Dana Delivers: Plant-Based Food Innovation, Awareness & Advocacy

September 12, 2022

Join Dana as she talks with Spike Mendelsohn, a television personality and chef best known for his appearance in season four of Top Chef, in the first of a two-part series. In this first part, Spike shares his food journey across continents, life as a restaurateur, and his experience with plant-based foods, and how they all have affected his career.

Show Notes:

Welcome to Dana Delivers by Aprio podcasts, the podcast that helps restaurant owners and operators learn from industry experts about trends and opportunities. On every episode, Dana Zukofsky, the leader of Aprio’s restaurant advisory team, explores a topic impacting our industry in a candid conversation. And now, let’s hear what Dana is serving up on this episode.

Welcome, everyone, to today’s podcast. I’m especially excited about this two-part series we’re starting today on Dana Delivers by Aprio. We have Spike Mendelsohn with us today who we know from so many things. We know him from Top Chef, Good Stuff Eatery, PLNT Burger, and now his new NFT. Today, in part one of our series, we’re going to talk to Spike about his career and all the things he’s done. And then in part two, we’ll dive into the latest adventures with his NFTs. So, Spike, thanks so much for being here with us today.

Awesome, always great to talk to a friend and we go way back, Dana. Happy to be here and talk about everything in between South Beach Food and Wine Festival to plant-based lifestyle. It’s been a pretty crazy ride. And you’ve known me for a lot of that, actually.

That’s kind of how I always like to start the podcast. I think it’s fun to remember the first time you met someone, and a lot of times I remember but other people don’t. But I think we both remembered because we just spoke about it. The first time we met was at a South Beach Food and Wine Festival. I was working, at the time, for Bobby Flay for Bobby’s Burgers. You were with Good Stuff. It might have been right after your season of Top Chef, I think, at Scott Feldman’s Two Twelve house if I remember correctly, at one of his after parties.

Yeah, those after parties. Those were the times, those were the times. 

Exactly. And I saw Scott the other day, so now I’ll have to remind him that I brought him up on this. So, very fun. So Spike, why don’t you give everyone who’s listening a little bit about you, your backgrounds, and get us to where you are today, and then we can go into a little more detail.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I’ll give you the quick overview, and then we could dig into wherever you want. But I’m originally from Montreal, so that’s one thing to know. I came to the United States as a teenager via Europe. I actually spent a couple years in Europe when I was in my early teens with my family growing restaurant businesses over there. But I do come from a restaurant family background. I grew up in the restaurant industry in Montreal and grew up in my grandfather’s restaurants. And then when we moved to Florida, because that was our first entry into the United States, my parents bought a Spanish restaurant that I grew up in for about 10 to 13 years, I think. And I learned how to cook there and run a restaurant. But we could fast forward a little bit. I mean, I did all the things. I went to culinary school, I was very inspired by French chefs back then, everything from Anthony Bourdain to Alain Ducasse or Daniel Boulud or Ripert and actually did some training in the north of France where I got some classic French cuisine. I opened up Le Cirque in New York City for the Maccioni family in the Bloomberg building. I also worked for Thomas and Bouchon in California. So I had this crazy fun little career of diving deep in French cuisine. And over time, I also developed a love for Vietnamese food and traveled throughout Vietnam and opened up a ton of restaurants in New York City with Drew on Vietnamese food. And I actually was working at My House, which was a restaurant in Tribeca that Drew owned, and I got the opportunity to do Top Chef. So at that point, I had grown up in the business and really been training all over the world, if you will. And I wouldn’t say I had plateaued, but I had expired out on my first round of the restaurant world, meaning I was just looking for something really different and fun to do. I had just been, while people were just getting their first couple years my age in the business, I had already had a ton of exposure to it.  

To some of the best people, not just a lot of exposure, but a lot of great exposure.

