Mike Isabella considers himself something of a taco aficionado. And his thirst for margaritas seems unquenchable. “Let me get one more sip of that,” says Isabella, when a passing waitress tries to snatch his virtually empty rocks glass.
But there are some things about your typical Mexican restaurant that really irk D.C.’s celebrity chef du jour. Ambiance is a big one. For instance, the décor at your local Rosa Mexicana or Dos Caminos—or even Oyamel, arguably Washington’s most esteemed cocina—is simply too “damn colorful,” he says. And the music at some of these places, well, don’t even get him started. “I can’t do Mexican music,” says the 37-year-old, who became a household name thanks to his TV-star turn on Top Chef. “It’s not me.”
We’re sitting down for lunch at Toloache, a reputably authentic Mexican restaurant in Midtown Manhattan—approximately 226 miles away from Isabella’s own trendy D.C. eatery, the neo-Italian-themed Graffiato. He’s here with his wife, Stacy, who’s just dying to do a little shopping. But the couple didn’t come all this way to the Big Apple for retail therapy. This is business. Call it a sort of research trip. All weekend long, they’ve been hopping from taqueria to cocina in order to gather ideas for Isabella’s own Mexican place, Bandolero, now under construction in Georgetown.
“I already did my design, and I pretty much wrote my menu,” Isabella says. “But I just want little things.”
Like, for instance, a musical backdrop that’s mariachi-free. A week earlier, the Isabellas had stopped in Harrisburg, Pa., for a farm show. “We went to a Mexican restaurant there and, after song No. 2, my head was pounding,” the chef says. Isabella has been searching for something more sonically suited to his taste. “There are current bands that replay Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones but sing it in Spanish,” he says. “But, there isn’t enough of it. You need like 1,000 songs. We only found, like, 20 songs.” For now, if you end up hearing “Satisfaction” at Bandolero, chances are it will be in its original English accent.
So far, Isabella’s quest for Mexican-themed inspiration has taken him to Miami (“I went there for one night, did four different restaurants, came home the next day,” he says) and San Francisco (“hit the Mission, hit a lot of taquerias—classic stuff,” he says). Next, he’s going to Boston and Philadelphia. Oddly, the most obvious mecca of Mexican cuisine, Mexico City, isn’t anywhere on Isabella’s agenda. Maybe that has something to do with the music.
Along the way, Isabella has come to a number of conclusions. For one thing, Bandolero won’t charge you for chips and salsa the way other high-end Mexican joints do—Isabella’s not even putting salsa on the menu. And your guacamole will not be prepared tableside like it is virtually every place else in the haute Mexican universe. Who cares about watching some guy mash up an avocado, anyway?
Isabella has thought seriously about all these things, even as he’s been stuffing his face all across the country. “You people think it’s easy—it’s not,” he says, speaking fast. “You know how hard it is to eat all the time? I was sweating last night. I was like, all right, we’ve only got one more course. We’re going to make it.”
The current trajectory of Isabella’s restaurateur career would certainly seem to back that up. Isabella’s first restaurant, Graffiato, is barely eight months old. Not so long ago, a young chef with a new eatery would barely be in a position to take a vacation by that point, much less travel the country in search of inspiration for a culinarily unrelated second establishment. But that’s not all Isabella has on his plate. For months, he’s been downplaying rumors of yet a third restaurant, possibly with a Greek theme, located along the 14th Street NW corridor. Speaking to me, he doesn’t deny that something’s in the works, but notes that he hasn’t signed a lease. (A local food newsletter did, however, break the news that he’d set up a corporation at the same address.)
In still more media interviews, Isabella has talked about doing a fourth District restaurant, an American-themed eatery. In our conversations, he variously describes the project as imminent and as sitting on a distant back burner.
Keep in mind we’re not talking about some cookie-cutter chain of eateries you can easily replicate from one location to the next. These are four entirely different concepts.
Oh, and Isabella has a cookbook coming out this fall and says he wants to write another.
