Meet the MISFITs: Spike Mendelsohn / by Ann Yang

Spike Mendelsohn: hero of the good food movement, restaurateur, policy-shaker, river surfer. He founded Good Stuff Eatery, and, last year, Chef Spike was named the inaugural Chairman of the D.C. Food Policy Council, the first of its kind in the US.  We chatted with Chef Spike about his unforgettable chili at Feeding the 5,000, why policy changes matter, and his love of river surfing.

Please break down your inspiration behind the beef heart chili at Feeding the 5,000? It was incredible.

Thanks so much.  Yeah, I had an amazing time at the event.  It was so great to see so many people volunteering for such a great cause and spreading awareness about such an important issue.  For the chili, I really wanted to be creative and show that we don’t always use all of the parts of the animal, and that there are vegetables that we can use that people don’t necessarily know about.   So cooking a chili from beef heart was something that I thought would be fun and interesting and educational and a great way to showcase how to use different parts of the cow.  That’s kind of where the inspiration came from.  At Good Stuff we make lots and lots of chili so that’s where I drew from. 

What were your impressions from Feeding the 5,000 D.C.? What surprised you, what challenged you, and what was the most enjoyable?

What I really loved about the event was that it celebrated the idea of helping out and feeding people as well as keeping in mind that we waste a lot of our food, about 40% of the food that’s produced.  There’s a lot of great produce that’s out there that’s recovered that makes a really great meal.  So for me the whole day was great because there was media, lots of people, we had some really great chefs like José Andrés—it was just a great day of awareness.  D.C. Central Kitchen feeds 5,000 people everyday with their programs, and never do we really celebrate them and what they do, so I just love how Feeding the 5,000 helped raise awareness on food recovery, food waste, and giving people a great meal, so that’s really what I enjoyed the most. 

Chef José Andrés (Think Food Group), Tristram Stuart (Feedback) & Chef Spike finish up the last of the paella at Feeding the 5,000 D.C.

Chef José Andrés (Think Food Group), Tristram Stuart (Feedback) & Chef Spike finish up the last of the paella at Feeding the 5,000 D.C.

How has your family shaped your experience of food?

We always had a home-cooked meal on our dinner table so for me so for me it was never really fast food nation on my dinner table, it was always my mother cooking a great meal.  We’d all sit around the table and eat together.  Ever since then I’ve been eternally grateful for a shared meal and cooking.  I think it’s great when people cook for friends or family, whoever you cook for, I think it always great to bring people together and have a great meal, you share great food and great conversation.  My family has been big time in the restaurant business ever since I was a little child.  I watched them, was in the kitchen, and they were a huge part of my career. 

Having been around the food industry from a young age, in what ways have you infused your personality into traditions you’ve inherited, at Good Stuff, We the Pizza, Bearnaise, in DC at least? 

I have been in the restaurant business since I was very, very young, so most people would be jaded by my age now.  But I think if I were able to identify one of the most defining points of my career, then awkwardly enough it would be my experiences as a young chef. I travelled around the world, visited the best restaurants. There was a point that fast casual wasn’t as big as it is now but I became really interested in the concept.  Instead of opening a restaurant like everyone else had done, I decided to develop a fast casual restaurant offering a really good price point and just the kind of common food that everyone is used to, but that’s the kind of food in the fast food industry, like MacDonald’s and Burger King, but making it better.  We source better ingredients that are local.  I think that was a defining moment because in 2008 not everyone was starting a fast-casual restaurant, and now in 2015 there are all different sorts and types of fast-casual restaurants.  That was an important moment for me. 

What do you make of D.C. fast-casual scene? What sets (or doesn’t set) D.C.’s food community apart from other cities?

I think what sets D.C. apart as a food scene is first we have all sorts of great chefs.  We have chefs that pioneered the restaurant scene like Michel Richard and José Andrés, just to name a few.  I think the fast-casual scene is huge in D.C. because it’s such a transient city, so that attracts a greater market for fast-casual. 

I think what makes D.C. different as far as the food scene is that we do a lot of food policy in D.C. All of the big things in policy happen on the Hill, we lobby Congress, and for chefs it’s very important to get involved in their community, to get involved in these initiatives, and really have that part of your restaurant group or your company.  It’s really important, and it’s really important to be conscious of where we source our food from, our farmers, what hurdles we can reduce to make it easier for farmers to grow food—the whole structure of food policy is very based in grassroots advocacy.  That combined with chefs, great food, and a great city is what puts D.C. in our own category. 

"It’s really important to be conscious of where we source our food from, our farmers, what hurdles we can reduce to make it easier for farmers to grow food—the whole structure of food policy is very based in grassroots advocacy." 

We were so excited to learn last year that a new D.C. Food Policy Council would be established.  What does it mean to you to be spearheading this effort and how can D.C. build a better food system?

