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Mike Isabella: Best Year Ever??



D.C. chef Mike Isabella is having what VH1 might call “The Best Year Ever”.  Mike is currently in the final three of Bravo’s smash hit cooking competition show Top Chef All Stars. That of course means that he appeared on a previous season of Top Chef and came really, really close to winning.  Top Chef All Stars is his chance at redemption and his making the most of it.  Mike also left his head chef position at Jose Andres’ restaurant in D.C. Zaytinya. He left in order to design and own his own restaurant due to open later this spring Graffiato.  It will be an Italian inspired two level location. Mike has excelled in Mediterranean cuisine since his boyhood days watching his grandmother.  He told us his grandmother was definitively on of his biggest inspirations and greatest memories from childhood.  Graffiato will be just across the street for the Verizon Center which is the home to both the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitols.  Mike is taking up residence in a block that had been almost abandoned but over the next 12 months looks to become home to a handful of new and exciting dining projects.  The construction going on at 707 6th St NW in Washington looks an awful lot like how a renovation might go in Charleston.  The basic structure and frame are being kept but the inside is being gutted.  You can view the construction pictures on Graffiato’s Facebook page or website.


Charleston Food Bloggers (CFB ) : You have made quite a name for yourself in recent years at Jose Andres Zaytinya and on Top Chef. How does it feel to know be going out on your own?


Chef Isabella:  It feels great.  From cooking at a young age with my grandmother, to going to culinary school, to cooking with great chefs throughout the country, I feel that all of my hard work has paid off.  At this time in my life I am ready to take the next step and follow my dreams of owning my own restaurant. It is stressful and fun all at the same time.  The stressful part is all the planning.  You never really know how everything is going to match and fit until it is in place.  The fun part is that I have a say in all the decision making and can make my vision come to life. 



CFB: Do you have a ballpark idea of when Graffiato may open this year?


Chef Isabella: Late Spring


I have really grown to like and admire Mike Isabella.  I can see and appreciate all of the hard work he has put into his career.  He earns everything he gets. He works hard everyday to get better.  I think he has grown as a person right in front of our eyes.  He appears more comfortable with himself on Top Chef this time then in season six. He appears not to be afraid of who he is.  Lastly, he plays to win both in challenges and in life.  Making the gamble to leave Zaytinya and start Graffiato is a bold move.  If this were a poker move Mike just went ALL IN.


CFB:  What are your favorite dishes at Jose Andres’ restaurants in DC?


Chef Isabella:  At Zaytinya I really enjoy the classic spreads with pita.  Chicken croquettes and black paella at Jaleo are a favorite as well.


CFB:  Where are some of the places you think we need to check out in D.C.?


Chef Isabella:  Defiantly stop at The Source.  Sit in the lounge and order the dumpling platter. 


PS 7’s for cocktailsMixologist Gina Chersevani can create you a cocktail on the spot…you just have to ask.


701 is great for an upscale tasting menu.


2Amys is the best spot for pizza…go early or be prepared to wait for a table.



We followed up on Mike’s recommendations from Jose Andres’ restaurants as well as his places to check out in D.C.  We met up with mixologist Gina Chersevani and Mike was absolutely correct. Gina’s cocktail menu is top notch. We feature Gina in her own article….Check it out.  The rest of our travels through D.C. will be forthcoming.


CFB:  Top Chef has a hard core following. Are fans of the show always stopping you and slowing you down when you are out in public? 


Chef Isabella:  My experience on Top Chef has been really rewarding and fans who stop me to say hello are very friendly and supportive. It’s exciting to tell fans about my forthcoming restaurant, Graffiato, and I hope lots of people who saw me on Top Chef will come in to try my food. 


CFB:  What bands, TV shows or movies are you really into now?


Chef Isabella:  I tend to enjoy more of the classic rock genre.  If you stop into Graffiato late night you will hear a lot of old school rock. 



Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations; I’m excited to see the new season and where he travels.


I watch a lot of the Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV and the MMA pay per view fights.  I used to wrestle and love the competitiveness of the fighters.


I don’t have a lot of time to enjoy new movies but I did get the chance to see Black Swan and it was very inspiring.  I have been hearing great reviews of The Fighter and would love to see it soon. 


CFB:  Have you ever been to Charleston?


Chef Isabella:  Not yet, but it is on my list of places to go.  I hear of a lot of great restaurants and chefs coming from Charleston.  Maybe one day I will be there for the Charleston Wine and Food Festival.


It makes complete sense that Mike would like rock, MMA, wrestling, and the movie “The Fighter”. I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming.  Those types of things can help keep his eyes on the next prize. I think that is why I like seeing him with chefs like Michael Voltaggio and Richard Blais.  Those chefs just constantly reinvent their dishes and experiment with new flavors and techniques and help push Mike to push himself even farther.


We are happy to see that he wants to come to Charleston… you hear that BB&T Charleston Wine and Food Directors!!! Call him up and book him for 2012 today. We can’t wait to try Graffiato in D.C. and we hope he comes down and smells the pluff mud of the South Carolina Lowcountry soon.




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