Chefs Raise Money, Awareness at DC's Capital Food Fight
Spike Mendelsohn understands the responsibility better than most. Over the course of his career, he has competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Food Network’s “Iron Chef,” hosted the channel's "Kitchen Sink," and appeared on “The Rachel Ray Show,” among other marquee events. This celebrity has afforded him more exposure than any time cooking on the line ever could, even if it’s been at the helm of three celebrated Washington, D.C.-area concepts—Good Stuff Eatery, We, The Pizza, and Béarnaise. It’s what he transforms this influence into, though, Chef Mendelsohn says, that will define his career.
“Chefs don’t ever forget where they came from,” he says. “They came from kitchens, dish pits, line cooks, all this kind of stuff. That’s why we can easily resonate with the working-class people. … For chefs to take the lead and be great advocates on behalf of all food issues is a phenomenon that we’re seeing happening, especially in the last 10 years, five years, in a really big way.”
On November 10, Chef Mendelsohn co-hosted the Capital Food Fight with ThinkFoodGroup owner and culinary icon José Andrés for the first time. The event raised a reported $694,000 for DC Central Kitchen, a local nonprofit that leverages food as a tool to better lives. The 25-year organization equips unemployed men and women with the necessary skills to enter the culinary workforce and takes advantage of its extensive network to place students into positions around the city, as well as distributing healthy food to its 80 nonprofit partners.
“I’ve met students in their first week of courses and they seem very unsure of themselves,” says Chef Mendelsohn, who is a contributor to DC Central Kitchen. “They often feel like there’s a microscope on them. But as they go through the program and interact with the students and the educators and the random chefs like myself who come through, the more they start to believe in themselves and shape their future.”
More than 1,000 people attended the 13th edition of the event, which featured cuisine from 75 area restaurants. Guests also got to witness as industry giants waged a culinary battle.
Given the election results, which were still fresh at the time, a political undertone threaded many of the events, with Chef Andrés showing up on stage in an “I am an immigrant” T-shirt.
Four local chefs, Samuel Kim of 1789, Andrew Markert of Beuchert’s Saloon, George Rodrigues of Tico, and Theary So of Hank’s Oyster Bar, Dupont, competed in the highlight event. The two-round competition started with mushrooms and green beans, respectively, as the secret ingredient in a head-to-head matchup, and then finished with sausage. Chef Kim took the crown.
Tyson Foods was a presenting sponsor for the event, and Foodservice Team Chef Matt Boring helped out in various roles, including extensive work with DC Central Kitchen. In the past, Chef Boring has tossed out some challenging ingredients in the culinary battle. “I did sweet breads one year. And they only had 15 minutes,” he says, laughing. “So it was kind of jerk move on my part.”
Chef Boring compared the event to a concert. “Whenever you are there, you really feel panicked for the chef thanks to the timed manner of the event,” he says. “I think it touches all of those emotional buttons that people love.”
Like Chef Mendelsohn, he walked away with a deeper focus.
“I think what I’ve learned in my years in the foodservice industry is that a lot of people in the industry are really jaded,” he says. “These students who come to the DC Central Kitchen, though, are really willing to learn, willing to work. They’re not affected by that. They don’t see problems the same way I have seen them or other chefs have seen them. So they’re willing to learn and really enjoy it, where to them it’s not really work, like it would be to some other people.”
The diversity of DC Central Kitchen has always impressed Chef Boring. He’s worked with students ranging from 18 to 61 years old, with sharply contrasting backgrounds. “Some of them are getting second chances and some of them are just trying to get back on their feet and learn something new,” he says. “… To really get people to help others make a change to better the world you have to affect a mission of theirs as well. So to really help people with food, what better way than to have chefs be the expert opinion on it? I think celebrity chefs and chefs who are celebrities for their area—big local chefs—they cast a wider net to capture a larger audience for the mission.”
The Capital Food Fight had plenty of those. Duff Goldman, formerly of Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes,” and renowned chefs Rusty Hamlin and Chef Michael Voltaggio were judges. At one point, all the locals who’ve appeared on “Top Chef” came on stage for an unscripted throw down, including Mike Isabella, Bryan Voltaggio, Michael Voltaggio, and Marjorie MeekBradley.
Chef Mendelsohn, who is also Chairman of the D.C. Food Policy Council, felt the event was a success on multiple fronts. In addition to the funds raised, he hopes it raised awareness to some to the food issues facing D.C. and the nation.
“I think the biggest highlight was the fact we were able to get [Washington, D.C.] Mayor Muriel Bowser to come to the event for the first time, and show her what DC Central Kitchen was about,” he says. “To see that this isn’t just a culinary school in DC that is doing job placements and job training. It’s way grander than that. It has a huge amount of support and backing and I think she was pleasantly surprised to see that at the event and see the kind of traction it gets, and to support it herself. It’s her city and a lot of these changes are happening.”