Splash - Sun Times
Thanks to a slew of shows like “Top Chef,” “Life After Top Chef,” “Top Chef All-Stars,” “MasterChef,” “Iron Chef America” — the list goes on and on — celebrity chefs have become the latest superstars.
But when Spike Mendelsohn, 34, decided to enter the culinary scene, foodie stardom wasn’t on his mind at all. “I became a chef the old, traditional way, before reality TV competitions,” he says. “My aspiration was to open up one restaurant and have a couple Michelin stars. … Then ‘Top Chef’ came along and crushed all those dreams.”
‘Crushed’ is hardly the right word: After finishing fifth on “Top Chef’s” Chicago-set season 4 in 2008, Mendelsohn headed to Washington, D.C. to parlay his burgeoning fame into a burger joint, Good Stuff Eatery. He’ll open the spot’s first Chicago outpost at 22 S. Wabash Jan. 28 — a stylish 72-seat diner — and follow it up quickly with a second shop in Lincoln Park at the end of summer. The all-American concept has garnered waves of praise and press coverage, most notably when Mendelsohn debuted the Prez Obama burger — a combination of applewood bacon, red onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese and horseradish mayo that won top spot at Chicago Gourmet’s Hamburger Hop last year.
Following his first success, Mendelsohn proceeded to cut the ribbons on several other D.C. spots, including We, The Pizza, an aptly dubbed pizza parlor; The Sheppard, a speakeasy; and Béarnaise, a chic French restaurant. He’s also swung open the doors to three other Good Stuff Eatery locations on the East Coast. But Chicago remains a sweetspot for Mendelsohn: His sister went to Northwestern University and his development partner for Good Stuff, Brian Dralle, is a Chicago native who was itching to set up shop in the city. “[Chicago is] a meat-and-potatoes kind of town,” says Mendelsohn. “It’s got a great food scene.”
It’s tough to imagine a restaurant more American than Good Stuff — think burgers, hand-cut fries, hand-spun milkshakes, farm-fresh ingredients and a selection of local brews on tap — which is ironic, given that Mendelsohn was born in Montreal and cut his teeth working at Pepin Restaurant, his parents’ Spanish fine-dining hot spot in Florida. “I grew up in restaurants,” he explains. “I was a dishwasher, I did all the nitty-gritty [jobs]. But becoming a chef was the last thing I wanted to do growing up. It wasn’t as glamorous as it is now.” Mendelsohn laughs: “It was long hours — still long hours. It was working holidays — still working holidays, too.”
That early reluctance to become a chef shifted when Mendelsohn’s grandfather became ill, and his parents left the then 18-year-old in charge of the kitchen. A year later, the kitchen ran more smoothly than ever before. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do [with my life],” he remembers. “[My parents] said, ‘Why don’t you stick around another year and we’ll send you to culinary school?’… I thought it was a joke, but they held up their end of the bargain and I held up mine.”
The deal was enough to seal Mendelsohn’s fate. He attended The Culinary Institute of America in 2004, which he credits for giving him the confidence to pursue cooking. “It made me feel like I had something a little different,” he says.
It’s yet another understatement from Mendelsohn; while he’s built a brand slinging burgers and fries, he’s proved his mettle in some of the toughest gourmet kitchens in the world. During his culinary school years, the young chef jetted off to Europe to work at the famed Château Les Crayères, tucked away in a castle in northern France. “That was an intense experience, big time,” he remembers. “I begged for eight months on the phone with a French chef to get that position. I’m the only American walking through the door, and they instantly called me ‘L’américain.’ They really put it to me. They didn’t let me just stroll right in and think I was awesome, they put me in check and embarrassed me and made me learn a lot of those hard lessons. But after about two months of initiation, they accepted me as [one of] their own.”
In 2005, the globetrotting gourmand left France for the California countryside, working in Napa Valley at Bouchon before switching coasts to join the famous Le Cirque in New York.
But it was “Top Chef” that unlocked Mendelsohn’s full potential: Though he began as a culinary purist with no eyes on fame, he’s since carved out a niche for himself, thanks to his charming personality and trademark fedoras. Now, his rock-star status continues to rise: He’s launched a private events company in D.C., where he currently resides, and is simultaneously taking his burger empire global. “We just signed an international expansion [deal] for Good Stuff Eatery in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “There happens to be a huge burger boom going on [there] right now.”
Mendelsohn hasn’t given up on TV, either. Last year, he moved from show competitor to figurehead, helming programs like FYI’s “Midnight Feast” and “Late Nite Chef Fight.” But, female fans, prepare to be disappointed: The wunderkind chef is spoken for. “I am seeing somebody,” he admits, before adding a humorous aside: “If you can’t be near the one you love, love the one you’re near. … I’m just playing! My grandfather used to say that to me, [it was] one of his little schticks.”
Despite already earning accolades here at the Hamburger Hop and garnering a fawning female fan base (Cosmopolitan magazine even spotlighted his dating tips), Mendeslohn is determined not to get a big head. He never saw fame coming and recognizes the spotlight’s fleeting nature, so he stays focused on the food, saying, “You never know when the idea of rock-star chefs is going to go away.”