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December 15, 2010

My Chat with Top Chef All Stars' Spike Mendelsohn

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking with Chef Spike Mendelsohn, the famed fedora-donning celebrity chef from Top Chef Season 4 and the current Top Chef All Stars. His resume is impressive to say the least. He was trained in classic French cuisine, received the highest honors one can get at the Culinary Institute of America and has worked in world-renowned restaurants (that I will probably never get into) such as Les Crayeres, Bouchon and Le Cirque. He has studied on a culinary adventure in Vietnam and has worked with some of the best chefs in the world. Needless to say, I’m jealous. DC is lucky that we have not one, but two of Spike’s restaurants- Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza.

Chef Spike was kind enough to speak with me regarding some of his latest adventures and projects including teaming up with Mastercard and Suntrust for a donation to his favorite charity, Horton's Kids which provides tutoring, mentoring and support to children in DC.

DDC: Can I get your thoughts on the current season of Top Chef All Stars- how it's going and how is it different from your first Top Chef experience?

Chef Spike: My first experience I didn't have anything to lose. I was a kitchen rat and had a good resume. I was just myself. This time around, I've had opportunities with cookbooks, events, charities, and restaurants. Now I'm representing more than just myself. I have a more laid back approach.

DDC: What are your thoughts about the last episode of Top Chef All Stars with Jen leaving and the drama of Jamie's finger cut?

Chef Spike: The finger cut, yeah. We've all cut ourselves in the kitchen. Definitely wasn't warranted to be rushed off to the hospital. I was really disappointed in Jamie. She put the extra work on Jen. I thought it was weak. I mean they were on the other team so I was laughing it up but I thought it was weak. On Jen leaving- We were all surprised. It just shows the intensity and how competitive it is. Any one of us could be sent home at any time over a couple granules of salt or something.

DDC: Anything you can share about the next episode?

Chef Spike: All I can really share is it definitely should be one of the all-time best quick fires.

DDC: I want to touch on some memories from Top Chef Season 4. Are there any fun things that happened and didn't make the episodes that aired?

Chef Spike: I remember we were playing cards one night and Antonia wouldn’t show us her hand so we dragged her around on the floor. It was a long time ago, but we had a lot of fun, silly moments.

DDC: What’s your favorite dish you ever made on Top Chef?

Chef Spike: Butternut squash soup for the Improv on Season 4- definitely. I also loved having the opportunity to remake the scallop dish the way it should be and got a shout-out from Bourdain. That was pretty amazing!

DDC: Can you tell me a little more about teaming up with Mastercard and Suntrust for their Marketplace to support your favorite charity?

Chef Spike: They donated $5,000 on my behalf that will go to buy gifts from the marketplace for Horton's Kids in Anacostia. It's for all Mastercard holders. [You get] free access to hundreds of discounts and it’s great for last minute online shopping for the holidays. You can also use it to donate to charity directly if you wanted to donate to Horton's Kids.

DDC: That’s awesome! It’s great that they donated to the children and that people can log on and easily do the same.

Chef Spike: Yeah, It’s going to be great. I’m going today to hand out gifts to them.

DDC: For people doing last minute shopping, do you have any favorite retailers or gifts on there?

Chef Spike: Omaha Steaks is great. You can donate them to a charity or send as a gift. Barnes & Noble is also on there (which carries my cookbook, too.)

DDC: Speaking of holidays, do you and your family have any Holiday traditions or holiday food traditions?

Chef Spike: We change it up every year in my family. This year we are going to Puerto Rico. Maybe I'll do some traditional Puerto Rican food or maybe roast a pig or something. Who knows!

DDC: That’s awesome. Way to do the holidays in style! For those of us not lucky enough to go to Puerto Rico, do you have any holiday tips?

Chef Spike: Ha, yeah. I’d just say keep it simple, easy and comfortable. It's all about being with family. We will get together and do a lot of comfort food- mac n' cheese, turkey, cornbread, mashed potatoes. It’s all about comfort.

DDC: Do you have any special Holiday additions to menus at your restaurants?

