By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Interest in Mediterranean cuisine stems from Isabella’s upbringing. Growing up in an Italian family, he cites his number-one influence as his grandmother, who inspired him to start rolling meatballs as a little kid. As for the Greek side of things, Isabella mentions his vegetarian mother who had a taste for items like tabbouleh, hummus, spanakopita, falafel, and baklava.
Isabella cooked his way around the East Coast. He attended culinary school in New York City, worked at Latin dining establishments in Philadelphia, and at a Greek restaurant in Atlanta until taking an educational journey through Greece and the Middle East to explore special tastes and techniques. Back in D.C., Isabella worked as executive chef for three years at Jose Andres’ Zaytinya, and in June 2011, opened Graffiato in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Sounds like a delicious adventure to get where he’s at today – but now that he’s busy running three places, isn’t it overwhelming?
“Well, you have to be really serious, and you have to know that you love what you do, but you have to put the time in,” Mike Isabella tells BTR.
It’s not a leisurely lifestyle, either, as he barely gets time off.
“If I do get a day off, it’s a different matter, where I’m working at home, and I’m doing some phone calls, or I’m doing some e-mails. But it’s a life-long, everyday type of job,” he says.
Though a commitment, Isabella says that his dining establishments definitely provide an outlet for the personal niche he cultivated in his years of practice throughout different kitchens and cultures.
He describes Graffiato as “Italian-inspired”, fusing flavors he grew up with and techniques he learned through other careers.
“I put a lot of little touches on all the foods, so it sounds simple and it tastes great but there’s always something unique that you wouldn’t typically see in certain dishes.”
At Kapnos, which is more upscale, Isabella and his team make an effort to evolve Greek cuisine by taking the classics, reworking them to look more sophisticated and taste a little different – beyond the touristy tokens that people are used to seeing, like a typical lamb gyro.
Besides, he’s not just stuck in D.C., Isabella serves on the American Chefs Corps where he gets to practice international culinary diplomacy.
“I was the first chef from the Chef Corps to travel abroad in Greece and Turkey, work in some of the kitchens, do some speaking, cook at one of the culinary schools in Istanbul, and bring people together around the world of food, which is the way I was raised as a kid,” says Isabella.
Isabella considers it an honor to be the first Chef Corps chef to do this, and is planning on another trip next year.
Also, Isabella appeared on the screen for Season Six of Top Chef and runner-up on Top Chef All Stars – not to mention authored a cookbook, Crazy Good Italian. When asked how he’s able to multitask all of his projects, Isabella gives credit to the team he works with at his restaurants.
“I have a great support staff to really help me out and help me evolve and grow, get stronger and better,” he says.
Having worked with Latin, Italian, and Greek styles, BTR asks Isabella whether he advises prospective chefs to keep the regional skills separate, or to follow a more integrative approach.
“I definitely think it’s good to learn different styles and put them together, and that makes you who you are,” says Isabella.
For instance, if chefs just pigeonhole themselves with French cuisine, they will only know how to “cook classic French, and that’s what’s been going on for hundreds of years.” Chefs can expand their horizons by experimenting with new things like Portuguese flavors, Mexican spices, or Spanish techniques, in order to foster their own signature styles and master a niche they can call their own.
“That’s what I do in my restaurants, Kapnos, G, and Graffiato,” he says.
This summer, Michael Isabella plans to take his Greek recipes over to Arlington, Va., by opening Kapnos Taverna.