Mike Isabella is fresh off his second stint as a competitor on “Top Chef,” Bravo’s super popular cooking competition slash reality television show, hosted by Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio. This time, Isabella starred on “Top Chef All-Stars,” which featured a deep cast of talented chefs who didn’t win their original seasons, giving them a second chance to emerge and finally get the big win.
He proved the doubters who predicted an early exit wrong, and came up just short of winning the $200,000 grand prize, narrowly losing to Richard Blais in the finale. Still, his reputation was boosted along the way, thanks to his stellar work in the kitchen, an expanded repertoire of skills and creativity, and an uncanny ability to reproduce throwback recipes from his Italian upbringing.
Isabella first appeared on Season 6 of “Top Chef,” where he competed against Michael Voltaggio, who won the show, and his brother, D.C. area chef Bryan Voltaggio, owner of Volt in Frederick, who finished as the runner-up. On “Top Chef All-Stars,” he was joined by a few more Washington D.C.-based chefs, including Spike Mendelsohn, who owns two restaurants in the District, and Carla Hall.
After serving as the executive chef of Zaytinya for several years, Isabella is getting ready to debut his own D.C. restaurant, Graffiato. The restaurant is set to take its place in D.C.’s ever-burgeoning food scene by the end of this spring.
Chef Isabella took a few minutes out of his day to talk about the his latest stint on “Top Chef,” how he has evolved as a chef, what Graffiato is all about, and more.
Congratulations on the great performance in “Top Chef All-Stars.” You came up just a tiny bit short, but you impressed everyone and clearly improved your craft. Talk a little about the experience and how it has made an impact on you personally and professionally now that you’ve had some time to reflect and move on.
Mike Isabella: The whole decision to go back was a business decision for me, and obviously, we’re opening my new restaurant Graffiato. Going into the competition, I just quit my job, there was my anniversary and honeymoon which I put off for a year, there were so many other things going on in my life, I was not 100% there. But I knew I was a great cook, and I knew that I had a good shot.
My biggest goal was to get out of New York, make it out of New York. It was really tough to make it there, everyday there was a different winner because there was so many tough competitors. Once I got out of New York and there were five of us, I knew I had a shot to win it all. That’s when I went back and was seriously training, working in different kitchens, eating right, clearing my mind and giving it my all.
It seemed like you really made the most of your time when given the opportunity to be on “Top Chef All-Stars.” Is there anything you would take back or do differently either in preparations for the show or your actual performance on the show, or are you just completely thrilled with how it went?
Mike Isabella: I’m completely thrilled about how it went. I wouldn’t take anything back or redo anything. I dominated when I needed to dominate, I won most of the challenges towards the end, in the Bahamas. At the end, we went head-to-head, and I thought I won… even Blais thought I won! So, what do you different when you and your competitor both think you win? And the way the judges talked, the judges were talking like I was the winner… No, I wouldn’t change anything, it was a win-win situation for me. Blais was the top competitor, I went head-to-head with him and let him know what I’m about.
You’ve been all over the place… the “Today Show”… magazines… obviously the exposure from the show itself… how is life different today than it was not only before you ever were on “Top Chef,” but before your second appearance?
Mike Isabella: It’s crazy, because not only have I been on “Top Chef” and did very well, and did All-Stars, but I’m also opening my own restaurant, and there’s pressure from both angles. For me it’s sort of like I have more of that celebrity-chef status, I travel around, do a lot of fundraising, do a lot of events. I’ve been trying to keep my name and face out there, and there’s a lot more opportunities in front of me and my PR team that weren’t there before and probably wouldn’t be there.
So tell us a little bit about your the upcoming restaurant, Graffiato, and how it has been going…
Mike Isabella: Graffiato has been going great, I’m in the space right now, and the storefront is going in as we speak. The framing is done, all the plumbing is in, the electrical… the pizza oven is in, the hoods are in… we’re weeks away. We’re probably about five weeks away, and we’re excited.
It’s not like you took over an existing restaurant space either and just changed things around. Everything has been done from scratch, starting with a vacant space. Can you describe that process and what it has been like for you?