Chef Spike: Well, not really. I mean, it’s pizza and burgers. We just celebrate by being festive, but we do have an Eggnog milkshake.

DDC: That sounds awesome. I assume that's the non-adult version?

Chef Spike: ha, yeah, non-adult, although if you want an adult version I suppose you can ask a certain way, haha.

DDC: Ok, one more thing I have to ask, how many fedoras do you own?

Chef Spike: Hmm, I'd say about 65. Yeah, 65. I've been giving a bunch away lately.

DDC: Do you get a lot as gifts?

Chef Spike: Yeah, people do send me fedoras a lot. I'm the guy that wears the hat.

DDC: Thank you so much for your time and sharing with Devouring DC Readers. Be sure to let me know if you ever open a place in the Bay area!

Chef Spike: Definitely! I love San Francisco. Definitely get brunch at Mama's on the waterfront. Monte Cristo with jam. The best brunch!

(FYI- I will be going there first chance I get!)

Be sure to watch Chef Spike on Top Chef All Stars tonight at 10/9c on Bravo. Below is more information on the Mastercard/Suntrust Marketplace, Spike’s Restaurants and Horton’s Kids.
Last but not least- Happy Birthday Spike! Hope you have a great day, great holiday season and a Happy New Year. Best of luck on Top Chef!

Mastercard/Suntrust Marketplace- click here.

Horton's Kids
110 Maryland Avenue, NE Suite 207
Washington, DC 20002

Good Stuff Eatery
303 Pennsylvania Ave S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003

We, The Pizza
305 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Washington, DC 20003

Road Trip America, Final Destination

We made it! Ok, we made it on Friday but haven’t had our cable and internet hooked up so had to leave you hanging for a few days.

The morning of departure from Lake Havasu we were planning to go take pictures of the London Bridge and continue our drive all the way to San Jose for a pit stop to see some friends and then the extra half hour to San Bruno, our final destination. When we got up, though, we just wanted to get going. The trip had finally taken its toll. We skipped the London Bridge pictures, although we drove past it so still saw it.

The trip seems to have taken its toll on the dogs as well. Lelu declared that she’d “had it” and kept trying to crawl over the front seat. This went on approximately every 10 minutes for the entire 10 hour drive.

We didn’t make any more sight-seeing stops along the way, but I followed along on the Roadside America app to see what oddities were out there. There were some interesting things. Out in the Mojave desert area, there were an abundance of alien-related stops. People building weird chambers and houses in the shape of spaceships type of thing. There was the last gas station James Dean stopped at before his fatal car accident as well as a memorial at the sight of his accident. There are small wild-west towns with donkeys roaming the unpaved streets and little old motels that have been in business for 60 or more years.

We started at a lake in red mountains, passed through the Mojave desert, then to more flat land similar to Texas, then lush, rolling hills that looked like Italy. We did stop for some food along the way, but couldn’t find any cool mom-and-pop places. It was pretty desolate. Sadly, our choices were rest-stop Pizza Hut, Taco Bell or Carl’s Jr. So, we got incredibly sloppy burgers from Carl’s Jr. and gas station snacks. Yum?

We met our friends in San Jose and introduced our dogs. It went better than expected, until Lelu’s patience wore out. We got to San Bruno around 9:30pm and crashed at our new, empty house. Now, for the furniture to arrive…

December 9, 2010

Road Trip America, Pit Stop #5: Lake Havasu via the Grand Canyon

Today is the second to last day of our cross-country journey and we started it off with the sight we were most looking forward to seeing- the Grand Canyon. 

We drove about an hour up the long two-lane road to the main parking area.  We grabbed the dogs and started walking towards the first viewing area.  As we approached the rim, we both looked at each other with the "you've gotta be kidding me" expressions on our faces.  I knew the Grand Canyon would be big and I knew it would be beautiful, but there are no words to describe just how big and beautiful it really is.  You see pictures, you see it on tv, but there is absolutely nothing like seeing this in person.  It's breathtaking.

