Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Spike Mendelsohn: The HowChow Interview

NOT Mrs. HowChow & Spike Mendelson
Spike Mendelsohn has no idea where you live.

Spike is a Top Chef All-Star.  He is a gracious guy, a tasty chef, and a restaurant owner.  But he is no geographer of Howard County, although he says he will stop for gas station tacos.  More about that later.

Spike did a round of interviews yesterday from his Capitol Hill restaurants to promote the MasterCard MarketPlace Web site with Suntrust -- a deal in which Spike got $5,000 in toys to donate to his favorite charity, my friend and I got to talk to Spike, and MasterCard/Suntrust get link after link to their Web site.  For the blog, we'll call my friend "Brooklyn" because, well, she has a professional reputation to protect.

The tidbit of news is that Spike plans to open a restaurant in Baltimore.  They don't have a site yet, but he has been driving up to look for space.  (What kind of restaurant, asks Mrs. HowChow? Whoops.  I didn't ask.  I'm 15 years out of practice for journalism.)  I pitched hard for him to look in Columbia.  I even had some Google maps of the area around Rte 175, but more about that later as well.

The HowChow interview happened on the top floor of Spike's Good Stuff Eatery on Capitol Hill.  My co-worker Brooklyn and I ate lunch at We The Pizza next door.  Then we had a half hour to kill so I got a bag of fries and a vanilla shake at Good Stuff.  Spike sells high-quality comfort food, and it works.  The place was so packed that we went upstairs for quiet in the business office.  Spike's sister and mother were working at desks while we talked.

The interview will be shocking if you know absolutely nothing about television.  They edit Top Chef.  Like, wow, it's not live.  If that's news to you, then you're going to be stunned by this interview.  Otherwise, I hope you'll be mildly amused because that's success on a blog or reality TV.

I recorded the conversation.  I typed up the conversation, then condensed to a readable style.  Spike talks smoothly, so any mistakes below were introduced by my typing.  Spike pitched the MasterCard MarketPlace Web site first, but that's part of the deal.  He works with Horton's Kids -- a nonprofit in DC that runs tutoring, mentoring and other programs for children.  Then we got to talking about Top Chef and Howard County.

Spike: The most important message that I am trying to get across today is that I have teamed up with Suntrust and Mastercard.  They donated on my behalf $5,000 to my favorite charity.  I was allowed to spend on MasterCard MarketPlace.  It's a Web site where you can get discounts from your favorite merchants, and I shopped for Christmas presents for the kids [at Horton's Kids].  Today, right after this interview, we are going to go, and Spike is going to play Santa.  I'm going to hand out these great gifts to kids who might not necessarily get the opportunity to celebrate Christmas or get any gifts.

On the Web site, you can find all kinds of holiday gifts for relatives or whoever you are shopping for.  I'd hope, actually, I have been telling everyone in these interviews that I hope that people follow my lead and log onto the Web site, buy some gifts, and send them to Horton's Kids because they can always use them.  It is an afterschool program.  They do tutoring, and they offer activities like sports and arts and crafts.  The way that I fit in is that I bring the kids in and do cooking demonstrations.  I teach them about healthy eating, fresh ingredients.

HowChow:  In terms of the shopping, can you tell us about looking on the site for tools, for tools to use in the kitchen?

Spike:  Sure, Barnes & Nobles is there.  You can buy all kinds of cookbooks.  I think one of the stores in where you can buy all kinds of foodie fun gifts.

HowChow:  On the way over, I was telling Brooklyn about two of my kitchen tools.  I love my Microplane grater.  That came out of your kind of restaurant kitchen.  And I have a mandoline, and I have never taken it out of the box.

Spike:  Oh, the mandoline is a great tool.  One of my favorite tools.

HowChow:  Why?  I need to get it out of the box.

Spike:  It kind of omits the knife if you want to get perfect julienne.  You need to be careful about your fingers, but you can shave stuff on it.  It makes things nice and consistent.

HowChow:  Anything else?  Any other tools that you have seen in restaurant kitchens that you give friends or use at home?

Spike:  The Microplane is one of my favorite tools.  It does a great job for garlic, shallots, whatever.   I also like pressure cookers.  You can cook something in 45 minutes that would normally take a couple of hours.  There are a lot of restaurants that use pressure cookers.

HowChow (to Brooklyn): Anything else you want to shop for?

Brooklyn:  I'm eating chicken nuggets.

HowChow (to Spike): She has one-year-old twins.  Dinner can be handfuls of nuts.  (Short conversation about the twins.)

HowChow:  Okay, Top Chef.  We are both fans of the show.  Are you still a fan of the show?

