Let’s say you wanted to jump into your TV and join the Spike Mendelsohn party when the Florida charmer stole the show on Season 4 of Top Chef and returned as an all-star. Now’s your chance: The owner of Bearnaise, Good Stuff Eatery, and We the Pizza in Washington, D.C. is taking time out from making the Obamas’ favorite burgers to heat up the 500 Festival. He and fellow celebrity chef Vic Vegas will add even more star power to 40-some pairs of local chefs and elite drivers at Rev, a new don’t-miss cocktail event this year. Tickets are $200 each on revindy.org. But this amuse bouche with Mendelsohn is on the house:
Have you been here before?
I have not been to Indy. I’m very excited.
You have to wear cut-off shorts to the track. It’s mandatory. Have they told you that yet?
They didn’t tell me about that. I think I can come up with something.
In February your fundraiser, Spiked with SI in Miami (benefiting Help Save our Troops), involved playing beach volleyball with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. Since when is this part of being a chef?
When I decided it needed to be! I’ll tell you exactly what happened. The first year we threw the volleyball tournament, it was with a lot of chefs—only chefs. Not the prettiest. Very sweaty, very hung-over. At that moment, I told myself, I can’t take this next year—I’ll have to surround myself with swimsuit models.
And you really did!
If you dream it, it will happen. Isn’t that what they tell you?
Your parents have been involved with serious restaurants for a long time. What do they think about this new era of celebrity chefs?
They love and appreciate it. But since it’s happening to their own son, they also try to believe that it doesn’t exist.
I’m sure they’re very proud of you.
People used to work a lifetime to be able to have the opportunities that I have at 33 years old. It’s just the way the world works these days. They’re very happy for all the opportunities we have together. We’re a very supportive family, very tight.
You’ll be paired with a Arie Luyendyk (the dad) at Rev. You’re used to cooking with non-chefs at events. Do you actually let them do anything?
I work all the time, so I’m going to give him absolutely everything to do. I hope he’s prepared. I’m pretty confident that these guys will have some good backyard grilling techniques and tricks of their own.
So you can just sit back and smile at the ladies?
Yes. Hopefully. Hopefully the word is out that I’m coming, and I’m looking to have some fun and enjoy the festivities. I hope I get to drive a car.
Can you drive fast?
I love driving fast.
Can you turn left? You can’t turn right at the Speedway.
I can only go left. I couldn’t even go right if I wanted to.
The Obamas are fans of a couple of your D.C. restaurants, burger spot Good Stuff Eatery and We the Pizza, and you’ve named burgers after the first couple. Does the president actually say, I’ll have the Obama burger?
He’s had the Obama burger before, but Mr. President loves having the bacon cheeseburger and a little Dijon on the side. He orders some steamed broccoli every once in a while to get some vegetables. It’s always a pleasure to have them come in. Michelle and her kids come in more often.
Is it a production?
They don’t call ahead, but when they are coming, you know— people in suits come in and just check the place out, and then search everyone coming in. We clear out a section of the restaurant to give them privacy, but we don’t close.
As a burger aficionado, what’s your style?
I’m all across the board. I believe there’s a burger for every setting, be it fine dining, at a beach club, by the grill, fast-casual. We make a great burger. They’re handcrafted. They all have fresh, great sauces. I get everything locally. We serve everything on a Pennsylvania Dutch bun. But I’m not a burger snob.
You don’t go in for the gimmicky toppings, but you have a lot of variety on the classics.
That’s exactly what it is—variety on the classics. When we created the burger menu, we didn’t want something that wasn’t approachable: fois gras, truffles, a mix of pork and lamb. We just riff off the classics and apply some chef techniques.
Where do you draw the line?
I’m not going to do a fish burger. I’m not, like, stuffing ingredients into my grind. I like the meat to be pure. I’m a salt-and-pepper guy.
What do you think of those bypass burgers in Las Vegas, at the Heart Attack Grill?
Oh my god, I was just standing in front of the bypass-burger restaurant, like three weeks ago. I got a heart attack just standing there. You know there’s hospital right next to it? It’s a joke—there should be. Everything in Vegas is crazy, everything is out of whack, but this thing has to stop. Everyone over 350 pounds eats free? It’s the only thing I’ve come across in the burger world that I’m completely disgusted by.
When are you opening a Good Stuff here?
As soon as they give me a location right on the track.
For the Top Chef fans, what’s a behind-the-scenes secret?
People don’t realize how long it takes to film an episode and why we get so irritated or why we lose it. It’s because it’s such a long and intense filming.
Best dish you’ve had recently?
In Montreal, at my buddy’s restaurant Le Bremner. It was a horse tartare with chips folded into the mix and capers and egg. Out of control.