We hopped in the car and hit a 7 mile stretch of road leading to half a dozen different view points.  Each vista was more jaw-dropping than the next.  We overheard an old tour guide saying it was 3000 feet down to this one trail we could see on a plateau and then another 1000 feet down to the river from that.  We saw donkeys on a trail way below us but they looked like ants.  I also heard the guide point out this semicircle rock formation they call the ampitheatre.  He said if it were an ampitheatre, it would seat half a million people!  That's just ridiculous.  I enjoyed eavesdropping on this elderly tour group.

After about two-and-a-half hours of taking in the sights we were on our way back down to towards Grand Canyon village to grab some lunch.  We stopped at a place with no name.  It just said "Internet, Espresso, Sandwiches, Gifts."  Ok.  Great name.  I decided I love this little cafe.  It had computers, great books, souvenirs and a coffee/sandwich shop.  It had the charm of a family owned business.  The woman actually made a pretty mean vanilla latte.  I got a turkey sandwich on sourdough and I have to say, it was better than I expected.  We haven't had a lot of fresh food lately so something as simple as a turkey sandwich on super soft sourdough really made me happy.

We got back on the highway and drove another 4-ish hours to Lake Havasu, AZ, on the border of Arizona and California.  It was beautiful driving into this city with the sun setting behind massive rock formations.  Once again, we were exhausted after a long day so asked for a local delivery and got a pizza.  We ordered a pepperoni and meatball pizza from Rosati's.  I was confused about their crust options- thin, Chicago, double crust or pan.  Their pan crust sounded thicker than the double crust (which they say they invented.)  We ordered the double crust, and it was incredibly thick.  I can't imagine what the pan pizza is like.  It was really heavy, but pretty good.  The meatballs were well seasoned and the sauce was good, although hot as lava.

I'm stuffed and tired, but looking forward to tomorrow.  Tomorrow we see the London Bridge-yes, the London Bridge.  It was brought over piece by piece and rebuilt, now standing here in Lake Havasu.  We saw it on the way in- it was lit up with Christmas lights.  We're going to get a better look in the morning and then back on the road.  Maybe we'll hit some more of old Route 66 on our way up to San Jose and then our final destination of the trip- our new home in San Bruno.

Road Trip America, Pit Stop #4: Flagstaff via New Mexico and the Meteor Crater

Yesterday was a long travel day of about 10 hours.  We got up early and left the hotel without breakfast in the hopes that we could make it to the Meteor Crater in Winslow, AZ before they close at 5pm while still seeing other sights along the way.  I watched Starman about 150 times when I was a kid so I was determined to get to this crater.

Luckily, the other attraction we wanted to see was just 3 miles from our hotel in Amarillo.  Just off the highway is Cadillac Ranch- a bunch of old Cadillacs buried nose down in a field by an eccentric billionaire.  These cars have become an iconic image of Route 66.  It was a beautiful, sunny morning and perfect for hiking out into the field dodging cows (and more importantly cow pies) to take photos of spray-painted cars.  There were paint cans all over the field from tourists coming to tag the art (which is apparently encouraged.) 

We got back on the road and continued the long drive on the open road through New Mexico.  This is quite possibly the straightest, longest road in the world.  Thankfully they increase the speed limit to 75, but it's so open and straight it feels like you're going 40.  We entertained ourselves with more comedy albums and cruised through to Albequerque.  Sadly, there isn't much to report as far as food goes.  I never realized how difficult it can be to eat on the road.  The location we stopped in Albequerque didn't have much that we could easily grab for the road so we resorted to Quiznos. Yuck. I know if we had more time we could've found some great grub but we were on the clock to get to the crater.

A couple hours later, we arrived at the turn for the crater.  As we drove 6 miles down a quiet road in the we saw signs to turn to AM1610 for crater info (along with signs to watch for cattle. The crater property is privately owned and they have cows everywhere, with no fence keeping them from the road.)  We were quite entertained with the crater radio.  The voice on the radio, who I will refer to as "crater man" was very dramatic and enthusiastic.  We burst into laughter as he announced "EXPERIENCE THE IMPACT!"  We got to the site and hiked up the steps to the viewing platform.  We forgot that we come from 340 feet above sea level and this is at 6000 so we were gasping for breath.  All I can say is that it's awesome.  It really is a beautiful and impressive sight.  It's definitely worth the stop.

