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.