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May 2, 2008

A Chat with Top Chef’s Spike Mendelsohn

By Denise Tong

Halfway through the fourth season of Bravo’s reality kitchen competition Top Chef, Evangelos “Spike” Mendelsohn is still cooking. Currently chef de cuisine at Drew Nieporent’s Vietnamese restaurant Mai House in Manhattan, his work on the Emmy-nominated series has included cooking for a Chicago Bears pre-game tailgate, catering the Meals on Wheels Chicago Celebrity Chef Ball, and co-creating a soup that head judge Tom Colicchio considered the best-seasoned dish at that point in the season.

Prior to joining Mai House, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, cooked his way through Vietnam, and trained in classic French cuisine with Gerard Boyer at Les Crayères and with the Maccioni Family at Le Cirque. In June, he will open an organic burger joint with his family, Good Stuff Eatery, in Washington, D.C. The venue will offer “handcrafted burgers, handcut fries, and handspun shakes.”  

Mendelsohn felt “fantastic” when he spoke to Current Vine on the phone, gamely talking about the show, his upcoming restaurant, and chowing on sea urchins.

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CV: Have you been watching a lot of yourself as the season has been airing?

SM: Are you kidding me? I watch myself over, and over, and over… [laughing] No, just kidding. I’ve been watching, definitely. It’s been really interesting to see the way [the show’s challenges] come together.

CV: What do you think about how you seem on TV?

SM: I love it. It’s really exactly who I am.

CV: Have you Googled yourself to see what people are saying about you?

SM: I have definitely done that, but I stopped about four to six weeks ago. I was reading things that you really don’t want to read about yourself—people think they know more about you than they really do. So I don’t Google myself anymore.

CV: What has been surprising about being on the show?

SM: The difficulty. I was definitely a fan of the show [before competing], and I was one of those guys who said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he did that,” and “Why didn’t you do this?” And then you actually get on the show, and there are so many different dynamics that you never knew about; it’s crazy. I’m definitely much more of a methodical chef; I work on recipes that take me a couple of weeks to work on before it comes out perfectly, so to do something in 20 minutes or even an hour…that was the most difficult part. And also living with a bunch of different chefs; that was kind of weird.

CV: Do you still keep in touch with any of the New York chefs from the show?

SM: Yeah, absolutely. I remain very good friends with a couple of people.

CV: Good Stuff Eatery is set to open in June, right?

SM: Yeah, the date is set for June 1, but it’s not definite, so we’ll have to see. We’re doing it out of a space that hasn’t been a restaurant before.

CV: How would you describe the experience of opening your own place?

SM: It’s been great! I’ve been opening other people’s restaurants for the past five years, so it’s nice to finally be able to do my own. A plus is that I’m opening it with my family, so I’m that much more confident and passionate about it.

CV: You’re planning to expand into a chain.

SM: Definitely. First we’ll have to take care of the first place, of course. A lot of people are talking about franchises [at the moment], so I’m not giving out too much about that right now. So we’ll open the first place and and see what happens.

CV: Do you plan on staying in New York?

SM: I love New York, and with everything going on, I’ve been juggling both [New York and D.C.]. I’ve been working very hard at Mai House, and I’ve been traveling back and forth to D.C. to visit the venue and taste everything. So, I’m not sure yet—I can’t definitively answer that question. But I will definitely be at the D.C. opening. And I’m planning on getting a place there for six months.

CV: Some people don’t want to spend much time thinking about cooking; what kind of good, simple dish do you recommend?

SM: I’m a huge believer in the one-pot cookery type of deal. You can throw anything in there…beef, chicken. But my favorite meal is a nice roast chicken. You can just take some potatoes, chives, fennel, bay leaves, peppercorn, and celery, and roast all of it really well in a pan with a little bit of olive oil and tomato paste. Then you add your chicken and a little wine and put it in the oven. That’s one of my favorite simple, one-pot cookery meals.

CV: What’s your favorite food memory?

SM: I was on the coast of Cassis at this little port, sitting with a friend, and [the locals] were pulling sea urchins right out of the water and cutting them up, putting them in a pan, then dropping them off on the table with a basket of bread and local wine. I swear to God, [seeing and eating] that was one of the best moments of my life. Sea urchins aren’t my favorite food, but as far as food memories, you can’t really beat that.


Photo courtesy Bravo.

Updated June 2008.