First of all I’m honored to have the opportunity to chair the Food Policy Council.  It came a little bit out of nowhere for me so I had a lot of catching up to do as far as policy is concerned. The great thing is that D.C. already has a lot of stuff going on that no one was taking credit for or really making it known and loud, like having these events like Feeding the 5,000 or what have you.  For us, it’s very exciting, and the major piece of the legislation that were concentrating on is sustainable agriculture, urban farming development, jobs, and then the really important one, while they’re all important, is food access, food deserts, and education.  So with those four working groups and the thirteen members that make up the council, we have a lot of opportunities. 

The greatest part of it is that we have the backing of the government, as it’s a piece of legislation, honored by the Mayor.  It has the full support of some really important people who do care about our food system.  It’s about identifying the hurdles that make up the difficult parts of the food system and working together on breaking those hurdles down and making it easier to reform our entire food system.  So that’s really, really great.  The future of food policy in D.C. can set the standards for other food policy councils across the nation.  I think we could be looked at as a role model and a leader in this space, especially working towards food access.

"The future of food policy in D.C. can set the standards for other food policy councils across the nation." 

We can also build off existing work that’s been done like the Emerson Act, that Bill Clinton pushed—way ahead of his time—to reduce barriers to donating food.  I think we need to look critically at food policy we already have in place to identify positive aspects while also recognizing ways we could change our food system.  I think it’s really interesting that we have a piece of legislation out right now on food waste and it clearly spells out that you will be protected if you donate food under all circumstances. 

That’s awesome.  As a chef heading up this food council, I’m curious what you think of our respective roles as chefs, government, and consumers?  

I think the role of government is to help inspire innovation within our food system.  This is very helpful with grants and backing of creative ways to fix it.  That’s really important for government to do that part as far as that’s concerned.  As chefs, it’s important that we act as advocates on behalf of food.  We respect food within our businesses, we buy from farmers, we store the food in our own restaurants, we prepare it properly, we wash it, after we prepare it we store it again to ensure that it stays, and then we serve it and sell it.  To us, if anything goes to waste in our kitchen, you’re throwing money into the garbage.  Also, the other part of it is that the consumers really trust the chefs and the restaurant that they’re going to.

So when we’re out their advocating, we are the most trusted voices.  Chefs already realize that, and we’re realizing it even more.  Every time I do an event, or every time I’m lobbying Congress, I share my firsthand experiences as a chef—that can help communicate the story of food, so that’s really cool.

Speaking to that point how chefs can be the primary advocates for better food policy given their experience in the kitchen and how food is essential for all of the work that you do, how have you tried to reduce food waste within your restaurants? How did you conceive of making a veggie burger out of pulp?

Like I said, at our restaurants, we always do what we can to not waste any food so we’ve built this into our DNA, in our system.  What we can do as chefs, is we can help promote the idea of serving appropriate portions, not going too crazy, and pricing them appropriately.  We can also help by offering to-go containers so people can bring their food home if they don’t finish their meal, so they can repurpose it for another meal or what have you, so it doesn’t go to waste.  We can also be working with different groups like I have been with the veggie burger, and we come up with a couple of items on our menu that are made up of redistributed food, or repurposed food, or things that used in a different way. 

So for example, the veggie pulp, the pulp we get from making our juice, would normally go to waste.  So the idea of taking the pulp and mixing it with some faro that I have from another dish in my restaurant and mixing up Worcestershire sauce, and other ingredients, to make a delicious veggie burger, that’s full of protein, that’s a very repurposed kind of waste that would go into the garbage.  For a chef, that’s great for the food costs.  At our restaurant for every beet juice we sell we get three veggie burgers out of it.  Just thinking out of the box and being aware. 

I also think that the biggest thing is that for us it’s very easy as chefs to say, "Hey you guys need to cook more, for your friends, your family", but we also forget that cooking can be really daunting to people.  We’re so used to it because we do it every single day but it can be really, really daunting to people.  So also doing more cooking lessons and showing people how to cook is also really greats and affects food waste because if more people are educated on how cook, less people will be afraid to cook, so they’ll use the raw ingredients, repurpose them and cook more. 

That’s awesome. The veggie pulp question definitely speaks to us. Our last question is kind of a ringer in here. We see that you’re really into river surfing and we were curious to know how that came about?

I don’t love the gym but I do enjoying surfing a lot, and by surfing I mean with beaches and warm water.  The unfortunate part is that we don’t really have a beach here.  We’re a good two and a half hours drive from a beach but we do have the beautiful Great Falls in Virginia.  I’ve met up with a couple of crew members; we have a crew of about twelve guys out there.  It got started by some local guys in D.C. Yeah, I mean we put wetsuits on and lifejackets and helmets and we go into the river, and we go into the waves, and we have lots of fun.  I’ll tell you, it’s one of the most thrilling sports I’ve ever done.  It uses absolutely every part of your body—you have to have balance, you struggle, and then when you get kicked off your board, or have to paddle out from the river, and it’s intense but it’s a lot of fun.  I do it in early the morning to get the day going.

That’s a pretty intense start to your morning.  I think most people would settle for a coffee and a crossword but that’s awesome, man. 

It’s all that veggie pulp—it’s really, really great.