Chef Mike Isabella describes himself as intense, focused and driven. And at first you might be intimidated by the tattoos or the serious face when he asks a line cook about a certain dish, not to mention his culinary prowess that landed him on Top Chef and as a runner-up on Top Chef All Stars. But then you mention you’re both from New Jersey or make an astute comment about a dish, and right away the ice is broken, the conversation is off to a start and you wonder how anyone could describe the chef as anything but affable and welcoming.
Like many of the chefs I talk to, Isabella started cooking at a young age just by keeping busy in the kitchen with this grandmother. “I loved the smell of her cooking. Helping her kept me occupied,” he said. From there, becoming a chef was a no-brainer. “This was the only thing I wanted to do. So I knew I couldn’t fail and I worked my ass off.”
The northern Jersey native started out at The Restaurant School in New York, followed by a stint in Philadelphia working with the likes of Stephen Starr, Jose Garces and Marcus Samuelsson. After Philadelphia, Isabella moved to Atlanta to work at a greek restaurant, Kyma, before coming to DC to be the executive chef at Jose Andres’ Zaytinya for three years. Today, you probably know Isabella best from Top Chef and from Graffiato, his Italian restaurant he opened in Chinatown this past summer. “I had grown up in New Jersey, went to New York and then Philly and Atlanta, but I couldn’t find the right fit for me,” Isabella says. In a goldilocks-esque moment, it turned out that DC was just right for the chef. “DC is the perfect size,” he says, adding that the farms in the area are a huge asset. “This city sticks together. We all [in the culinary scene] support one another and make each other better. Chefs here always welcome new people with open arms.”
Mike Isabella Prepping Pork and Beans
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Looking at the DC restaurant scene, Isabella applauds the scene’s rapid growth and wealth of young talent. He adds that he uses other chefs as inspiration since trying out dishes across the city gives him ideas for his own. But the one thing he’d like to see (and frankly, so would many other chefs and myself) is more casual dining–the type of place that you don’t have to get dressed up for or make an event out of dinner, but still get a great meal. Which is exactly what Isabella’s vision for Graffiato is. “I try to keep it casual, fun, busy and uptempo. Those kinds of places are what the city needs most.”
Speaking of bringing more casual, hip spots to DC, I had to ask about Isabella’s plans for Bandolero, his Mexican concept opening in Georgetown in March 2012. “I’m really excited about it,” he says with a big grin. “It’s something the city doesn’t have. There will be classic dishes but with twists to make them my own.” Like Graffiato, Bandolero will also focus on a small plates concept, which Isabella jokes is “the only thing he knows how to do.” At times I waffle back and forth on whether I like small plates (read: am I really getting my money’s worth here? This dish tasted so good but this plate is small and I want moooore), but Isabella has a great way of explaining his thoughts on small plates. “I don’t want to eat a whole dish of just one thing. I like to taste a couple of things on a menu. Small plates is a way of eating,” he says. Though small plates have been a rising trend as of late, Isabella laughs that he loves when chefs say they “invented the small plate,” noting that various cultures have been serving up small plates for centuries.
When I asked how the idea for Bandolero came about and especially so soon after the opening of Graffiato, Isabella had a pretty good story to tell. Isabella says he really wasn’t planning on the restaurant at all, until he ran into Jonathan Umbel, the owner of Tacklebox and the now-closed Hook. Umbel casually asked if Isabella wanted to run a restaurant in the old Hook space which has been vacant since a fire in June. Isabella was in. “It’s the perfect area for a Mexican restaurant–there’s great traffic and the area needs a chef-driven restaurant that can rock out on a good price point.” I couldn’t agree more. When I asked Isabella how he planned on handling the stress of juggling two restaurants, one of them being brand new, he confidently said, “I don’t think I’ll miss a beat.”
In addition to running two restaurants, Isabella also has a cookbook coming out in Fall 2012 that combines his experience with a variety of different cuisines, but keeps it accessible for the home cook. “It was always a dream of mine. We’re doing the photos for the book now and I’m excited about the food. There are different flavor profiles–a little Latin, a little Greek. I wanted to hit everything in one book.” Fans will also be excited that yes, there are a few little secrets from his family recipes sprinkled in there.
With two restaurants and a cookbook on the way, Isabella says his greatest challenge is making sure his food at Graffiato is always consistent, even when he can’t be in the kitchen. His favorite thing about this stage of his career is that with his own restaurant he’s doing exactly what he wants. “I’m my own boss,” he says. “People can really see who I am on the plate during service. That’s when people see what I’m about,” adding that his years of experience cooking different cuisines and concepts for years has influenced what he does now. With everything Isabella has in the works and his passion for food and DC, I’d say it can only get more interesting from here.
Check back at 1 PM for Mike’s recipe of “pork and beans”–tender pork belly with cannelini beans. If you’ve had the dish at Graffiato, you know you’ll want to make it at home.