Mike Isabella: It’s been the toughest experience in my life, in a positive way. I like to do everything myself, from the way I cook to starting a restaurant and being part of the growth… it’s stressful… it’s intense… it’s time consuming… but I love everyday of it. I would never give it up for the world, and it’s very, very hard, and no matter what anyone tells you, it’s a lot harder. From finding the location, to raising the money, and having people believe in you, and designing it and working with the teams, it’s been an amazing experience.
So, talk about the concept in terms of the food that you’ll be featuring and everything that goes with that.
Mike Isabella: Graffiato, we’re Italian-inspired, that’s the key word, inspired. We’re not classic, we’re not traditional or anything like that. Everything is small plates, you can share. You can come in one person and try three to five dishes, or come with two people and try six to eight. That’s the mentality, I want that sharing.
There are a bunch of different sections to the menu, we’ll have wood-burning pizzas, lots of foods from the wood-burning oven, roasted chicken thighs with pepperoni sauce to roasted clams or bone marrow… those are the types of things we’ll be doing. Pasta dishes, everything fresh, all local cheeses, meats, local beer, local wine, everything possible… local flour for my pasta and the pizzas. It’s a really cool concept.
In the final challenge of “Top Chef All-Stars” you basically were tasked with creating your dream restaurant. Is that what Graffiato is for you? Did that challenge affect your decisions with the new place?
Mike Isabella: You know, it’s not like you can open up a dream restaurant in four or five hours with a space that was handed to you. You can make food that inspires you, and that’s a little taste of what we will be doing at Graffiato. Putting out good food, classic flavors and classic things, and then twisting it up a little bit, putting those Italian flavors that I grew up with, whether it’s pepperoni, pancetta or mozzarella, and that’s what I’ll be doing similarly here with Graffiato. Nothing changed with anything. When I was designing the restaurant for the finale, the mentality was what would I do if I was at Graffiato right now?
So Graffiato means “scratched” in Italian, referring to the first kind of graffiti artwork. How did you come up with the name and what does it mean to you?
Mike Isabella: Well, Graffiato to me is, it’s an expression. Graffiato is an expression of my childhood food, obviously touched up with a professional chef’s way, it’s my expression, and that’s what Graffiato is.
Is there any one, single aspect of Graffiato that you are the most excited about – a unique touch, or something you always wanted to do and never had the chance to, or haven’t seen elsewhere?
Mike Isabella: For me, the one thing that I’m so excited about with Graffiato is that I feel like it’s something that D.C. doesn’t have. It’s going to be great food, with a phenomenal value. It’s just doing what I want to do and cooking my food, and I feel like there’s a reason why I made it to the finale and almost won, and I feel like there’s a good reason why everyone is going to want to come here and eat, because I know how to cook, and I’m going to do a great job.
So you were saying about 5 weeks until you’re ready to go… do you have any planned opening parties or special events to help launch the place?
Mike Isabella: Well, we’re actually in talks, I was talking with my publicist about that today, and we don’t have everything in stone yet. I have my ideas, but right now, until I figure it out, I don’t want to…I’m not sure, yet…
Well if you wanted to just break the story and the big idea with me that would be fine…
Mike Isabella: (laughs) I mean, if I had an answer for you I would let you know, we’re not sure. We have options like having a big celebrity chef party and bringing a lot of guys from “Top Chef,” there’s just a lot of options… all of the top, local chefs, things like that. Or we could not do that. Are we going to focus on Mike Isabella, or focus on Graffiato, or what, and that’s what we’re debating about right now.
How much of Mike’s grandma’s Italian cooking will we be seeing, and how are you incorporating that with your own techniques, newer trends and ingredients, and so forth?
Mike Isabella: It won’t be a lot of her food, there will be some of it like in the pasta, or in ragus, stuff like that, that’s where you’ll see more of her flavor profile. What I do is just take things I would eat as a kid and rework it, whether it’s fresh mozzarella or anything else. Keep it simple but, a home grandmother style of cooking is a very rustic thing… I try to do that, but clean it up a little bit, put in some more seasonal items and other touches. I try remember flavors that I ate, and twist them up.
I know you already mentioned the importance of local ingredients, and I previously had seen that you would be working with local wines and wineries. How important is that for you, working so much with local products from beer and wine to cheese and flour?
