Spike Mendelsohn may feel like flogging himself with a greasy meat spatula for speaking his mind in a public forum and daring to imply that he’s a “big fish in a small pond,” but here’s the bottom line: He’s correct, or mostly correct, on both counts.
Naturally, Mendelsohn’s comment has stirred the pigeons in Washington, where a few in the food community have called him a “media-driven, propped-up, culinary version of Britney Spears and blasted him for his “astoundingly egotistical décor” at We, the Pizza. The gastroscenti, of course, are just doing what comes naturally in a town with a long history of suffering outsider barbs directed at their food choices: They’re fulminating and fighting back. Believe me, I understand.
But I think this case is different. The man behind Good Stuff Eatery expresses love and respect for a city that he simultaneously disses for its past sins. (That position, by the way, is quite common among even the most respected restaurateurs in town.) What trips up the foodie elite are two things: One, that Mendelsohn had the temerity to label himself a “big fish” and, two, that he described Washington as both a “second-tier city” and a “small pond.”In this context, he was strictly talking about the District’s culinary bona fides.
Let’s try to examine those remarks with some dispassion. First of all, the former “Top Chef”competitor is one of the most recognizable chefs in Washington. You may not like that. You may think his culinary talent hovers somewhere just north of the midnight-shift griddle cook at IHOP, but you cannot deny that Mendelsohn is a star. He’s appeared on “Top Chef” twice. He has published a cookbook. He’s a regular on the morning news shows. If you asked 1,000 random citizens of the United States to identify a D.C. chef, I suspect many would name Spike Mendelsohn before Michel Richard or Frank Ruta or Johnny Monis. In terms of sheer national popularity, and access to White House power, Mendelsohn is a big fish. We all must live with that.
Second, Washington is not New York City or San Francisco or Chicago. Yes, Big Apple chefs have been more than happy to storm our city and take our money, but Washington, in certain critical areas, still lacks critical mass. Our bread culture remains terrible: Just try to find a good bagel or baguette in this city. And where are all the quality fishmongers? Have you ever tried to find a decent breakfast spot in Washington that didn’t involve a hotel or a weekend brunch? Where are the tasty late-night eats — particularly during the weekdays? And most damning of all: We have next to no culinary history or traditions. Sure, we have a little of all of these things, but you often need a federal marshal, a GPS system and infinite patience to unearth them.
The problem with Mendelsohn’s quote, I think, is the phrasing: “Second-tier” carries the same connotations as “second-rate.” Washington is not second-rate — not by a long shot. We have great chefs. We have great restaurants. We have a great shot of becoming a first-tier city, but we are not at present. But neither are we a “small pond,” despite our sometimes annoying habit to act like a small town.
But just to check my opinion on this, I talked to four prominent chefs and/or restaurateurs in town to get their take. None of them considered Washington a “second-tier” food city, but conversely only one of them actually thought of the District as “first tier.” Take a look:
Ashok Bajaj: The restaurateur behind Rasika, the Oval Room and Bibiana bristled at the term “second-tier.” “We’re not New York and we’re not San Francisco,” countered Bajaj, but “we’re emerging as one of the first-tier cities.” Washington’s main problem with reaching the pinnacle, he thinks, is sheer density; the city doesn’t have millions of people living in a tight, confined area, like in Manhattan.
Mark Bucher of the BGR: The Burger Joint empire and Medium Rare: “I don’t know if I’d call [Washington] a second-tier city. I’d call it different [from a first-tier city]. Just like I’d call Las Vegas different.”
Jamie Leeds of Hank’s Oyster Bar: “Five or six years ago, I might have agreed with D.C. being a second-tier city. I don’t agree with that anymore...I think it’s a first-tier city.”
Michael Landrum of the Ray’s empire: “I think D.C. is a wonderful, powerful market, but not as deep and wide as other markets.”