Spike:  Absolutely.

HowChow:  We wanted to ask you about timing.  There are huge amounts that we don't see, so we are trying to piece together how your day went.

Spike: It takes about two and a half days to film a whole episode.  There is a lot of wrangling and sequestering that you don't see.  There is no contact with the judges.   At the Quickfire, we film the introduction.  Then, cut.  We have to sign the release forms about understanding what the challenge is.  Then we go back and do the Quickfire.  Then we have to stop to do the elimination, then we go shopping and get in trucks.

HowChow (realizing that we have found another lawyer with a cooler job):  Wait.  They make you sign release forms for each Quickfire?

Spike:  For every elimination or Quickfire.  It shows that you understand the rules.

HowChow:  Is there a lawyer on site?  This could be a new job.

Spike:  No.  I think this stuff is pre-done.

HowChow:  So the practical question is about the Quickfire.  You cook, then everyone throws their hands in the air when time is up?

Spike:  Then, cut.  We go to a room.  The crew sets and gets organized with cameras for the next shot.  Then we come back, and the judges walk through.

HowChow:  But isn't your food all cold?

Spike:  Sometimes.  They don't eat it the minute that it gets made, but they don't take that into consideration when they're judging -- the hot or cold.

Brooklyn:  Does that impact the quality of the food?

Spike:  It does, but the more experience that you are at these cooking events, you think of things that won't suffer taste or texture with time.  They're very forgiving.  The judges are experienced.  They know what is a tasty dish, what is a good dish.  Nothing is going to be dead.  If you pan-sear scallops and five minutes later Padma comes to eat them, they're not as hot as they should be, but they're still good. (Scallops good enough for Padma: Today's Catch in Columbia.)

HowChow:  Someone tried ice cream on the dessert Top Chef, and that seemed to be a failure.

Spike: A lot of people go for the ice cream, and that falls flat.

HowChow:  It is really two and a half days to film one episode?  A Quickfire is a whole day?

Spike:  A Quickfire is a day.  We film interviews.  There is a lot more content.  Judges table is sometimes four, five, six hours in the stew room.  You are stuck in that room for a chunk of time while they're deliberating.  It is intense.  It is such a recognized show that they try to make best possible decision.

HowChow:  So when they send you back and say "We are going to make our decision," you could be sitting there for half an hour?

Spike:  For hours.  They bring the winners in first.  Then you sit for three or four hours and they're bringing the losers back and forth.  The losers go up and get scolded, then they come back.  Then they go back to the judges, and they kick someone off.

Brooklyn: When you're in there, is there any discussion about who you would consider throwing under the bus?  Were you thinking about what you would say if they ask you "Who should go home?"

Spike:  Yeah.  There is some time.  I think you see that more the first time around.  I played the game pretty hardcore the first time around.  With All-Stars, I am in a different place.  I was just happy to be back and be around chefs, the show and filming.  I took a very laid back approach.  (And that's why he won Top Chef All Stars!  Oh, just kidding.  We didn't even ask for spoilers.  I just needed a break from transcribing the tape.)  As you start to dwindle down contestants, it starts to get a little nastier.  It depends on what you're there for.  A lot of chefs are there to win the $100,000.  I was the guy who saw so much opportunity after the show, to do stuff with the notoriety of being on the show.  I opened two restaurants and have a cookbook.  To me, the show was not what defines your career, the winning or the losing.  It's a cooking game show.

HowChow: The second time around, did you prepare beforehand and think about five great ideas that I could use?

Spike:  Yeah, but you can't know what the challenges are going to be.  You can't prepare.

[Conversation about Jen's elimination last week.  I can't type everything.  Spike hadn't watched the episode yet.  His sister had watched half.  Spike says he was surprised that Jen was eliminated so early because he figured she had a chance to win or at least make the finals.]

Brooklyn: One of the things that they asked Jen was whether she had tried any of the other dishes.  Is that common?  To try the other people's dishes?

Spike: I tried to taste as much as I can.

Brooklyn:  When?

Spike:  While people are cooking.  I guess we don't taste the whole dish.  I taste components, and you have an idea of what it would taste like complete.  Then after the challenge, you go back and munch and stuff.  All the interviews are done after we all know who got kicked off that day.  The interviews are done after we go back to home base.

[Conversation where I completely misunderstood Spike and thought the interviews were done after the entire season is done.   Omit that because, of course, that makes no sense.  Spike acts totally polite when I ask "Do they make you change clothes to make it look like the interviews happened on different days."  He has an answer about "continuity" and how they're wearing chefs coats.]

HowChow (thinking "We gotta get back to work soon"):  Let me ask you some specific things.  Do you know where Howard County is?