In less than a year, Isabella has gone from being a TV figure to being a culinary brand, someone whose name gets mentioned among the handful of local kitchen moguls who can access the considerable amounts of capital and hype necessary to administer a restaurant empire. Less present in Isabella’s Jersey-accented patter is the question raised by his rapid rise: What’s the cost? Could his expansion lead to an equally speedy drop in quality? In a fiercely competitive business, it’s easy to imagine people rooting for the arrogant guy they remember from Top Chef to suffer Icarus’ inevitable final act.
Isabella insists that’s not going to happen: He says he’s surrounded himself with talent, and vows to be monomaniacal about quality control. But the truth is, there’s no real example—good or bad—of someone doing what he’s doing at the speed with which he’s doing it. The rise of TV chefs has fundamentally changed the industry’s thermodynamics, turning people like Isabella into stars in the amount of time it took yesteryear’s culinary heroes to land a single job.
As such, watching Isabella plan his dominance can tell us a lot about where the restaurant scene is headed next.
If you’ve watched Top Chef, then you probably know a few things about Isabella.
First, he’s from New Jersey; the little town of Little Ferry in Bergen County, to be exact, a place teeming with people of Italian heritage. Little Ferry’s only prior culinary claim to fame is as the original home of Rosie’s Diner, famous for its role in Bounty paper towel commercials of the 1970s. A long-suffering waitress would use the “quicker picker upper” to clean up after her slovenly clientele. The diner has since been moved to Michigan. Little Ferry is where little Mike first learned to roll meatballs with his grandmother, which is ultimately the foundation for the first restaurant of his own design, Graffiato.
Second, Isabella used to work for Mr. D.C. Food Scene himself, José Andrés, who famously popularized Spanish tapas here in the 1990s and today runs seven high-end local eateries. For three and a half years, Isabella toiled at Andrés’ Zaytinya, a perfect spot for someone working his way up the old-fashioned way: Work in the shadow of someone else until you have the confidence—and the savings—to go out on your own. Isabella’s career arc famously went in a different direction, but Andrés’ tutelage guaranteed a few things: Isabella can crank out small plates with the best of ’em. He has at least some sense of what it takes to turn a single restaurant into a multi-million-dollar corporation. And his ego is off the charts.
You get a sense of that latter point the more Isabella gabs about his vision for Bandolero. He believes you will soon come to recognize the signature touches of his establishments the same way people recognize them in Andrés’ joints, a tendency parodied in the “Shit People in D.C. Say” viral video that depicts locals asking, “Is this a José Andrés restaurant?” Of course, in Isabella’s ideal D.C. food world, the locals are dropping his name—not his former employer’s.
“I want you to walk into Bandolero and be, like, ‘Mike did it again,’” Isabella says. “From the design to the music to the food to the presentation to the flavor–that’s what I want. I want people to know that this is a Mike Isabella concept.”
What is a Mike Isabella concept? Well, that’s a little hard to define at the moment. The guy only has one restaurant, after all, with nothing to compare it to. If you’ve dined at Graffiato, you might know a little about his gustatory flourishes—putting Thai basil in his spaghetti and fried calamari on his pizza, for instance. And there’s that defining moment from Top Chef All-Stars when the fast-talking, spiky-haired dude with the forearm tattoos made the brazen decision to put pepperoni in a blender. You may have tried that luscious pepperoni sauce for yourself at Graffiato. Isabella appears tired of talking about it.
Visitors to Bandolero may also notice some common elements: prosecco on tap, for instance, as well as the same button-up gray coats, fashionably reminiscent of the Dickie’s brand of blue-collar workman apparel, that Isabella’s cooks wear in place of the usual chef whites. As keen on promoting himself as he is on avoiding mariachi music, Isabella wears his Graffiato shirt constantly, even when dining at other restaurants. Bandolero will also have the same dimly lit ambiance: Isabella says he’s going for a sort of “Day of the Dead” theme, with cemetery gates hanging from the ceiling, skulls lining the staircase, dusty wood floors, candlelight. “I wanted to go totally opposite of all these damn colorful restaurants out here,” he says during a tour of the yet-unfinished restaurant.
