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.