Serious Food, Celebrity Status

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

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

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.


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