How Isabella landed his second restaurant deal so quickly is a sort of fairytale scenario—at least that’s how he tells it. The story goes that Isabella and his wife were walking to their favorite tattoo parlor in Georgetown when they passed building owner Jonathan Umbel standing outside along M Street NW. His restaurant space, formerly occupied by the popular seafood spot Hook, caught fire last summer and has been shuttered ever since. Isabella had met Umbel before at the annual Capital Food Fight. (“He’s hard to miss with all those tattoos,” Umbel says.) They got to talking.
“He’s like, ‘Are you opening up more restaurants?’” Isabella says. “I said, ‘I’d love to. But, you know, right now, I’ve been really busy. I haven’t really thought about it. We’ve only been open a couple months.’ He’s like, ‘Come in, let me show you my space.’ I’m like, ‘Sure.’”
Not long after that, the pair had struck a deal.
“At the time, we were talking to a lot of really notable, more national people about the space,” Umbel says. “And when it really boiled down to it, there was no way I could create the same energy going in a different direction than I could with him.” Umbel offers his own pet theory about Isabella’s mass appeal: “The edgy part of Mike is what’s driving it.”
You can’t blame Umbel for latching on to Starship Isabella. Lately, it seems like everybody wants to team up with the guy. In November, D.C.’s new online reservation site, CityEats, announced an exclusive partnership with Isabella, making it the only place in cyberspace to reserve a table at the celebrity chef’s tough-to-book Graffiato. “From a brand perspective, he represents a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs and that’s something that we wanted to be associated with as the newcomer on the block,” says CityEats President Sameer Deen.
Not lot ago, a restaurateur would need to have some very concrete things—like, say, a few years of proven profits and reliability—before he had landlords and online entrepreneurs banging on the door. But in the TV chef age, the timetable has changed.
“The phenomenon of Top Chef is amazing because it really allows you as a chef to do things you normally would not do, take a lot more risks, because you have the marketing, the following and the brand,” says Spike Mendelsohn, Isabella’s friend and fellow alumnus of the show. (Mendelsohn is close to opening his third restaurant in the comparatively leisurely span of four years.) “You know, you take some risks that maybe, if the show didn’t exist, you’d be like, ‘I’m not going to take that risk.’”
Still, there are some other reasons why Isabella—of all the chefs in D.C., even of all the TV alums cooking here—is moving into his particular position. Charisma is part of it. At times, Isabella comes off cocky and brash; other times, he seems light-hearted, goofy and even a little self-deprecating. You probably hated the guy the first time you saw him on Top Chef. By the end of Top Chef All-Stars, he was the one you sort of hated to love.
But at this surreal moment in economic history, Isabella’s populist approach to pricey dining also explains his popularity. Less preachy than José Andrés, more immediately likeable than molecular gastronomer R.J. Cooper, and less prohibitively hip than Erik Bruner-Yang, the man at the end of Toki Underground’s hour-long line, Isabella’s persona, so noxious during his first TV season, is downright accessible. For a restaurant with such tremendous hype, Graffiato is surprisingly low on pretension. The vibe, while loud and busy, is casual: There are expense-account lobbyist types, sure, but also people in Caps jerseys. You can grab a quick bite to eat for under $20 if you budget right, but also order a varietal of wine that costs $62 per glass.
In a town balancing unprecedented wealth in an era of austerity, Graffiato the concept—like Isabella the persona—just works.
It took nearly 12 years for Isabella’s former boss, José Andrés, to go from running a single kitchen to running an entire company. Isabella did it in three.
Isabella had arrived in the District to serve as executive chef at Zaytinya in 2007. A couple years later, Top Chef beckoned. Within a year of appearing in the first episode of Top Chef Season 6, he was striking out on his own. After a year or so of planning, Graffiato opened its doors last summer. Bandolero will debut this spring. It’s a good bet the other concepts aren’t far behind.
If not for the Bravo network, Isabella might still be working for Andrés, not competing with him. “I think it opened up the doors to a lot of things,” Isabella says. “I think it’s very hard for young chefs to raise a million here, a million there, whatever it is, without the exposure.” Even winning the coveted James Beard Award, which Andrés has done twice, doesn’t carry the same weight with investors as that all-important moment in the televisual spotlight. “Even though, to us, it’s the biggest accolade you can get, other people are like ‘What’s a James Beard?’” Isabella says. “I mean, that’s not going make them give me money.”