After the crater we continued on to Flagstaff to the hotel.  (By the way, I highly recommend Spring Hill Suites if you're visiting that area.)  We were pretty exhausted by the time we got in so looked for dinner that we could bring back to the room.  We found a place up the road called Buster's.  I'm pretty sure it's a chain, but it wasn't bad.  We got steaks and baked potatoes.  The steaks were cooked perfectly, but the potatoes were not.  I could tell they were microwaved, but I didn't care.  The meal got the job done.  We were all pretty beat (dogs included) so made it a lazy night and planned our next leg of the journey.

Today we're off to the Grand Canyon then Lake Havasu.  Hopefully we'll find a good dive along the way.

December 7, 2010

Road Trip America, Pit Stop #3- Oklahoma

Today we got up early in Fort Smith, Arkansas and crossed the bridge into Oklahoma.  Miles and miles of quiet highway with small, quiet forgotten towns were speckled along the way.

Our first stop was to see the Oklahoma City Memorial.  It was a pretty dreary, cold and gray day today.  We discovered Oklahoma City is pretty industrial and quiet.  We were able to park right across the street from the memorial.  The memorial is quite beautiful and moving, remembering those lost in the horrific bombings of the Murrah building back in 2005.  There is still a partial wall of the original structure with the steel rods exposed set against the backdrop of a field of empty chairs and reflecting pool that looks smooth as ice.  The memorial is bookended by two towering structures.  It is a beautiful reminder of a sad event in American history.  I was particularly moved by the smaller chairs next to the others and the Christmas wreaths hanging from each one.

After the memorial, we continued to pass through town on the way to Amarillo.  Through the rest of Oklahoma and into Texas it was long stretches of road with not much to offer the eye but cows and windmills.  We stopped for lunch at a little cabin off the highway in the middle of nowhere outside Clinton, OK called Jigg's Smokehouse.  you walk into this tiny smoke shack and are greeted with tables and the smell of smoked meats.  The walls are adorned with memorabilia of those who have passed through, most of which were business cards stapled to the walls.  I ordered a BBQ beef brisket sandwich and my husband got the "Kitchen Sink".  This sandwich was ridiculous!  It was about two pounds of ham, summer sausage and what appeared to be 5 other smoked meats topped with a special BBQ sauce and cheddar.  It was like a delicious brick.  My BBQ brisket was awesome.  The sauce is really tangy and sweet but still has a hot kick that builds up the more you eat.  Great lunch!  We both left our business cards to be added to their collection.

Feeling like we just ate another Thanksgiving dinner, we continued on for another few hours to Amarillo, TX where we will rest our chilled bones for the evening.  Getting up bright and early to hit the road by 7 for sunrise photos at Cadillac Ranch followed by (if we make it in time) the Winslow Meteor Crater and on to Flagstaff, AZ.  Hopefully we'll get some good photos and good eats along the way.

December 6, 2010

Road Trip America, Pit Stop #2: Nashville to Fort Smith, AZ Via Memphis (cont.)

Ok, there wasn't really "nothing."  There was something, but nothing I care to see again. We decided to hit up Graceland along the way and hope to get some Memphis BBQ.   I cannot express how much we deeply regret this.

If you're passing through Memphis and think to yourself "I have to see Graceland", just tell the voices in your head to shut up. Graceland is the pits. No joke. I thought it was some beautiful estate kept as a shrine to the King in the beautiful countryside. It is quite the opposite. (This is why you need to do more research, kids.) Graceland is in the, well, less-than-desirable section of town, let's just say. It's pawn shop strip-mall after strip-mall and the famed "Elvis Presly Boulevard" is riddled with potholes that will surely rip the chassis right off your car. My husband said "this can't be right" just about the time we arrived at the parking entrance of Graceland ($10. Ten-frickin-dollars to park in an empty parking lot in the ghetto that looked more deserted than Wally World.) I immediately felt depressed. This place clearly was not reminiscent of the glamour and glory of the old days of Elvis. In fact, I'm quite positive the King would roll over in his grave and throw fried peanut butter-banana sandwiches in the faces of all that now run this place. To top it all off, we never saw the mansion. The standard tour is $30/person (no dogs, obvi) and I had already decided I was uncomfortable enough with this place to not stay. I would love, however, to meet the person who shells out $69/person for the deluxe mansion tour. What the hell could you possibly see to make walking in an old house where someone once lived worth it?