Yeah, a lot of great exposure. I mean, listen, I grew up from a family of restaurateurs. My mom was a fan of chefs and food and culture, so I really grew up with that idea. In fact, the restaurant that I went to go work with in France was a restaurant that I always grew up hearing from my mother. It was a chateau. Gerard Boyer, he was the chef. He was a three Michelin Star chef. And I grew up literally listening to my mom saying, ‘this is where they ended up on their honeymoon.’ She had these menus that were signed by him in my kitchen growing up, and then years later, when I went to go to France, I knew I had to go work there. So I managed to be able to get an apprenticeship. But that’s a funny little side story. I always find that funky because you are your surroundings as you grow up, and I grew up hearing about Gerard, hearing about Les Crayeres. And I was like, if you want to be the best chef, you will have to go work here. And sure enough, when I got the opportunity to, ‘oh, wait a second, I can go across the country and go work for this guy,’ it kind of cemented a lot for me at that time in my life. That experience there in France kind of opened up the doors for me when I came back to the United States. That’s why I got the job at Le Cirque, because Gerard knew Sirio Maccioni, right? So, it was a crazy little experience. There’s so many details, it’s hard to dig into. But yeah, so I ended up in New York and after working for the Maccioni family for a couple years under Pierre Schaedelin, he was the chef at that time. I went to go work for Drew, I took a little bit of a leap of faith and I went for more of a restaurateur-driven style of a restaurant, which again, my time with Drew, I look back and I love because he’s a serial restaurateur. So it just kind of doubled down on, I went from my upbringings and that kind of life and that I went for, like this top echelon of chef training. And then I went back to the restaurateur-driven style of things.

Right. And I think if we’re gonna say taking a leap is going to work for Drew, I’ll take that leap every day of the week.

Yeah, yeah. Well, for me.

Going from chef driven to restaurateur-driven.

Yeah, for me, I didn’t know too much about Drew, although I heard a lot of stories at that point. I was super young still. So I was like, oh, is this the right thing? Like, I don’t know. But I loved working for him. I really did. And I learned a lot working for him. It was actually thanks to Drew that he kind of supported me with a paycheck, literally. Making sure I was made whole for the weeks that I was gone to go do Top Chef for the first time round. He kind of believed in doing it and hopefully it was going to be able to shed light on the Vietnamese restaurant I was working at the time and so it was an interesting parlay into Top Chef-dom. And from there, again, a whole other series of doors opened up. I moved to DC and linked back up with my family to open up Good Stuff Eatery, which was our first burger spot on Capitol Hill. Not too far from, right there, basically, on Pennsylvania Avenue by the Capitol. And that is kind of what started my whole life in DC.

Oh, that’s amazing. And like I said, when we met it was after Top Chef, you were doing Good Stuff Eatery, I was working at Bobby’s Burgers, started in burgers, everything was burgers, it was meat-focused, then into We, The Pizza, and then kind of in that world for a while. And the next thing I knew, obviously, many years later, I get an email that you are working on a plant-based concept and opening up restaurants in Whole Foods. I’m like, wait, stop, new paragraph. So what happened that transitions from me to the plant? Also my little backstory here, which is kind of the flip flop to you, I was a vegetarian for 21 years, and I grew up where my grandpa was a butcher, and I started eating meat probably right a little bit before you went into plant-based. So kind of flip flop there. So I like to hear what made you do what you did?

Yeah, well, when I did open up Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza, and then Bearnaise and Santa Rosa Taqueria on Capitol Hill, I was also juggling my platform. What can I do as a chef beyond the four walls of restaurants, and I was very new to it. But there was also a really interesting trend of chefs as policymakers at that point, right, Dana? So Tom was doing his stuff with GMO and Plate of the Union, Michel Nischan was always firing full throttle on the farm bill and such but he was doing it in a different way with Wholesome Wave and now Wholesome Crave. So Jose Andres, same thing, was getting into policy. So it was pretty interesting, I was in DC and surrounded by policymakers, and I started to learn more about the farm bill and the reflection of the restaurant industry and the way it affects what we do. So I started to advocate on behalf of policy and then even ended up chairing our Food Policy Council in DC, which helps me kind of look at the food system. 

And a lot of things that were coming up throughout that work was pointing the direction of more plant-based foods in our diet. Not, let’s say, veganism or complete vegetarianism, but just in general, the idea of getting more plants in your thing. And here I was, just very successful working and growing Good Stuff and so forth, but, as you know, Dana, I had one of the first, I mean, 100%, the first Top Chef fast casual restaurant, right? And with Good Stuff, it was a little bit of a new movement at the time, and especially for the burgers. It was the better burger movement where chefs were able to take an item like a burger but reintroduce it in a way that’s maybe more sustainable, and maybe it’s a different style of meat or blend but just a better burger, right? Such a processed product like a Burger King or a McDonald’s and so forth. We were part of that movement, I was part of that movement. And that was super successful, and it was very disruptive at the time as well. And it was also timely to the recession that we were having in the business, which was right around 2008. So I always just like to preface that point, because it was very cutting-edge right around that time to do something like that. I love to continue to push the limits. So let’s fast forward to your point about you hearing the views about PLNT Burger. Well, I had met my wife, who was vegan, I didn’t understand too much about that world, and always kind of shrugged my shoulder to that person coming into the restaurant with a vegan thing. I was basically that chef, I was a very meat heavy chef, but I met Seth Goldman on a panel at GW, basically. 