Competing on the show isn’t an automatic windfall, of course. Isabella was unhappy with his initial portrayal on the program. “The first time I was on Top Chef, everyone thought I was an asshole,” he says. “I was sexist and I was this and that because I made comments that I’m not going to lose to a female.” He’s referring to the premier episode, when Isabella found himself in a dead heat shucking clams against fellow contestant Jennifer Carroll from Philadelphia. “There’s no way—no offense—but a girl shouldn’t be at the same level that I am,” Isabella infamously stated on the show. Needless to say, he lost more than a few fans that day. “What I really meant,” Isabella says now, “was I wasn’t going to lose to Jen Carroll because I’m friends with her.”
Carroll chalks up the whole incident to a combination of “Mike saying what comes to his mind without editing himself” and “a little bit of male egotistical pride.” But she wasn’t offended. Chefs often “talk smack” in the kitchen, she says. “I don’t think he has any discrimination toward women in the kitchen or women in general,” Carroll says, pointing out that Isabella’s current chef de cuisine at Graffiato, Marjorie Meek-Bradley, is female.
Isabella spent much the rest of that season in the Top Chef doghouse. Luckily for him, he was invited back for Top Chef All-Stars, where he put on his best face, whipped up his now-famous pepperoni sauce, made it all the way to the finals, and helped repair his image. “It was so positive after that,” says Isabella, who ultimately lost in the finals. The exposure helped him raise more than $1 million to open Graffiato.
For all that TV may have changed Isabella’s business prospects, much of his personal life was settled well before he went on camera. He met his wife in Atlanta, before he’d auditioned for Andrés, much less Bravo. “People are like, ‘How did you get a beautiful wife? TV?’ I’m like, ‘No, this was before TV,’” Isabella says. She was working at Kyma, a Greek restaurant where Isabella was vying to be the chef. He got the gig but not the girl—at least not at first.
“It took me a year to say yes and go out on a date with him,” Stacy Isabella says. “We were planning our wedding when he went away for the first time [during the show’s filming]. It was very stressful. I ended up doing most of the planning.” The couple put their honeymoon on hold because of Top Chef All-Stars and waited until after Graffiato was up and running before finally making it to Hawaii.
Married for more than two years now, the missus not long ago gave up her job running events for Poste Moderne Brasserie and now spends some of her time cooking at home, testing recipes for her hubby’s forthcoming cookbook. In fact, Isabella says his wife does most of the cooking in their kitchen. She likes to entertain. “I came home last week, her girlfriends were over, and there were eight empty bottles on the countertop,” Isabella says.
The Isabellas live only a few blocks away from Graffiato. They just upgraded to a spacious 1,800-square foot, two-bedroom, seventh-floor luxury apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Massachusetts Avenue NW. The new place is located directly across the street from their previous one-bedroom. Isabella is converting one room into his office, with a brown leather couch, old mahogany desk and antique globe-shaped liquor cabinet to stash his bourbons. “I want that old man feel in here,” he says.
In the living room, Stacy Isabella sits on the rug while the couple’s seven-month-old longhaired Chihuahua runs in circles. The cute little pooch seems an odd match for the surly tattooed chef. “It shows my softer side,” he says.
Even in the high-speed economy of Top Chef toques, Isabella is something of an outlier. It was a full year between the time that Mendelsohn opened his first place in D.C., Good Stuff Eatery, and the opening of his second, We The Pizza, right next door. It’s taken another two years (and counting) for Mendelsohn to set up shop somewhere outside the 300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. His second Good Stuff Eatery opens in Crystal City this spring. Similarly, it took Top Chefer Harold Dieterle some three years between opening his first and second spots in New York.
“I even mentioned to him, ‘Hey, maybe you just want to hang back a bit, feel it out,” says Mendelsohn. “But, Mike’s a professional and he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
With Bandolero, Isabella is dramatically raising the stakes for his moderately sized management team. The new place will be a much bigger restaurant (seating almost 180, compared to 130 at Graffiato) with a larger kitchen and higher rent. His workforce will have more than doubled. Some of his top people, the ones who helped make Graffiato a success, including his original general manager, James Horn, will be moving over to the new place.
