The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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And Now He’s Gone [Spike Mendelsohn Chats About Being On ‘Top Chef’’
Posted Jun 4, 2008 by Jeff Houck
Updated Jun 4, 2008 at 07:33 AM
It was all going Spike Mendelsohn‘s way.
The former Clearwater Beach resident was one of the last five “cheftestants” on the Bravo TV show “Top Chef.” He had just won the Quickfire Challenge by fileting a tomahawk steak to perfection at Chicago restaurateur Rick Tramonto‘s steak restaurant. He won a three-minute head start to pick his ingredients for the Elimination Challenge that would send the remaining four competitors to the finals in Puerto Rico. (The first part of the two-episode finale airs tonight at 10 p.m. on Bravo.)
Then Mendelsohn picked scallops.
Not realizing that the bag of seafood was frozen and not fresh, Mendelsohn set out to make a scallop dish he devised the night before. Only after setting out to cook them did he realize the problem.
The mistake cost him a chance at the title.
The dish, and his elimination as a result of it, has been the talk of food blogs all week over what the Eater LA blog dubbed as “Scallopgate.”
Rick Tramonto, the chef at whose Chicago restaurant the competitors cooked, says he doesn’t buy frozen scallops and that show producers planted them in his cooler. “Top Chef” head judge Tom Colicchio then blogged that the scallops came from Allen Brothers, which provided food for the cooks to use.
I talked with Mendelsohn last week after the episode aired that featured his elimination. He was in Washington D.C. at the time trying to open his Good Stuff Eatery, a new hamburger restaurant.
“I’m in D.C.,” he says. “I’m loving the weather and getting the project underway.”
Mendelsohn says the exposure for him was tremendous, despite the drunken groupie who climbed up the side of his apartment building one night. (He says he put her in a cab and sent her home.)
His pick to win? Richard Blais.
“Experience puts him in that position,” he says. “He’s 35 years old. He’s well-trained. He’s well-traveled. I’m 27. Eight more years is a huge amount of experience.”
Tell me about that last episode.
Oh, man. You watched it?
Oh, hell yeah.
Yeah. It was a rough one for me. It was, like, I had this huge high at the beginning of the day and then a huge low at the end. It was a test of my emotions that day.
Did you know how to butcher that cut?
No, I had never done it before. Ever. They totally played up the whole background with butchers [in my family] and stuff, but I had never butchered a piece of meat like that. I just kinda treated it like a lamb rack, really, to tell you the truth. I don’t know what got into me. I surprised myself that day. I did a pretty amazing job on it, if I say so myself. I was impressed.
Was there any pressure with Tramonto looking over your shoulder at all?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Rick Tramonto is a great chef, he’s really well-known in that area and the tomahawk is one of the signature dishes at his steakhouse. I assumed he definitely knew what he was looking for in the fabrication. So it was really nice to hear that I had perfected it. Totally rewarding.
It’s been interesting to go around the blogs and read in the wake of the show’s airing. Everyone’s lit up about this episode.
Really? What’s going on?
Well, the whole discussion about the scallops.
Yeah, the frozen scallops…
At one point there were allegations that Bravo planted the scallops and that they wouldn’t be in Tramonto’s kitchen…
…And Bravo obviously says they didn’t do anything like that. Tramonto says they may have come in with another provider…
Listen, Rick Tramonto does not cook frozen scallops. There’s no possible way that he has them in his walk-in. It would never happen. I mean, he knows what frozen scallops are and I know what frozen scallops are.
The misconception people got on the show is that I took scallops, looked at them and said, “Frozen scallops. Oh, my God, this is what I want to cook.” Which is not the way it went.
My advantage from the Quickfire was that I had a three-minute head start over everybody.to pick my proteins, which I really don’t think they show. Everyone was in the walk-in rummaging through things, but I really got to voice what I wanted first.
I had conceptualized in my head a scallop dish the night before. I heard, “Scallops. There’s scallops.” I told the producers, “I’m taking scallops.”
This is where my mistake was: I didn’t take the time to look at them, inspect them and see what I was getting. I just took it for granted that the scallops in this walk-in … last episode, everything’s going to be top-notch, they’re not really gonna screw with us. That’s where I bit it. From that point on, I knew that I had scallops and I had to use them. So, you see me talking myself into the dish. I was, like, yeah, “Frozen scallops, no problem.”
People get the misconception that I saw it was frozen scallops and I had no problem with that, which was totally not the case at all.
You were trying to make the best of a bad situation.
I was trying to make the best of a bad situation. It took an hour of my time. We had three hours to prepare and those scallops took an hour out of that time, draining the water out of them, trying to handle them with care because they were already torn up to begin with. It was a huge ordeal for me. I spent so much time trying to save those scallops that I didn’t put much effort into textures or flavors or the techniques for how I wanted to make the dish. I look back on the situation and I should have sat down for 10 minutes and thought about what to do. “Okay, I just got screwed. What am I going to do?”
But you know what? You have the competition setting, you have the emotions, and it was a long, hard competition. At that point, I was just got flustered. At the same time, I was really disappointed. I thought it was a slap in the face to get a product like that. At the end of the day, if I would have had amazing scallops, I would have cooked them perfectly and the chefs would have respected the way I cooked them. Then, if the garnish didn’t hold up to the flavor, they would have overlooked that. But that wasn’t the case. I didn’t have anything to work with.
On Colicchio’s blog, he speculated that it came in with the Allen Brothers steaks.
Oh, yeah. The Allen Brothers have been dealing in meats for the past 60, 65 years. I’m sure they carried frozen scallops into the walk-in.
[laughs] I just love it because everyone online is calling it “Scallopgate.”
I read Tom’s blog, also. I was like, “Tom, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, kind of.” Why would they come in with Allen? They’re a meat purveyor. They haven’t dealt with seafood since the day they were born. Know what I mean? That was out of nowhere. Yeah, Allen Brothers decided to drop off a bag of frozen scallops that day.
So your bottom line is that you think the scallops came in with another purveyor?
My bottom line is that … listen, this happened a long time ago. I’ve moved on. I’m looking forward. I’m not the kind who looks back. I don’t want to bad-mouth Bravo or the producers. They’ve done so much for me. The whole experience and now my Good Stuff eatery and the launching of my new place, they’re throwing my name out there. But, you know, if I have to this one time, I will. Listen, it’s the top 5. Give us the best ingredients. Why the hell were those scallops in there? I don’t know how they ended up in there or why. I definitely don’t think they want to screw anyone intentionally, but that’s pretty much what they did. That’s not good stuff.