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.” Continue reading