As one of the earlier “Top Chef” contestants, Mendelsohn instantly became a fan favorite and recognizable by his many stylish hats. He has since made several other TV appearances with Bravo! and other networks while opening multiple fast-casual restaurants in Washington, D.C., including the burger chain Good Stuff Eatery.
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His other passions have centered on food policy and lobbying on the hill for changes that can help food makers, farmers, consumers, and others around the world.
How did being on “Top Chef” help you in your career?
The biggest thing for me was that it laid out a marketing and PR platform for me to capitalize on.
When I was first on the show, it was still very new and not completely accepted throughout the industry like it is now. That exposure really helped me launch in the D.C. market, which was not as recognized as much for its restaurants back then.
What was “Top Chef” like in those early years compared to later seasons?
It was really fresh; every show had a little bit of everything. Not everyone was an executive chef at a top restaurant. My season had a huge roster of talent, and the show was still really raw and exciting.
I think shows like “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” were the two most successful shows that really impacted industries. Now you have the “Next Food Network Star” and a host of other reality cooking shows.
It has definitely made being a chef seem more glamorous; chefs are the new rock stars, and the show has given us more clout. It’s given our industry a lure and a buy-in that we didn’t really have before. The real celebrities in our industry and untouchable gods of the culinary world were always Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, and José Andrés, but now many chefs are more recognizable.
How did being on “Top Chef” help you with media training?
Before “Top Chef,” I had never done anything in TV whatsoever. It was a massive learning curve. The second time around, several seasons later, I knew what to expect, which maybe didn’t serve me the best because I called it in sooner than I had the first time!
Seriously, though, the show definitely plays a role in getting chefs TV-ready for interviews, promotions, books, etc.—skills that as a chef you don’t necessarily already have. What’s really great is that the show has set a platform for chefs like myself to have a voice in policy. “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio is the leading chef driving food policy right now, and then you have others like Sam Talbot, myself, Mike Isabella, and the Voltaggio brothers—all “Top Chef” contestants—lobbying on the Hill. Without the show, I don’t think we would have had such a platform to do all this, fighting for GMO labeling, better local food systems, sustainable seafood, food aid, SNAP, and more. That has been one of the most rewarding takeaways from the show for me.