Anyways, I ran inside the ticket area/gift shop to see what the deal was and was dead set on at least getting me some Elvis sunglasses to make the $10 parking worth it. Nope. All they had were super cheap-looking shiny plastic sunglasses for $25. I feel like those should be free w/parking at this hell hole. (*NOTE: I apologize if you are from here and love it. God speed or something nice.  I heard it used to be lovely.)

So...long story long, we got out of Graceland w/in 10 minutes. (That's a dollar a minute for anyone counting.) We set off to grab some Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives BBQ nearby. No chance. I wasn't stopping anywhere near there. We opted for a bag of Doritos we had in the car and kept driving to Fort Smith, AK. In case you haven't taken this drive, there isn't much to see other than flat fields spotted with the occasional Jesus sign. We were entertained by downloading Aziz Ansari standup from iTunes. (Love him- hilarious.) It was a quiet, peaceful section of road, but left us with zero fun food options.

So, I'm sad to say I have no good food stories to report from day 2 of my Road Trip America. Tomorrow we're passing through Oklahoma City on to Amarillo, TX. From what I've read, we should definitely catch some great sites and great eats as we begin to hit the old Route 66. I'll keep my fingers crossed and keep you posted!

Road Trip America, Pit Stop #2: Nashville to Fort Smith, AZ Via Memphis

Day #2 of the journey and we set off on 40W from Nashville to the other side of Arkansas in Fort Smith.  Oh man, do you know what there is to see along the way?!!!!

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

Road Trip America- Pit Stop #1: Pizza Palace, Knoxville, TN

As you may know I'm in the middle of moving across the country to San Francisco.  What better opportunity to see (and taste) the country than a cross-country road trip?  After packing up our house into a moving van and packing our dogs into a tiny mazda hatchback, we were off.

We left yesterday morning and drove from Silver Spring to Nashville with some minor pit-stops along the way.  It was an easy drive of about 11 hours, mostly up and down mountains with stretches of 40 miles between rest areas.  What surprised us the most is the cold.  It seems the further southwest we traveled the colder it got.  We hit some snow, but thankfully nothing that really stuck.  The wind was pretty brutal, though.  I was thankful we decided to drive the Southern Route.

Our friends Suzi and Eric got us Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives book before we left.  What a great idea!  We decided we were going to hit as many stops as we could along the way from that book

Our first DD&D stop was the Pizza Palace in Knoxville, TN.  Three immigrant brothers from Greece opened this drive-in in 1961 after buying a pasta sauce recipe.  The "secret sauce" is now a star attraction at this joint.  They are known for their pizza, pasta and onion rings. 

We pulled the car up to the little menu speaker box and ordered a pizza and onion rings (recommended by Guy.)  When the woman brought out the tray, she exuded that southern hospitality one would expect in Knoxville.  She proclaimed "we have the best pizza in the world, ya know! we're famous!"  Love her.  She doted on our cute dogs, remarked what a giant head Lelu has (she really does have a big noggin') and handed us the hot tray of artery-clogging food.  The pizza had thick layers of mozzarella oozing from each slice like hot lava.  They do have something about their sauce.  That was the first thing I noticed.  I almost regretted getting ham and pepperoni because I didn't want to mask the sauce.  It was pretty good pizza, but I wouldn't run out and say "the best in the world."  You have to love her spirit though.  The onion rings are hand battered, giant sweet vidalia onions.  Not bad.  I would recommend stopping if you're ever passing through.  There isn't much else around there...really.  There is nothing.  It's a quick stop off the highway though so not too much of a hike.  It's really all about the old school drive-in experience with southern hospitality and charm.

So what's next?  I'm not sure exactly.  I'm pretty sure lunch today will involve some Memphis BBQ though.  More to come...