It’s hard to imagine Spike Mendelsohn deep in the weeds in a restaurant kitchen.  He’s a personality, a character – the smirk and the fedoras are too colorful to keep under wraps behind the scenes.  One of the things that guests at Good Stuff Eatery love is that they frequently find the former Top Chef contestant front and center when they stop in for the balanced meal that is a Blazin’ Barn burger and a Toasted Marshmallow milkshake.

As a result, it’s easy to forget that he and his cohorts at Good Stuff Eatery, Mike Colletti and Brian Lacayo, come from a sit-down restaurant background.  Working in popular New York restaurants like Mai House and Le Cirque, they’ve honed some pretty serious upscale dining chops.  Last month, they gave lucky guests at Alice Waters’ Sunday Night Sips event a tasty reminder.

On Sunday night, Spike and his team take on Michael Symon in the first episode of the new season of Iron Chef America.  In between publishing a Good Stuff Eatery cookbook and preparing to open We The Pizza next door, they found time to head up to Kitchen Stadium for what Spike described as “a kitchen brawl.” And you can bet the secret ingredient wasn’t burgers.

We caught up with Spike to ask about the experience and some of the interesting connections that show what a small world the restaurant business really is.

Capital Spice: Why Iron Chef?
Spike Mendelsohn: We’ve been doing Good Stuff Eatery for a year and a half now, and it’s been great.  But we’re not just about burgers.  Iron Chef was an opportunity for me, Colletti and Brian to put on chef coats and get our hands dirty again.

CS: What was it like to go head to head with Michael Symon?
SM: It’s funny…they always advertise the show as a one-on-one competition, but it’s really all about the team.  I didn’t feel like it was just me competing against Symon, it was the three of us working together against the three of them.  I really hope that comes across on television.

More on Kitchen Stadium, secret ingredients and a possible rematch after the jump.

Image courtesy Food Network

CS: You’ve actually got some history with Chef Symon, right?
SM: Yeah.  Back when I was sleeping on a floor, just getting started in New York, I did a short stint as his morning butcher at Parea.  We really didn’t work together much; my roommate was his sous chef and he got me the job.

CS: So was it strange matching up against him?
SM: I was really happy about it, actually.  If there was one Iron Chef I really wanted to face, it was Symon.  We have similar approaches to food…I’m in his wake, and I’ve got the utmost respect for what he does.

CS: As fans, we’ve got to ask – what were the series regulars like?
SM: The Chairman was great.  He’s a master martial artist on top of everything else, and he really made it fun to be there.  Alton Brown – I came up watching Good Eats, so that was a trip.

CS: I know we can’t ask you to give away the secret ingredient…but what was your approach to working with it?
SM: From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want to work the ingredient too much.  We wanted to let the secret ingredient be the star of our dishes instead of incorporating it to the point that it wasn’t recognizable.  You’ll see – every dish we put it featured the secret ingredient front and center.

CS: You just got back from the Burger Bash, where you won the People’s Choice award in 2009.  This year’s winner was none other than Michael Symon.  Coincidence?
SM: Totally.

CS: Are you sure Symon didn’t try that much harder to beat you this year because he needed a rematch after the Iron Chef contest?
SM: I doubt it…but you can watch the episode and decide for yourself.

CS: Thanks for taking the time, Spike.  We’re looking forward to it.
SM: I hope you enjoy it.

Iron Chef America airs at 9PM this Sunday (March 7th) on the Food Network.  The episode is also scheduled to air March 8th at midnight and March 11th at 8 PM.