you really have to have an understanding of the meat to fat ratio. It's key to making a good burger. In The Good Stuff Cookbook, I talk a lot about making the best burgers possible at home. It's really about the toppings and flavorings and your cooking technique.
How would you describe your food to someone who has never tried it? My food is soul-satisfying and full of love. We're not selling food at Good Stuff Eatery, we're selling love.