Examiner.com is very proud to welcome Chef Spike Mendelsohn to the latest edition of “A Conversation.”
This accomplished Washington, D.C.-based chef runs three popular eateries in our nation’s capital: Good Stuff Eatery, Béarnaise and We, The Pizza.
His skills as a culinary master were put to the test as he squared off against several of his peers in two seasons of Top Chef and faced the tedious challenges of the Chairman in two seasons of The Next Iron Chef.
Besides his television appearances and running his family’s restaurants, Chef Mendelsohn also co-wrote "The Good Stuff Cookbook" with his sister, Micheline, which showcased several of the restaurant’s signature dishes that ranged from burgers and fries to shakes and desserts.
In this edition of A Conversation, Chef Mendelsohn talked about his experiences on both shows, the most important qualities that he looks for in employees and shared his creative process behind creating a dish.
Jacob Elyachar: When did you get your first taste of the culinary world?
Chef Spike Mendelsohn: The first time I got to experience the restaurant industry was when I was 12-years-old. I washed dishes for my parents’ restaurant. It was a handful too because all the servers dumped their dirty trays right on top of me pretty much. It was not necessarily the job I wanted, but it was the one I got.
JE: What were some of the important lessons that you learned that helped you solidify your career?
CSM: One lesson that I learned was that if you do not know how to do the job yourself, then how are you going to teach someone that job? For example, if I did not wash dishes or mop floors at some point in my career, then how was I going to expect my employees to do the same? It is very important to do everyone’s jobs both inside and outside of the kitchen.
JE: How has your experiences on “Top Chef” and “The Next Iron Chef” helped you grow as a culinary master?
CSM: It was an honor to compete amongst some of the chefs and to have the chance to learn from them. In this business, there is always something to learn. That is a very honorable thing that both of those shows bring to the table.
JE: Did you have any favorite challenges?
CSM: My favorite challenge has to be when I competed on the original Chicago season of Top Chef. I had to masticate these huge beef ribs into three small cups of meat and it was the most rewarding time being on the show. The challenge also reminded me where I came from because both of my grandfathers were butchers and I have always been around it.
JE: When you are not on TV, you help your family with their three different restaurants: Good Stuff Eatery, Béarnaise and We, The Pizza. What are some of the similarities and differences between all three restaurants?
CSM: I think that the similarity for all three restaurants is the philosophy of food: simple menus but done very differently and locally. We have fun with our concepts and we do not take ourselves too seriously. The major differences are the themes of each restaurant. We, the Pizza is a pizza joint, while Béarnaise focuses on classic French food and the Good Stuff Eatery focuses on the nostalgia of American favorites.
JE: Some of my readers are aspiring chefs and are looking to go into the restaurant industry. What are some of the most important qualities that you look at when you hire employees?
CSM: When I hire employees, I look to see if they have a great work ethic and look to see if they have a great attitude. I think anyone can step into a kitchen as long as they are willing to work very hard. They also need to be able to not take themselves so seriously and learn how to have fun.
JE: Could you share how you create a dish from conception to table with my readers?
CSM: I get inspired throughout the day. When I am not cooking, I am spending a good majority of my time coming up with new menu items. It is always a fun process. For instance, I just came up with a special involving pig’s feet. All three restaurants had a different dish highlighting pig’s feet. I thought about the texture of pig’s feet and thought that making it crispy would be a great idea.
To the dish, I added sautéed leeks, more pork and bacon plus some mustard, which has some tanginess to cut down the fat of the crispy pig’s feet. Then, I wanted to play off of all of the richness in the dish, so I served it with pickled vegetables. I always try to use balance when coming up with a dish. If I had a dish that is fatty, it will always be paired with something acidic or pickled.
JE: You collaborated with your sister, Micheline, on “The Good Stuff Cookbook.” How important was it to showcase your diversity in your cookbook?
CSM: The cookbook’s main purpose was not really about showing off our diversity as chefs, it was about showing what the Good Stuff Eatery was about. We touched on the family aspect of the restaurant and the meaning that Good Stuff Eatery has to us. There are a lot of family recipes that used to belong to my uncles and my grandfathers. Our family’s past helped me reunite with my family after years and years of doing our own thing to come together. All of us combined our expertise on fine dining and fast food together to create something that was easygoing, and we had a lot of fun with it. To be able to have a cookbook that gave readers…an inside look into my family’s creative process was probably the most meaningful accomplishment in my career.
JE: If you had the chance to meet with aspiring chefs who want to go into the restaurant industry or the culinary world, what advice would you share with them?
CSM: My advice to aspiring chefs is before they do any culinary school and spend a lot of money is to get a job in the business. Whether it is in one of your favorite restaurants or a restaurant that peaks your curiosity, work for a year straight before you commit your life to the industry. This is a very grueling business and people like to fantasize that it is not. I want to make sure that they know what they are getting themselves into because it is not glamorous as they imagined it would be.