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Former 'Top Chef' Contender Unpacks His Knives in D.C.

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

His latest challenge is to deal with a health inspector who has arrived four hours early.

Wearing orange Crocs, a reddish brambly beard on his face, the signature fedora forsaken for a more work-appropriate bandanna, Spike Mendelsohn, a not-quite-finalist from the recently completed season of Bravo's "Top Chef," is frazzled. He springs into a white Acura sport-utility vehicle on Pennsylvania Avenue and heads to his new home on Capitol Hill to pick up a permit and photo ID.

It's a gorgeous mid-June day. Contractors shoot the breeze outside his soon-to-open restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery (303 Pennsylvania at Second Street SE, 202-543-8222, http://www.goodstuffeatery.com). A woman from a food-service equipment company sucks on a cigarette by her truck.

"If he doesn't sign a release before he leaves, Spike's rear end is going down to city hall," she rasps.

This challenge is not being filmed by a TV camera crew. Mendelsohn, 27, is not throwing together a dish. He's throwing together a franchise. Or so he hopes.

Season four of "Top Chef" is over. Mendelsohn made the top five before he was booted. (Let's not mention the waterlogged scallops that doomed him.) Sweet, apple-pie-faced Stephanie Izard won the title. Fine. She has several years of experience on Mendelsohn. But she also won the title of fan favorite on the "Top Chef" reunion show two weeks ago. That distinction maybe should've been Mendelsohn's. After all, he played the game cunningly and humorously. Is he annoyed?

"A little bit," says Mendelsohn, who moved from New York earlier this month. Then the spin: "I've gotten such great reaction from the public no matter where I go."

Including Washingtonians?

"They love that I've decided to come to D.C. From everyone I meet here, I hear, 'We need more good food here on the Hill. We need more good food in the city. We loved you on the show.' "

Nothing but plaudits, then?

"I'm sure I've shook a couple hands with people who're thinking, 'Boy, this guy's an [expletive].' "

[Expletive] or not, he's the frontman for Good Stuff, a burger-and-fries joint that will be the flagship location upon which the Mendelsohn family chefs build their restaurant business. The plan is to do a burger better than anyone, applying classical training to America's signature dish, and then expand Good Stuff to, say, Adams Morgan or Arlington. Then go national. Then Mendelsohn wants to return to gourmet fare, to do his Vietnamese tapas place, his French bistro, his trattoria.

It's all knocking around in his head, and he wanted to start the empire in the up-and-coming restaurant arena of Washington rather than the saturated, cutthroat market of New York.

"I think it is the next big food city," he says of the District, citing Michel Richard and José Andrés as chefs who have ushered in great change in the past five years. "I would like to be an ambassador of bringing young, hip restaurants here. I'm looking at D.C. as a blank canvas where I hope to practice my art form."

(A sneak peek at some of the art, consumable upon the July 7 opening: a farmhouse cheeseburger on a Pennsylvania Dutch bun for $5.89, the double-patty Big Stuff Bacon Meltdown for $7.69, country fries seasoned with rosemary and thyme for $2.79 and a toasted marshmallow milkshake made with house-made ice cream for $5.25.)

"What I'm taking away is it's much more of a restaurateur project for me," Mendelsohn says. "It's not a chefy-chefy kitchen where you're there at 7 a.m. slaving over sauces. It's a little more of a corporate world for me. I'm with my family, but there's so much to learn with opening something like this."

The restaurant is sleek, even though things are distressed to exude a farmhouse feel. The wood floors are distressed. The zinc countertops will be washed with acid so they look distressed.

Mendelsohn doesn't look distressed. Just busy. Out the door to get the permit. In the door to debate fryer temperatures with his mother, the red-haired Catherine Mendelsohn ("You want fries with that?," she mugs from behind the counter), who with her husband, "Big Harv" Mendelsohn, has managed restaurants from Montreal to Florida.

"Perfectly charming people," says neighbor James Nash, co-owner of Zack's Taverna. "I saw the episode where Spike made boxed lunches, so I'm excited about his food." (The $10 Lunch Bag Special will get you a farmhouse burger, hand-cut fries and a fountain soda.)

On this aforementioned gorgeous June day, the restaurant is not finished. The flat-screen TVs are in; the giant plastic cowbell chandelier contraption is not. Mendelsohn's sister, Micheline, director of marketing for Good Stuff, announces some good news.

"We just passed the health inspection," she says.

Another hurdle cleared in a challenge that has been more complicated than any on "Top Chef."

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