Chef Spike Mendelsohn may have competed on Bravo's culinary reality show Top Chef -- twice — but he still didn't expect to be recruited for Food Network's Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, which premieres Sunday at 9/8c.
"I got the phone call out of nowhere. I was actually quite surprised," Mendelsohn tells TVGuide.com. "I didn't expect them to cast me as part of this crew, alongside the other ones. I was definitely honored to have the opportunity. There are a lot of chefs involved that I look up to and I follow their careers. To be standing next to them, was kind of like, 'OK, you made it.'"
Those other luminaries include current Food Network and Cooking Channel stars Anne Burrell (Worst Cooks in America), Robert Irvine (Dinner: Impossible), Michael Chiarello (Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello), Alex Guarnaschelli (Alex's Day Off), Chuck Hughes (Chuck's Day Off). Adding even more heat to the competition are Top Chef Masters winner Marcus Samuelsson, Chopped competitor Geoffrey Zakarian and past Iron Chef America challengers Elizabeth Falkner and Beau MacMillan.
Mendelsohn might be one of the younger chefs going into battle, but he already has a following, including Michelle Obama who frequents his Washington, DC-based Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza. But even though he's fed the First Lady and survived two Top Chef seasons, there's still one person he finds intimidating when it comes to judging his food. "I think everyone would agree that Anthony Bourdain is like a culinary assassin when it comes to judging people," Mendelsohn admits. "He definitely lets you know what's on his mind and how he feels. He's the harshest judge I've encountered."
Check out Mendelsohn's take on the new twist in the competition, which chef's real personality surprised him, how smart Alton Brown really is and what he'd like to serve Obama if she were a guest judge on the show.
Why did you decide to do Next Iron Chef after competing in Top Chef and Iron Chef America? Are you some sort of adrenaline junkie?
Spike Mendelsohn: Some can say I'm an adrenaline junkie. I just think I had so much success with my first go at doing a show that it comes with the territory these days. It relates back to my businesses. It's also something fresh and different all the time for me. It takes me out of my everyday grind, which is dealing with contractors and restaurant employees. It makes it fun for me.
Have you met your competitors before this?
Mendelsohn: I had met a lot of them before at one point in my career. Some I had been just acquainted with, some I had been friends with and some I had just seen through food festivals and things like that. It definitely was surreal standing there . There were a couple of chefs that I personally consider the higher echelon of chefs just standing there in the stadium and just being on the show. It was a moment.
Of them all, whose food want to eat the most?
Mendelsohn: I think I'd like to try Chuck's food because he's a Montreal kid, and I'm from Montreal and I haven't eaten his food before, so I'd like to see what he's doing.
Were there surprises meeting any particular person who wasn't what you expected?
Mendelsohn: Well, as big and bad and muscular as Robert Irvine looks and comes off on television, he's a pretty sweet guy. And Anne Burrell is a lot crazier than she appears. Nah, I'm just kidding!
What is the special thing you can add to the lineup? Is it personality or a particular culinary point of view?
Mendelsohn: I contribute some entertainment, some up-and-coming talent. I'm pretty versatile in several different types of cuisine. So I contribute what I'm about, what I do for a living. Also, I don't have a Food Network show and am not currently in "the family." So maybe I look like I could be a bit of threat because they don't know too much about me.
What can you tell us about the twist, the new format with the elimination challenge?
Mendelsohn: They did away with the old elimination challenge format in which all the competitors were up against each other. Now, what you do first is that you all go at it in some type of initial challenge and then the bottom two have a head-to-head cookoff with a secret ingredient to see who gets kicked off and who stays. So the format is what you'd expect from Iron Chef America's head-to-head battles. ... It just makes it that much more difficult. I kind of love the new format. It's really good. I always enjoy head-to-head battles and I think you're in for some surprises.
Do you find it more nerve-wracking that way?
Mendelsohn: I actually dealt with the pressure a lot better. Let's say you're up for elimination the old way, and there's 10 of you; you just don't know at that point. It makes you very anxious, it's always a guessing game, and your mind is playing tricks on you. At least with the head-to-head battle, you're like, "Ok, it's either this guy or me at the moment and I have to put my heart and soul on a plate and see where it lands. It goes my way, that's great, but if it doesn't, it doesn't." For me it was a lot easier to deal with that kind of pressure.
Was there a secret ingredient that you were looking forward to using the most? Is there a secret ingredient you wouldn't want to get?
Mendelsohn: I love using offal meats, so any type of sweetbreads or something like that would be good. I love cooking with those types of things. I think every chef really does. As far as ingredients that I wouldn't look forward to cooking with would be something weird like stinky tofu or maybe abalone.
What's your take on your humble host, Alton Brown? Is he really that smart?
Mendelsohn: Alton Brown is a genius. I grew up watching him and learning a lot of stuff and food science from watching all his different shows. He's definitely a well-seasoned host and it was great to know him a bit better and to be around him. We had a little chatter behind the scenes here and there, but nothing too in-depth. He has a show to produce and he's a very busy guy.
Michelle Obama is a fan of your cuisine, so she would be the ultimate guest judge. If you had to present a dish to her for judgment, what would it be?
Mendelsohn: If she came in as a guest judge, I would do some soulful dishes, like something really delicious and yummy but very simple, whether it's a roast chicken or steak and potatoes. I kind of know these days what she likes eating so I'd definitely keep it in that realm.
So, no lie: you totally practiced your intimidating Iron Chef America crossed-arm pose, right?
Mendelsohn: (laughs) Yeah, for hours on end at my house in the mirror.
Now here's the really important question: If you were going to stand up there among the old-school Iron Chefs, which vegetable would you be holding?
Mendelsohn: I'd choose to hold a butternut squash.
Here's a peek at Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs:
Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs airs Sundays a 9/8c on Food Network.
Who do you think has the best chance at winning among the super chefs?