Spike:  Not really.

HowChow:  Not really? That's okay.  I moved there for a woman so I totally understand.

Spike:  Where is Howard County?

HowChow:  Half-way between here and Baltimore.

Spike: Okay, I do know where Howard County is.

HowChow:  Oh, is that because you're looking for places to expand?

Spike: Yeah.  (Laughs)  Actually, we are opening up in Baltimore.

HowChow: Really, where?

Spike: We haven't picked a location yet.

HowChow:  But half-way would be more convenient.  (Spike laughs and agrees half-way could be more convenient.  At this point, a journalist would ask what kind of restaurant or what neighborhood.  Instead, I pull out two Google maps of the area around Rte 175.  Spike, to his credit, does not slide away from the table.)  Let me show you this.  This is the intersection of I-95 and Rte 175.  This is a Shell station with spectacular tacos.

Spike (not really convinced): Yeah?

HowChow: Yeah.  Are you driving to Baltimore?

Spike:  I'm going to Baltimore.

HowChow: So this is I-95, and I swear a Shell station with great tacos.  R&R Taqueria.  You get off the highway right here.  (I did not point out the prison.  If you see Spike checking out real estate, don't mention the prison.)

Spike:  I will go.  I am a taco fiend, and I haven't found a good taco anywhere here in DC.

HowChow:  I swear, these are great tacos.  It's in a gas station, but my wife is a doctor and she is willing to go.  And if you like that, then you can consider opening in Columbia.  (Second map: Rte 175 near Dobbin and Snowden.)

Spike: Are you investing?

(Discussion of how I ended up in Howard County and how I live near a cornfield.  Spike lives on Capitol Hill near the restaurants.  He moved the DC just a few years ago to open them.)

HowChow: You can really consider this.  This is the central Columbia area.

Spike:  I will look into it on my way down there.

HowChow:  You should.  And you should really eat at the taco place.

Spike:  I will.  I have no shame.  (Shame? Wait a minute.  I didn't notice that Spike assumed that we're ashamed to eat in Howard County.  Maybe that's not what he meant.)

HowChow:  You should.  I know you haven't lived here long.  Is there any food in the suburbs that gets you out there?  (Spike shakes his head.)  So you just stay on Capitol Hill?

Spike: Yeah.

Brooklyn (moving past this Howard County diversion because we're here to talk to Spike): One last question.  Your family is mixed Greek and Jewish.  How do you spend your holidays?

Spike: Usually, it's lighting the menorah and then the next second putting the star on the Christmas tree. Actually, I am a lucky guy because I get the holidays off for cooking.  In fact, I get almost all home meals off because these two behind the desks -- my sister right there and my mother at the other one -- cook all the holiday meals.  I don't lift a spoon.  I'm grateful for that.

Spike's Mom: We were actually excited when he went to culinary school.  We thought we wouldn't have to cook a holiday again.

Spike:  That plan didn't work out so well, but we got two restaurants.

HowChow: Well, thank you very much.  We are going to need to go back to work.  And definitely check out the Shell and R&R.

If you want more Top Chef news, check out the All Top Chef site. If you want to spell Spike's last name correctly, good luck.  Between the Internet and his PR folks, I had three spellings.  I spent 15 minutes this morning re-posting and fixing Twitter and Facebook posts.  I'm only 80% sure it is right now.


Tom Coale (HCR) said...

Great interview. Very funny.

theminx said...

Great interview!

By "Actually, we are opening up in Baltimore," I think he must be referring to a Good Stuff Eatery. And I think the "no shame" comment probably refers to eating at a gas station. :)

Michelle from MD said...

LOVE this interview!!! I look forward to reading your blog every day (even though you don't post every day, but how could you, that would make it a full-time job for you).

cdolist.sysop said...

this is a fascinating interview, especially since i have never seen this show 'top chef' and have no idea what 90% of the discussion is about. this gave reading it a very surrealistic vibe.

the thing that tickles me is trying to figure out how you came to link your friends name 'brooklyn' to my obscure, incomplete shadow banking website that currently gets about 10 hits in a day.

i mean, do you realize you are the first person to ever link to me, in the 5+ months ive been up? thank you.

EastCoastMatt said...

hot diggity. a baltimore spike restaurant. can't wait!

Sharon Rudd said...

Terrific interview, and you got some good Top Chef behind-the-scenes dish from Spike. Thanks!

Sandy said...

Enjoyed this column!!

Penny said...

Great Interview! I am an avid watcher of Top Chef and this is really fascinating. I hope he checked out the R&R tacos, and I hope he opens something in Howard County. That would be awesome.

Also, love the new look.