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3 DAYS WITH MIKE ISABELLA

Following the DC top chef as he exports his baby-goat sandwiches and pepperoni-sauced chicken thighs to the suburbs.
1:28 AM on August 21: James Horn, Isabella’s wine-and-service director and business partner, sings him ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” at Muzette Karaoke in Adams Morgan. Photograph by Louie Palu.

Five years ago, Mike Isabella was cooking on the line, elbows deep in grilled octopus and tzatziki at Zaytinya, one of José Andrés’s busiest Washington restaurants. The Jersey-born chef had begun to make a name for himself locally but wasn’t exactly a culinary brand—yet. Fast-forward through appearances on Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars and suddenly Isabella was everywhere.

In 2011, he opened the Italian-American Graffiato in Chinatown. Two years later, it was Kapnos, specializing in whole-animal-style Greek, and G by Mike Isabella, a sandwich shop in the U Street corridor. Then a G location at Nats Park. Now Isabella is branching out beyond DC. Graffiato Richmond opened in September, a G is going into Newark’s Prudential Center in October, and Kapnos Taverna in Ballston is scheduled for December. Pepita, a Mexican watering hole next door, is planned for 2015. In three years, Isabella’s payroll went from 60 employees to 250. And he says he’s just getting started.

The trash-talking red-sauce guy who first appeared on television fit the bad-boy-chef stereotype perfectly, but these days savvy CEO is closer to Isabella’s reality. “I always said I never wanted to be the most talented culinary chef in America,” he says. “I wanted to be the best-rounded chef in America. The guy who could know the business side just as well as putting out great food.”

As the $12-million company has grown, Isabella has tried to keep it all in the family. Investors are close friends. The employees he has made partners have been with him for years. His PR manager went to high school with his wife, Stacy, who tests his cookbook recipes at home. The one time Isabella strayed from this MO, becoming a chef for hire at Bandolero in Georgetown in 2012, poor reviews and rumors of closure followed. (The restaurant is still open, but he pulled out.)

Isabella likes to tell his wife he’s going to retire in five years—even though he’s only 39 and, he says, “she knows it’s not true.” Not because he couldn’t afford to but because his appetite for expansion is so hearty. “I don’t think I’ll think I’ve made it,” he says, “no matter how big I am.”

Day One

12:05 PM. A “morning” at home with Isabella’s wife, Stacy: “We got Santino online from one of the little teacup places, but he’s like a teapot. Chihuahuas are usually five or six pounds—he’s like 11. I feed him a lot. He’s my little Italian son.”

“She always has flowers in the house. I like it, since we’re in the city. They make it feel a little softer. I’m always like, ‘Do you want to open a florist?’ She’s like ‘Nah, it’s too much work.'”

“I have an M6 BMW. It’s charcoal. ‘Margaritaville’ is not my favorite song! I listen to a lot of stuff on satellite radio, from classic rock to rock, some hip-hop. I like some good beats when I’m driving.”

1:05 PM. At G by Mike Isabella: “I have 20 phone calls a day, two hours’ worth. I’ve always been a Motorola and then Droid guy. My phone is just easy, big, does what I need it to do.”

1:19 PM. In the shared Kapnos office: “I have cameras in all the restaurants. I like to keep my eye on everything, but the main reason is security. When I was at Zaytinya, one of the bussers was stealing toilet paper.”

2:59 PM. Testing dishes at Graffiato: “He was working on rockfish ribs, super-cool, but not a menu item. The wording has to make sense. That’s why I never order specials. Most times they aren’t ready for the menu.”

4:13 PM. At Kapnos: “A lot of guys just look at the food. For me, it’s always about the numbers. I’d run a 23-percent food cost at Zaytinya and people would joke: ‘What, are you grinding up the bones?”

5:09 PM. Back at home: “It’s a corner unit, all windows. They didn’t have the penthouse available when we wanted it. I made sure we got a couch so one lays this way, one the other way, heads together.”

9:20 PM. At Tico on 14th Street: “We try to do date night once a week. Sometimes at places where it’s not my friends’, they’re like, ‘Can I cook for you?’ It changes things. I go out to eat, not to be cooked for.”

