Executive Insights | April 2011 | By Blair Chancey

Boy Wonder: Spike Mendelsohn

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Top Chef Spike Mendelsohn is getting into the quick serve world.
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“People are back to comfort foods,” he says. “We took too many steps in the wrong direction with our food culture. We got a little too chic with food. Food is so great; you don’t want to mess with it too much.”

It’s with that in mind that Mendelsohn, Lacayo, and Colletti created We’s menu. Of course, there are basics like cheese and pepperoni, but the real attention-getters are the ones that make it obvious there’s a chef behind the counter. Only someone trained in France would use bechamel on a pizza, after all. But even without having worked in a Three-Michelin-Star New York restaurant, consumers can figure out the menuboard pretty easily, and no pizza has more than a handful of ingredients, a fact that keeps the menu from becoming cluttered and consumers from getting bogged down in gourmet speak. Other culinary adventures include the Salami Pie with Bianco di Oro Salami and the Forest Shroomi’n Pie with truffles and fresh thyme.

Mendelsohn is confident that he’s offering what consumers want—a familiar food with a focus on gourmet ingredients in a laid-back restaurant for a good price. “There are guys out there who would take all the flavors on this slice and give you a little tasting portion with foam on it. Well, congratulations on your cheddar foam, but you’re not going to feel satisfaction from eating that. We got too smart with foods.”

The most frou-frou thing on We’s menu is its series of specialty sodas, which outsell the restaurant’s traditional fountain drinks despite being more expensive. With names ranging from cute (I’ve Got an Orange Crush on You) to the Wu-Tang-Clan-inspired (C.R.E.A.M. Soda), the 13 soda varieties Mendelsohn created are made with fresh Italian soda, fruit purees, and fresh herbs for $3 each.

“They’re really unique and special,” he says of the drinks. “It’s always about educating people and showing them new flavor combinations, and the beverages are a great example. You have a basic beverage fountain, but we also offer fresh sodas against it.”

While Mendelsohn only touches on the woes of the high fructose corn syrup found in traditional sodas, his real concern is focused on “the food mafia.” In layman’s terms: large fast food companies. “They have such control over the markets and the supply and demand. It’s hard to go up against them,” he says. “It’s crazy to think about how huge these companies are. It’s why we’re faced with such a problem with obesity in America.”

In an effort to pull Americans, specifically those living in D.C., out of their fast food “rut,” the young chef is working at local schools to educate students and parents on proper nutrition and meal prep. The activities are part of the Chefs Move to Schools program championed by the First Lady under her anti-obesity campaign, “Let’s Move!”

“It’s always about educating people and showing them new flavor combinations.”

“When I first moved here, I came from New York City and didn’t really have a cause,” Mendelsohn says. “But moving to D.C. was a reality check. We started having all these young customers who all had causes and initiatives. Before you know it, I was getting inspired by the clientele.”

Mendelsohn also helps maintain a rooftop garden at a charter school in the area—another sign that he’s motivated more by his connection to Gen Y culture than his culinary pedigree. “You see a lot more chefs involved in that today because it’s so important,” he says.

Although it’s true that Mendelsohn is the archetypal hot, young chef for the Me Generation, he is not the first to break from the culinary establishment and venture into the world of quick service. Nearly 20 years ago, another young graduate of the Culinary Institute of America was working as a sous chef for the famous Jeremiah Tower and decided to start a burrito concept with a handful of menu items and a focus on local ingredients and humanely raised proteins. Chipotle is now a 1,000-unit international brand and its founder, Steve Ells, is an ihndustry icon.

What really sets this new breed of chefs apart from trailblazers like Ells, however, is not their interest in quick service or local ingredients, it’s how they approach the restaurant business in general.

“I know the value of doing Top Chef,” Mendelsohn says frankly. He also knows the value of Twitter, Facebook, book deals, and lots of press. In fact, just as our interview was ending, a photographer from the newspaper Politico came to repeat the process all over again.

Mendelsohn represents a new kind of chef, one that we’ll likely see more of over the next decade. He doesn’t look like what we’re used to. He works with the White House, tweets in his spare time, competes on reality TV, and isn’t interested in opening the country’s next fine-dining establishment—especially if there’s any talk of foam on the menu.

What he wants is a slow and steady expansion of his own brands. First, it will be Good Stuff Eatery, the burger franchise, which will move into Chicago this year as well as a few other D.C.-metro locations. There will also be the addition of a food truck called Sixth & Rye in D.C.

“We’re basing our expansion on finding people we want to work with,” he says. “We don’t have exact states. We want to work with people who emulate what we’re about as a company.”

After talking to Mendelsohn, it comes as little surprise that he wants to buck traditional thinking when it comes to even the logistics of his expansion.

Mendelsohn is not like the chefs we are familiar with. He’s young, talented, plugged in, and most of all, hungry.

 

For more Top Chef reading, go to QSR's exclusive interview with this season's winner, Richard Blais, here.

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