Chef Spike Mendelsohn found his niche serving the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill with his trio of restaurants on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. And its not just the interns and staffers who love a good burger at Good Stuff Eatery or a slice of pie at We, The Pizza—the first family has shown Mendelsohn’s restaurants a lot of love (as recently as Dec. 6 when We, The Pizza hosted Michelle Obama’s holiday party).
The feeling’s mutual as Mendelsohn has been a supporter of both the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign and the 2014 farm bill that supports small farmers. Maybe it’s his close distance to the Capitol dome or maybe he was inspired by the Obama Administration, but Mendelsohn too is dabbling in politics. He serves as the chair of the District’s Food Policy Council, having been appointed in Feb. 2015 by Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Anyone involved in politics has an opinion on what’s to come following the 2016 presidential election. We sat down with the Top Chef alum in his third Capitol Hill restaurant, Béarnaise, to talk politics, burgers, and food policy.
Laura Hayes: Obviously we’re on Capitol Hill and it’s not secret that you’ve done some great stuff with the Obama Administration. You were involved in “Let’s Move,” you had the Michelle Melt and Prez Obama Burger and the first family visited your restaurants. How would you sum up what the last eight years were like for you?
Spike Mendelsohn: I’m an immigrant, I’m from Canada. They say we don’t count but we do. So, for me and my family to have settled on this little edge here on Capitol Hill has been something special. All we had was an idea to open a family-owned restaurant and use some of the marketing of Top Chef, we never thought it would grow the way it did. My sister had a lot of experience in politics. It all clicked and worked out. Having the blessing of the first family—being able to go cook at the White House multiple times—and just have such great relationships has been great. The first family has supported our small businesses, the farm bill, our food economy. That’s not important to just chefs, that’s important to anyone who eats.
LH: Things will obviously be different come next month when the Obamas transition out of the White House?
SM: I think they left such a mark and inspired so many people that I think people are going to continue doing the work. And they’re staying in D.C. There’s going to be a huge shift, we’re about to experience it. We don’t know who’s going to be the Secretary of Agriculture, so there’s a lot of things in flux right now. We’ll have to see what happens. [There has been some pondering about who will fill the position.]
LH: In addition to your restaurants, were there other restaurants on Capitol Hill that saw a boost while Obama was in office?
SM: Eater just came out with a huge article saying all the restaurants they’ve supported and there were a ton of them. I’m sure, just like yourself, they have their favorites spots, we like to think we’re one of them. I remember them going to Ray’s Hell Burger a lot. I remember that specifically because I was like, wait a second man, what are you doing? I’ve got burgers! Your wife and daughters come here…The great thing about the family is that they’ve really supported D.C., they went out. I’m not sure if that’s something we’ll experience in the new administration to be honest.
LH: Speaking of burgers, you’ve had a Prez Obama Burger and a Michelle Melt, do you foresee a world where you’d have a Trump burger and what would you call it?
SM: Well, we had a Trump burger against a Hillary burger at Good Stuff [Eatery]. But I don’t know if we’re going to put it on the menu. We know the Prez Obama Burger is staying on. For as long as he stays in Washington, D.C., we’ll keep it on the menu.
LH: Do you think Trump coming in will have any direct effects on Capitol Hill dining?
SM: I’m not sure that it will. Food and restaurants at the end of the day are bipartisan. People like to go eat. It doesn’t matter if you’re a republican or a democrat. Things I’m more worried about are things like the farm bill and the work we’ve done to improve school meals. All the good work that we’ve done.
LH: For people that don’t know, can you explain the nuts and bolts of the farm bill?
SM: That bill’s important because it puts small farmers at the forefront and they seem to be forgotten because the market’s been so monopolized by companies that aren’t doing it for the wrong reasons, but have a different outlook on growing commodities. It’s important to get more grants for young people to get them interested in becoming farmers, which is the future of our food. The farm bill, it’s super complicated, there are parts of it I can’t break down, but that’s the nuts and bolts of it, that’s why it’s in place [to help small farmer’s compete with the big guys].
LH: I know you’re working on some of these issues on the local level as the chair of the District’s Food Policy Council. Tell me about your work.
SM: My work is focused here on D.C., but as it grows it could have some national clout because we are seeing a lot more food policy councils happen. We just got ours about a year ago in D.C. The current mayor and I have a good relationship and she asked me if I was interested in heading it up. It’s a piece of legislation that Councilmember [Mary] Cheh was inspired to write, and it really looks at our food system in D.C. and how we can make it more profitable, more equitable. So we concentrate on sustainable agriculture, urban farming, food deserts, and the food economy.
LH: What are some of the food deserts?
SM: We have eight wards in D.C. and I can tell you with confidence that all eight wards don’t see the same love as far as grocery stores, affordable ingredients. Mostly we’re talking about Wards 7 and 8. It’s defined by what you have in the area as far as food options so there’s only one grocery store for those two wards, barely any corner stores, no farmers markets anymore, and transportation stops at 9:00 p.m. The great thing about the Food Policy Council is that we have the support of the government so our purpose is to push legislation that helps fix our food system to make it easier for residents. Right now, it’s been a year of outreach, setting up the Council.
LH: You’re also working on school lunch initiatives?
SM: We’re really just trying to figure out how to get farmers to participate in school food programs. There’s a piece of legislation that needs to be fixed. It should happen on a national scale but we’re going to see if we can do a piece of it here. Farmers should be able to supply food for school lunches. It’s basic right? Farmers growing the best, most local food, they have the best price, let’s get the schools to buy it.
LH: So overall you’re feeling okay? Trump’s election to the presidency isn’t catastrophic to your work?
SM: I mean, we’re about to see. I know for a fact the transition team hasn’t reached out to the USDA, they’re a little bit behind schedule. I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s work that we started that won’t be able to be stopped. There’s been so much momentum that the train is going, you’re not going to be able to derail it. There might be some stops on the way, like when you’re stuck in Philly on your way back from New York to D.C., but it’s going to come home.
Photo by Joe Shymanski