Chef on Call

A Saucy Substitution Proves He's Worthy

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 22, 2008; Page F01

We had the best of intentions. For this month's Chef on Call lesson, we first solicited the help of a longtime area cooking teacher. But a family crisis translated into a last-minute cancellation, which is how it came to be that our student learned the fundamentals of Vietnamese cooking from a Canadian guy who fled the restaurant scene of New York in 2008 instead of from a Vietnamese woman who fled the fall of Saigon in 1975.

As it turns out, student Ophira Bansal got more than she bargained for.

Bansal, 32, had asked for help with Vietnamese food because it is the one cuisine beyond Indian about which she and her husband, a vegetarian, can agree. But when she tries to re-create restaurant dishes, the tastes just aren't the same. "It is the sauces that make or, in my case, break the dish," she wrote in an e-mail.

When our initial teacher had to back out, we turned to Spike Mendelsohn, best known for his turn on Bravo's "Top Chef," where last season he made it to the top five. But Bansal got another chef, too. Mendelsohn, 27, brought along Mike Colletti, 25, his best friend and business partner at Good Stuff Eatery, a burger joint they opened on Capitol Hill in July. Think of them as a culinary Abbott and Costello: One is a tall, slight smooth talker in a fedora, the other a shorter, more robust Jersey guy with a baseball cap and some bling around the neck.

For them it's burgers these days, but they also have Vietnamese cooking chops. Before opening Good Stuff, Mendelsohn and Colletti worked together at Drew Nieporent's Mai House, and both have gone on long pilgrimages to Vietnam. Mendelsohn was first, taking four months to sojourn through the country top to bottom after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 2005.

"I fell in love with the ingredients, the culture, the food," he said. After Mendelsohn turned Colletti on to the joys of the cuisine (it was a bite of a banh mi sandwich that did it), Colletti went on two month-long trips of his own.

Mendelsohn considers the banh mi a perfect example of the flavor profile of Vietnamese cooking: herbaceous, spicy, fatty, sweet, sour. "The Vietnamese took in all the Asian and French influences, kept what was good and got rid of the bad," he said.

Within hours of receiving the frantic, last-minute Chef on Call request, and as if it were a "Top Chef" elimination challenge, Mendelsohn submitted menu suggestions such as rockfish with parsnip puree and green curry.

But Bansal, wanting dishes to appeal to not just her husband but also her toddler, found those too exotic and steered him toward more basic fare.

"Who doesn't like spring rolls?" she wondered. "I'm intrigued by clay pot cooking, and I'd like to make a caramelized anything and a lemon grass something." She wanted to learn how to use various ingredients to prepare dishes in which she could substitute vegetables for meat. Her husband, Rajeev, 42, isn't the only vegetarian; so is Rohan, 2 1/2 .

She got the menu she wanted: green papaya salad with lime dressing, vegetarian summer rolls, a caramelized lemon grass chicken stir-fry and clay pot prawns.

The lesson took place on an oppressively humid late-summer day in the family's small apartment kitchen in a Massachusetts Avenue mega-building near American University. But Bansal, who is expecting another child in the spring, still found cooking a welcome respite from potty training a toddler. Mendelsohn did most of the talking and cooking with Bansal by his side, while Colletti acted as sous-chef, washing, peeling, chopping, slicing, dicing, shredding, blanching and cubing next to them.

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