Mike Isabella: Well first, with my family, when you come from Europe, you come from Italy, in your backyard you might have a vineyard, your neighbor might have a vineyard, or you have some figs, or some chickens… everything is sourced locally in Europe. Whether you’re in Spain or France, anywhere. I want to go after the same feel, that’s why I would say it’s Italian-inspired, not Italian… I want to be able to source everything locally.
Nowadays, the American products, everyone is working so hard to have the best product. I feel like it’s here, we just need to be taught about it, and learn about it. It’s also good experience, when somebody come in I want to be able to talk about the wines and where they’re coming from. Yesterday I was at a vineyard in Virginia and they’ll probably be labeling my own wines for me, and I really want to reach out.
How did you decide on the location? Penn Quarter is obviously a busy spot, as you know from your time at Zaytinya.
Mike Isabella: I had two locations I was looking at, number 1 was Penn Quarter, and that’s tough to find a spot and get a good price, and the other was Dupont, and that’s even tougher to get a spot and find a good price. I would pass this space every day, and this building has been empty for years and years and years, it was so old and beat up, and no one wanted to put the time and money into it, that’s why this space was still around. I decided to task a risk, and when I walked in here, I was looking at spaces for a year… and when I walked in here, I saw this beautiful, old, broken down building, and I’m like, this is it, this is exactly what I’m looking for. Let’s get some tables and chairs and let’s open up. And that was my mentality.
How hard was it for you to leave Zaytinya and pursue your own new career opportunities both in terms of going back on the show and now opening your own place?
Mike Isabella: It was a very big decision. Not only was it tough to leave Zaytinya which I helped to build up and get so high, it was that José (Andrés) wanted me to stay, which I really appreciated, José wanted to give me a partnership with Zaytinya and José even offered to open up Graffiato with me! So how do you give all of that up?
But at the end of the day, I wanted to make all the calls, and call the shots. That was the determining factor which changed things for me. And I was like you know what, I want to be able to do it myself. We had a meeting and I was saying you might say I’m stupid, you might say I’m dumb, or that I’m taking a big risk, and I’d say you’re right with all three of them… but I won’t forgive myself if I don’t… and it’s paying off!
Wow… well with so many D.C. area “Top Chef” alums, there could be a whole new season and spinoff… Top Chef: Capitol Chefs! Who would win a cook-off between all of you guys today – yourself, Spike, Voltaggio, Carla, etc…
Mike Isabella: Well, obviously I already competed against Spike and Carla, and the numbers don’t lie (laughs). Me and Bryan, we’re two totally different types of chefs, I respect his cuisine and I know he respects mine, which is why he’s my partner in this project. For me, I’ve said I’m done competing, I did what I needed to do, I’m more stepping aside and doing other projects. I love what Bryan does and I love eating his food… and he kicked my butt on the Vegas season, so I’ll leave it at that.
You must be itching for a rematch then…
Mike Isabella: You know, I’m really not. I learned a lot from him. We’re great friends, and going back into the process, I trained with him before I went back into the finale, I was working at Volt with him. He taught me a lot of stuff. Like with a good friend, a training partner, I don’t want to go against him, I want to go to the top with him.
Even with that said though, is there any lingering competition there as you guys all operate in the D.C. restaurant scene or is it just raising the level of what you want to accomplish?
Mike Isabella: It is raising the level of what we want to accomplish. With Bryan, I want to be like someone that people look up to him, like ‘wow, Mike did it by himself, from nothing… He came to this city, worked hard, put it out there, he’s opening up a great restaurant, what can I do to follow in his footsteps?’ I want to be one of those people that people look to like that.
So we saw Spike serving as Richard’s spy in the finale. Has there been any espionage around the opening of your new place?
Mike Isabella: No, no, no, me and Spike hang out probably about once per month… and Carla is doing her own thing, she’s not in the restaurant part of the business… I love what Spike does, he’s a smart businessman, and he makes a lot of money with his burger and pizza joints, and I’m sure there’s a lot more of those to come. We all try to do different things from fine dining all the way to doing your own line of food, like Carla. It’s cool that you have 4 Top Chefs here, but we’re all totally different.
Thanks for the time Mike, and good luck with Graffiato.
This article was first published by Jake Emen on Yahoo TV on April 8, 2011