surf globally, eat locally
November 2012

Top Chef Mike Isabella Conquers the Mediterranean
By Marcia Frost

Mike Isabella's, Graffiato

Mike Isabella has been pretty busy these days. He recently finished as a finalist on Top Chef: All-Stars, had his first book (Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian) published and he’s in the process of opening two new restaurants.

Isabella became known to the world as a “top chef” on Bravo when he appeared on the series’ sixth and eighth seasons. He had my attention after an incredible meal at Graffiato (I’m still dreaming about the Suckling Pig Lasagna). While Graffiato is the first restaurant that he owned, he’s worked in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Atlanta with such prominent chefs as Jose Andrews, Douglas Rodriguez, Marcus Samuelsson and Jose Garces. In the end, though, this Jersey boy just wants to cook up everyone’s favorites and I enjoyed talking to him about it.

Mike Isabella’s
Crazy Good Italian
Former Top Chef contender and current Washington, DC, based chef/restaurateur Michael Isabella has released his first book and it is a winner for cooks. Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian: Big Flavors, Small Plates (Da Capo Press) covers every type of dish Isabella loves to cook in his restaurants and in his home.

Read full book review
Marcia Frost: How did you get to Washington, DC after all the time on the East Coast?
Mike Isabella: I was living in Atlanta for a little while and I was working at a Greek restaurant called Kyma. I ended up getting recruited to take a job in Washington, DC, for Jose Andres’ Zaytina. I moved out here for that and it kind of opened up the doors. I worked out here for about four years and then I opened up my own place.

MF: Why did you decide DC was the place to open a restaurant?
MI: I really love DC. I’ve lived in different cities – I grew up in Jersey, I lived in New York, I lived in Philadelphia, I lived in Atlanta. I thought DC was the most complete. It’s close to our families, mine and my wife’s, and it has different neighborhoods. It’s a clean city, it’s the capital, it’s an upcoming culinary scene. For me, it kind of hit all the things and I had great contacts with great farmers and great people out here that I really enjoyed working with throughout the years I was working at Zaytina.

MF: I loved your book. It’s so complete. I never knew it was so easy to make ricotta! When you first decided to do the book, did you expect to cover so many different topics?
MI: (laughs) That was the goal, to show everyone how they can make a lot of that stuff. I put a lot into that book, it’s a big book. I hit a lot of different areas. I really didn’t know what I was going to get into since it’s my first book.

Obviously I’ve been cooking my whole life, and I work with some great chefs at some great restaurants, but I wanted to put these simple techniques into casual cooking at home. Everything I know is in this book.

MF: You talk a bit in the book about how you thought you looked like “a jerk” when you first did “Top Chef” and now you’ve matured. How have you changed?
MI: Well, I just feel like I was judged correctly in that first season of Top Chef. I’m very sarcastic and I joke a lot. When you record for 18 hours and they show a 10 second clip of you making a joke, it changes people’s prospective of you. That really wasn’t who I was.

I did grow a lot as a person after Washington. I grew a lot as a chef. It really changed my vision on the way I cook a lot working with all those talented chefs, like the Voltaggio brothers, Kevin (Gillespie), Jen Carroll. Everyone had such different styles. Going back two and a half years later, I was definitely a different cook and a different person and it really showed.

MF: Do you plan to do any more shows?
MI: I’m a little busy opening up my third and fourth restaurants so it would be pretty tough for me. I’ve been on a couple of the episodes of Life After Chef, but for me the ultimate goal is to have a company and own a couple of restaurants and that’s kind of what I’m doing right now. It’s very hard to turn down television because of what it does for business, but I really don’t want to compete any more. It’s very stressful and takes a lot out of you.

MF: Tell me about the new restaurants.
MI: We’re opening up Kapnos, which means ‘smoke’ in Greek. It’s a restaurant in DC which is meze, small plates. We’ll have about eight rotating spits over two grills… whole goats, whole lambs, chickens. Instead of doing the press meat gyros, we’ll have a real whole animal on the spit. It’s a lot of Greek flavor with different kinds of dips and spreads, classic salads and small plates of seafood and vegetables with a lot of Greek influence inside of them.

Right next door to that is our sandwich shop by day and tasting menu at night. It’s called ‘G.’ We’re using the same logo that I have for my original restaurant, Graffiato. At the end of the night, all the animals that are on the spit get shredded up and go over to G, where we do different types of sandwiches with suckling pig, goat… and we’ll also have classic Italian like chicken parm, meatballs and veal cutlet. Then, at night, we’ll do a four course tasting menu for $40 which will be classic Italian.

MF: You’ll just have one menu?
MI: Yes, Antipasto, pasta and choice of meat or fish and then dessert. So there will only be five dishes on the menu. It’s going to be really simple and really classic Italian. It’s a great neighborhood area and it’s small – just 40 seats – so I think it will be a fun place to go.

MF: I like that idea so there’s not a lot of food waste.
MI: Exactly. We’ll have just one kitchen. I put a lot of effort into this concept. I’ve been busy!

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