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Royal Red Shrimp at Kapnos in Washington, D.C.

Serious Food, Celebrity Status

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Italian, Greek, and Latino cuisines showcase Chef Mike Isabella’s star power.

By Amelia Levin March 2015 Chef Profiles

Mike Isabella turned heads around the country as a contestant on season six of Bravo! TV’s Top Chef. His boisterous personality, classic Jersey accent, witty jokes, spiky black hair, and candid opinions made him a memorable favorite with viewers. Though Chef Isabella says he didn’t do as well as he would have liked, finishing seventh out of 17 contestants, the exposure became a launching pad for the versatile chef to open not just one restaurant, but five and counting, all in the Washington, D.C., area.

Though Chef Isabella says he didn’t favor the show’s unpredictability and resulting “stress that eats away at you,” he says he grew tremendously from the experience. “I learned so much about myself and I was definitely humbled. The show also helped me evolve my cooking style and handle pressure in different types of situations. It definitely made me a stronger and better chef.”

The Journey From Jersey

Truth is, the Little Ferry, New Jersey, native was already rocking the D.C. restaurant scene as the executive chef at José Andrés’ Zaytinya—and before that, at restaurants in Atlanta and Philadelphia—even before his television celebrity status.

Cooking has come naturally to Chef Isabella, as he spent countless hours in the kitchen with his mother and Italian-American grandmother, rolling meatballs and making pasta.

“I knew I wanted to cook my whole life, but I didn’t know what it meant to cook as a professional,” he says, but he figured that out while enrolled in The Restaurant School in Manhattan and cooking in some of the city’s finest restaurants.

He later traveled to Philadelphia to cook in restaurateur Stephen Starr’s concepts, including a stint as executive sous chef under Marcus Samuelsson at Stephen Starr’s Washington Square restaurant. He also served as sous chef for James Beard Award winner Douglas Rodriguez at Alma de Cuba and developed a love of Latin cuisine at El Vez under the direction of Jose Garces.

Continuing on an odyssey to find his niche, Chef Isabella moved to Atlanta to join Buckhead Life Restaurant Group’s upscale, seafood-inspired Greek restaurant, Kyma, as chef de cuisine. Here, and through his travels to Greece, he honed his skills cooking Mediterranean dishes—skills he later transferred to Kapnos, his second restaurant concept to open in D.C., which boasts a modern Mediterranean menu.

In 2007, Chef Isabella was recruited for the top position at Zaytinya. During his three-year tenure, briefly interrupted by the filming of Top Chef, Chef Isabella earned national attention. What might seem like bouncing around has been anything but for his career. “Each city has great chefs, and I wanted to be different than everyone else,” he says. “I wanted to try different regions and learn different cuisines and techniques.”

That versatility has paid off. He chose to settle in the culinary-driven city he loves, making his mark on the nation’s capital. When his first restaurant, Graffiato, opened in 2011, Chef Isabella embraced his roots with an Italian-inspired menu showcasing local produce, meats, and cheeses in the form of wood oven–roasted dishes and hand-crafted pastas and pizzas. Again, the TV appearance helped.

“The Top Chef finals aired in April and by the time we opened in June, there was a line out the door every day,” he says. “Graffiato is a busy, casual restaurant—a fun place with high excitement.” Perfect for a city with a burgeoning food scene and droves of young professionals.

At Graffiato, Chef Isabella showcases his talent for working with whole animals, sourced from sustainable farms in Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey. “There are many great farmers in this area and we work with them to learn about how they raise their animals and grow their food and to get the best value and product on the plate,” he says.

Celebrity Expansion

In 2011, Isabella returned to the screen for Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars. That time, he made it all the way to the end, battling it out with Chef Richard Blais, now a regular TV personality and owner of FLIP Burger and The Spence in Atlanta.

The liquid nitrogen-toting Chef Blais was unbeatable, but Chef Isabella’s über-creative, Italian-inspired meal—which featured pancetta-braised pork shoulder with pepperoni sauce, spiced beets with Mozzarella, chocolate, and truffle vinaigrette—secured his reputation as a dynamic chef with a few interesting tricks up his sleeve.

The continued national exposure helped strengthen his brand, positioning Chef Isabella to branch out beyond the central D.C. area and beyond Italian-inspired cuisine. In 2013 Chef Isabella opened Kapnos, the previously noted concept that features northern Greek dishes and is reportedly a favorite of first lady Michelle Obama. Here, Chef Isabella again showcases his whole-animal cookery, namely in the form of spit-roasted whole lamb, pig, and goat.

In fact, Chef Isabella started seeing so much leftover product from butchering his own meat that he created an entire concept based around the use of the extras. The first G, a sandwich shop by day and tasting restaurant by night, also opened in 2013 as a sister restaurant to Graffiato. He has already opened another G at Nationals Park, home to the District’s MLB team, and plans to open additional locations on the East Coast.

G was barely open a year when Chef Isabella expanded his Graffiato concept with a spinoff in Richmond, Virginia, that opened in September.

Chef Isabella also opened Kapnos Taverna in Arlington, Virginia, in December. “We didn’t want to do the same cuisine as the D.C. location where we focus on Northern Greek so we focus on Southern Greek in Arlington.”

In terms of design, he says the restaurant is a “little more casual, a little more colorful, and a little more affordable, with a neighborhood vibe.”

Allergy-Attentive Kitchens

Last year, Chef Isabella also took steps to make his restaurants safer for guests with food allergies and intolerances.

Though he doesn’t suffer from food allergies himself, Chef Isabella says, “It’s about the guest experience. We wanted to focus on this so anyone can come and have a safe and friendly dining experience whether they are allergic to shellfish, or require gluten-free, vegetarian, or lactose-free foods.”

To accommodate guests requiring special diets, Chef Isabella partnered with MenuTrinfo, a nutritional analysis and training firm, to ensure his restaurants serve all diners safely and properly. Each of the 250 employees at the Kapnos, Kapnos Taverna, G, and Graffiato locations go through a comprehensive AllerTrain Verification Program to learn how to prepare allergy-flagged dishes using separate pots, pans, and other equipment, as well as how to communicate with guests and how to develop substitutions.

This year, expansion continues with another concept slated to open in Arlington; this one, Pepita, will be a casual Mexican cantina and bar serving guacamole, tacos, tortas, and other snacks alongside fun cocktails.

We’ve built a strong nucleus and built it [with the intention] to make it bigger and stronger,” he concludes. “I’ve been a part of many openings and growth companies, so expanding and getting bigger is in my blood and training. Our goal is to make sure we keep our standards and continue evolving our restaurants in different cities along the East Coast.”