And for those that don’t know, Seth started Honest Tea.

Yes, yes, he started Honest Tea, and very successfully. And he actually was part of Beyond Meat very successfully. And at the panel, we were talking about food policy, and I had met him, and he brought a cooler and stuck it under my chair. And there were bottles of Honest Tea and Beyond Meat, and he’s like, ‘hey, I heard you’re with Burger King, come and see what you think about them.’ And I was like, ‘oh, okay, thanks a lot,’ and thinking nothing really about it. And sure enough, I took them home, grilled them up for the wife, and she loved them and I loved them. I was amazed on how they cooked and how recognizable it was. So I started getting very excited and stayed up all night. I had a sleepless night, and I basically woke up the next morning, after going to bed, I emailed Seth and I was like, ‘hey, I’d love to get involved a lot more with what you’re doing.’ I went right for it right away, I was like, ‘we should open up a burger fast food chain that’s all plant-based.’ At the time, he was obviously just building Beyond Meat. So we started to get to know each other really, and he got me involved with Beyond Meat. So I got to learn about the product, I also got to launch Beyond Sausage. I would start to develop really good recipes and video content for the brand and start to really get a glimpse of what plant-based lifestyle is, and some of these amazing products that are coming out and the innovation behind it. And as soon as I learned about the burger, I was like, alright, well, is there a cheese that melts? I went on the hunt for the best plant-based melting cheese. Before you know it, I was able to create a menu with my buddy Mike, that was 100% plant-based, indulgent, delicious, greasy, and it was a burger place. And we kind of looked at each other like, oh, wow, the movement is here.

I loved it, because it was the first time I was able to put a lot of the advocacy work I do, and everything we talked about, and really combine it with my restaurateur life. So, to me, it’s kind of the culmination of a lot of things. And then Seth – obviously being able to be in the same office with Seth Goldman and help grow the plant burger brand, and now I’m part of Eat The Change as well, which is a CPG company – he’s challenged me to really look at our food system in a different way. With so much going on with climate change and, and eco-anxiety, people don’t know what to do about it. Well, if we can make them really understand that there’s a lot of choices you make throughout your day that can actually really help the planet and the environment, because you’re investing in those choices that are better than maybe some of the choices you’re making. So we attacked that with plant-burger through the burger category. People love eating burgers, they love drinking shakes, they love having french fries and dipping sauces.

Couldn’t agree more.

So we can introduce, not only that it makes it better for the planet, but also better for themselves, then we have a really great proposition there. That’s kind of what we’ve been working on, and that’s why I love what I’m doing. I’m still flexitarian. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian. And I think that’s important for people to know, because I am transitioning, I don’t know where within my diet. But I always tell people, listen, there’s some really low hanging fruit here if you want to get involved in plant-based foods, the innovation is here. It’s just getting started. It’s very exciting. But there are ways just to kind of start to learn about it. It doesn’t mean you have to give up some of your favorite foods right off the bat or anything like that. At the end of the day, I think balance in your diet is the ultimate thing that you should be shooting for. But it can be as simple as switching dairy milk for plant-based milk in your coffee and seeing how that goes for you. So yeah, it’s an interesting place where I’m at, and it’s exciting and yeah, it’s fun.

And I will plug it. Right now there’s two locations in New York. I live literally between them, one in Nomad and one in Union Square. So Spike, let’s close out for today. But I really want to talk to you about what you’re doing in NFTs, so let’s talk about that a little bit more in part two.

Thank you to all of our listeners to the Dana Delivers by Aprio podcast. If you liked today’s podcast, please hit the subscribe button. Dana Delivers is brought to you by Aprio, a premier accounting and business advisory firm with offices across the US and clients around the globe.

About Spike Mendelsohn:

Evangelos Spiros “Spike” Mendelsohn is a food policy advocate, chef, and restaurateur best known for his time as a contestant on Top Chef season four. He is the chef and owner of multiple restaurants such as Good Stuff Eatery, Santa Rosa Taqueria, and We, The Pizza in Washington, D.C. He is also the co-founder of Eat The Change, an environment-friendly snack company. He has worked with many highly acclaimed chefs during his time in the United States and France, such as three Michelin Star chef Gerard Boyer. 

Spike graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in 2005.

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About the Author

Dana Zukofsky

Dana Zukofsky is the Restaurant, Franchise & Hospitality Practice Leader at Aprio, providing advisory, accounting and consulting services to help foster profitability and growth.