“I got the evil eye before Top Chef Las Vegas, to keep the spirits away. My mom was a gypsy. She read crystal balls, tarot cards, traveled and did fairs. I was around that a lot.”

Day Two

12:36 PM. At home: “Stacy is testing recipes a lot for a couple projects. We test at home because it has to be exact. She’s a great cook. When I met her, she loved to cook, but she only made four dishes.”

1:03 PM. In his home office: “It is hard letting go. I always see things that I get frustrated with. But it’s just a part of this new cycle in life. I don’t want to be a chef on the line when I’m 50 years old.”

2:29 PM. Meeting with cooks at Kapnos: “I’m too friendly with my staff. It gets a little tough sometimes. We’re all hanging out at the bar, having a good time, but if something goes wrong the next day, I have to be in their face.”

2:45 PM. Meeting with staff at Kapnos: “Alyssa started as a host, bussed tables, cleaned. Then I made her my assistant and manager. She’s a little terror—sometimes I just want to strangle her. She’s a workhorse.”

“Jeff is my realtor. He’s been a friend for years—one of my good friends from Philly used to date his wife’s sister. He treats all the deals like they’re his. You know, family.”

“I’ve made some of my employees partners because they want the restaurant to make money, because then they make money. I don’t just do it for anyone—it’s a long process. I wanted that in other companies I was with, and I never got it.”

6:41 PM. At Nationals Park, checking in on the G concession: “Every year, the carnival would come around when I was growing up in Jersey, so I’d get cotton candy and zeppoles. Me and cotton candy go hand in hand.”

“The pictures are a Top Chef thing. It’s not as much as it used to be. When I was on the Vegas season, I’d go into the dining room and get stuck for 45 minutes taking photos.”

“I got G into the stadium because of Jonathan Stahl [above, right]. He used to date one of my employees. I go to a lot of games. I’m hoping for a Beltway series. You think Subway series—eff that.”

Day Three

9:47 AM. At home: “Caps, Wizards, Redskins—I have a few jerseys and T-shirts for each of the teams. I’ve always hung up my T-shirts, because you don’t get any creases in them.”

“Yes, I have an ironing board, but I was running late [for Let’s Talk Live]. You just have to make it work sometimes.”

11:00 AM. At the Arlington studio for Let’s Talk Live: “I have the gray bowling-slash-gas-station-attendant shirts for the restaurants, and black for when I do video. I just think I come out looking a little bit slimmer.”

Isabella with his publicist at Let’s Talk Live: “A huge part of being a celebrity chef is having a publicist. Everyone I worked for—that was a big part of their career. José Andrés had local PR, New York PR, in-house PR, and PR in every city he opened a restaurant—five firms getting his name out there.”

“I’m me on TV. But there’s things I’ve changed over time. On the Vegas Top Chef, I was an arrogant f—. Being sarcastic and making jokes. There’s a right and a wrong place for that.”

11:59 AM. At Kapnos Taverna in Ballston, which is currently being built: “We were approached about the Ballston Kapnos by the realtor. I’m excited. DC has an abundance of great restaurants, and prices keep going up. You can get good deals in Virginia.”

8:35 PM. Getting ready for the Top Chef Duels viewing party at Kapnos, on which Isabella competed against his cousin, Antonia Lofaso: “Stacy is the one who cares if my shirts are wrinkled more than I do. Everyone thinks we met when I was on TV, because she’s really pretty and I’m very out of shape.”

8:54 PM. In the Uber on the way to Kapnos: “I never expected to turn into a public figure, but I definitely enjoy it. It was a little tough in the beginning. Girls would come up to us and ask Stacy to take a picture. She gets it now.”

9:47 PM. Viewing party at Kapnos: “It’s fun watching myself on TV. Losing gets easier. My first loss on Top Chef hurt me for a long time. With Antonia this week [on Top Chef Duels], I didn’t care that she won.”

10:20 PM. With Stacy at Kapnos: “When I was younger, I thought: I have to do really well on TV so people will think I’m a good chef. Now if people want to know if I’m good, they can come eat at my restaurant.”

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