Q&A: Mike Isabella, Washington’s Consummate Chef/Host

The celebrity toque talks favorite spots to bring visitors, party must-dos, and more.

Photograph by Greg Powers.

If Washington has a quintessential chef/host, it’s Mike Isabella. He’s known to throw some of the city’s hottest parties for industry insiders and guests alike, whether at Graffiato’s monthly Industry Takeover, impromptu after-parties following culinary events, or more formal gatherings such as Wednesday’s James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour at Kapnos.

We caught up with Isabella as he prepared for the five-course feast alongside guest chefs he personally tapped for the event—an impressive roster including locals Scott DrewnoVictor Albisu, and Haidar Karoum, as well as Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov and Kevin Spraga, current James Beard Best Chef Northeast nominee Jamie Bissonnette, and Chris Ford, a former local pastry chef transplanted to Bouchon Bakery in Los Angeles. In his element, Isabella joked with the team as they prepared octopus with bone marrow and duck foie gras kabobs, made the rounds once guests started to pour in, and invited the entire 100-plus party to Kapnos’s bar after the three-hour meal for more drinks.

Here, Isabella talks his favorite place to drink margaritas with visiting celebrity chefs, dinner party go-tos (they involve cheese and truffles), and the three guests he’d most like to have over for dinner.

You’re one of DC’s biggest chef/hosts. How did you come into that role?

The one thing is that it’s not about me. It’s about building up this great culinary scene in Washington, and also getting people who might not travel to Boston or Philly to try the other chefs’ food. Local chefs get to meet the out-of-town chefs, and it just opens up more doors for all of us. I just really enjoy it.

What are some of your favorite spots to take visiting chefs?

Daikaya’s great, Toki’s great. I take them to a lot of the main chefs’ restaurants around the city. Obviously everyone wants to stop by a José Andrés restaurant, like Jaleo. Del Campo is one of my favorites. I like to mix it up between people who have longevity, who’ve been in the city a long time, and people who are doing something a little different.

What about favorite bars?

Derek [Brown] has three great bars right here [Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill, and Southern Efficiency]. If it’s late-night we go to All Souls. When Angelo [ Sosa] came out last summer I took him to Cantina Marina. I love it; it’s one of my favorite places to go. You’re outside on the water, nothing special; you just get a Corona and a margarita and hang out on the Potomac.

What is it like opening your kitchen to other chefs?

I enjoy it; I’ve never been one of those guys that’s like, “I’m not telling you what goes on in my world.” I like to open the doors. It’s cooking—we all cook; I want to have fun and have these guys feel like they’re at home.

Do you have any rituals for when chefs come into town?

We usually drink bourbon! I love a Michter’s Rye. We’ll see where we end up today. If Le Diplomate was open, I’d bring them to get a nice big [shellfish] plateau and just chill out because it’s a nice day.

Do you and your fellow DC chefs ever get together and cook in your spare time?

We usually do for playoff games, like the Super Bowl, which is probably the biggest. Scott [ Drewno] likes to make bratwurst, we’ll do wings and a few kinds of chili, salsas, and guacamole. When we have people over, we like to do truffled grilled cheese. It’s a mix of truffled cheese, pecorino tartufo, and a little mozzarella, and then I shave a bunch of black truffles in it and on top. A lot of us like the classic, simple food we grew up with, but being chefs we have the ability to get our hands on some really good products.

What are your go-to dishes and drinks for when guests come over in warm weather?

In summertime, my wife likes to make white sangria with peaches and basil. On the Fourth of July we’ll do a green chili and red chili, or go to Red Apron and get different types of hot dogs and sausages.

What’s the best host gift you’ve ever received?

Expensive Champagne. I don’t get too many gifts!

Do you have any dos or don’ts when it comes to hosting?

I always try to say less is more. You get all these ideas, whether you’re cooking with a bunch of chefs or cooking at home for people. I try to make everything very simple, with a very few items.

Where’s your favorite place to be a guest?

I love going out to eat. Obviously from the service side the best is Marcel’s, where we go once or twice a year. They treat us like a king and queen over there. Their service is amazing.

Who taught you how to be a good host?

My wife always enjoys having people over, and cooks everything from hors d’oeuvres to desserts. We’ve been doing that for years; it’s how you get friends together. She definitely does most of the cooking. I’ll help out a little bit here and there, but the menu planning and most of the cooking comes from her.

If you could have three people over for dinner, living or dead, who would it be and what would you cook?

I’d want to have a fun dinner. I’d probably invite Daniel ToshRob Dyrdek from MTV, and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) president Dana White. I’d definitely make some classic pasta, and you have to do steak when you have a guy like Dana White over. Maybe we’d start out with caviar, go into a pasta course, a meat, and of course the wife’s rum baba. She makes an infamous rum baba.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.