Isabella says he has a plan for how to make up for the lost talent at Graffiato. All the current chefs are staying put. He’s bringing in a former colleague, Tony Starr, formerly at Zaytinya, to head up the new kitchen. Meanwhile, he’s hired another former Zaytinya colleague, Tiffiny Dunn, as the new GM at Graffiato. “I feel like I have the right people around me to do it,” he says. “And I’m going to put them in successful positions and they’re going to help me be successful.”
Isabella has also purchased a scooter.
In recent weeks, the machine has been parked on the sidewalk outside Graffiato. But the plan is that, once Bandolero gets going, the boss will be able to use the two-wheeler to weave in and out of traffic as he darts between his two establishments. Recently, Isabella bought a second scooter, a souped-up custom-built Honda Ruckus emblazoned with the Graffiato logo. “I took it on I-395,” he says. “I had it going 60 miles per hour no problem. I was just blowing past cars. My helmet was floating above my head.” (Alas, the Ruckus is currently in the shop.)
“I call Mike’s bike ‘the fist pump,’” says Mendelsohn, who also bought a scooter from the same custom shop in Atlanta. “It’s very Jersey shore. It’s got rims, it’s purple, it’s pimped out.” Mendelsohn suggests the future is “endless” for Isabella.
Talk to former Top Chef contestants long enough and you start to get the sense that they believe the show has prepared them to handle whatever wicked curveballs fate might throw at them down the road.
Isabella is the same way: “When we opened Graffiato, people were like, ‘Are you worried about Fabio Trabbochi opening up a casual Italian restaurant down the block from you when you’re opening up a casual Italian restaurant? And, ‘are you worried about that pizzeria that’s going up at F Street called Fuel?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not worried about anybody or anything.’ It’s the same mentality as when you’re on Top Chef and everyone gets a potato and you have 10 chefs there and everyone’s dish is totally different. It’s same thing. I’m going to do something that’s totally different than what everyone else does.”
On a recent Friday night, Isabella is making the rounds in his trademark gray coat, briefly greeting customers during a pop-up event in Penn Quarter. A Jimi Hendrix guitar solo is blaring over the sound system. The chef is clearly trying to keep his interactions short and get back in the kitchen. But many patrons are begging for his attention. One guy reaches out and grabs a room divider to keep Isabella from escaping so quickly.
The online deals site LivingSocial is hosting the series of dinners over four nights to show off its new headquarters on F Street NW. Previewing Bandolero’s menu, Isabella is the inaugural attraction. The tickets sold out in just eight hours.
This is the crowd that’s not worrying about Isabella’s business plans, or his quality control, or the possibility of his turning into a culinary Icarus, or any of the other things food insiders talk about. They just want to see a God that walks among us. And, of course, to eat his food. “When I saw on LivingSocial that Mike Isabella was doing an event here, I thought it would be fun to come check it out,” says Kat Danziger of Columbia Heights, clutching a champagne flute in the lounge area while waiting to be seated. “I ate at Zaytinya when he was there and I’ve seen him on TV.”
Danziger and her friend, Andrew Holmberg, both thought the now-famous chef came off a bit too cocky on Top Chef, but they’re impressed with his impact on the Washington dining scene. “He’s a great chef and really bringing credibility to D.C.,” Holmberg says.
In a way, the evening offers a peek at the future of the dining business. Any schlub can make a restaurant reservation, but only the cognoscenti know about special, private events. It’s only natural that Isabella is front and center. “I think it’s a cool idea, a pop-up restaurant. You get to preview it before anybody else,” says Drew McKechnie of Arlington, who bought tickets as a Valentine’s Day gift for his girlfriend, Rebecca Marvin; she’s a big Graffiato fan who raves about Isabella’s pizza topped with quail egg. Marvin was thrilled to actually meet Isabella at Graffiato. “It adds to the experience when you get to meet and interact with the chef,” she says.
“Frankly, I don’t know that much about this restaurant,” McKechnie says of Bandolero. “I’m really glad it’s not another cupcake place.”
The sopes with lamb and goat cheese were pretty good, too.