Mike Isabella fanned himself with a hard hat as he stood on a construction site on the bank of the Potomac that workers were frantically trying to turn into a contemporary French restaurant. Permits and a liquor license had yet to materialize. The basement was nowhere near ready to receive shipments. The floors were — well, there were no floors.
“When do you think I can come in here and cook, honestly?” he asked a group of construction crew leaders. Soon, one of them said. Probably. Soon-ish.
Any disquiet on Isabella’s part was telegraphed by a mild bulging of the eyes and a twitch of his multifarious tattoos. Extensive fretting may be a luxury for single-restaurant chefs; Isabella, mindful of his ever-growing dining dominion, had to race to a sushi tasting across the river in Virginia.
It is hard to find any swath of the Washington area that does not feature a stove belonging to Isabella, a runner-up on “Top Chef All-Stars” who studied under José Andrés and other restaurant luminaries.
In less than a decade since he persuaded the chef Tom Colicchio to give him a shot on the show — where he made his mark with an enticing pepperoni sauce, some trash-talk about fellow contestants and an undercooked leek that was his final undoing — Isabella has opened 11 restaurants in Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
Before the end of the year, he plans to open a vast dining emporium at Tysons Galleria, a luxury mall in McLean, Virginia. His French restaurant Requin is scheduled to open this month at the Wharf, a $1.4 billion development on 24 acres along Washington’s long-neglected riverfront. The restaurant, surrounded by a sprawl of condominiums, stores and other eating spots, is the only detached, stand-alone restaurant on the site.
Requin, a modernist food church at the center of a fabricated village, is a metaphor of sorts for Isabella’s unique stature among Washington restaurateurs — a perch attained, in large part, through simple proliferation.
Isabella owes his culinary fecundity to smart location plays, and a large and loyal team of chefs, bartenders, construction managers and two Greek-American brothers who have been the spine of his most-replicated outpost, Kapnos Taverna. He commands a United Nations of cuisines: the down-home Italian food of his youth, Greek and Mediterranean cooking, coastal Mexican fare and even some ramen.
From the pizzas at Graffiato to the succulent chicken parm sandwiches at G to the bomba rices served in a hotel-dining-room-cum-souk at Arroz to the spit-roasted lamb at Kapnos, his menus have largely drawn enthusiasm from Washington critics and diners. Yes, there is a cookbook. And there is cross-marketing: You can buy a G sandwich at Graffiato, where you can also purchase a take-home pizza kit.
In many ways, Isabella is the very model of the modern major chef: His $30 million empire has put his food into airports, a baseball stadium, events with catering, lunchboxes delivered to office workers and his own take on a food hall, while he moves along, sharklike, with various versions of his sit-down restaurants.
This has taken him, as it has many other chefs, out of the kitchen. His knife set now comes out only at home.
Isabella also had the Spidey sense to settle into Washington, where breakneck growth and the attendant investor cash have all exploded in recent years. His workforce of 600 employees will nearly double once his new places open.
“He succeeds by putting a lot of trust and responsibility in people he grooms and finds,” said Anna Spiegel, food editor of Washingtonian magazine.
“He isn’t front and center,” as if he were just a chef with a single restaurant, she said. “This isn’t the Mike show. There isn’t the illusion of that.”
She added, “It’s not always the most cutting-edge food, but it’s food that pushes the boundaries just enough while remaining comfortable for people.”
Isabella, 42, seems to spend each day checking on an existing restaurant, peeking at a behind-schedule construction site, meeting with a catering client. He zooms back and forth in his black Range Rover, dragging on a cigarette between stops and musing aloud about something that has to be done that isn’t being done but might be done, or not.
“I have so much in my head,” he said on a recent afternoon, lamenting the absence of his assistant, who sends emails simultaneously transcribing whatever pops out.
He grew up in New Jersey and studied at the now-closed Restaurant School of New York, and spent the early part of his career along the Acela corridor, working in fine dining in New York before heading to Philadelphia, where he cooked for, among others, the chef Marcus Samuelsson and the prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr.
After a brief stint in Atlanta, where Isabella learned about Greek flavors and techniques, he came to Washington in 2007 to work at Andrés’s eastern-Mediterranean restaurant Zaytinya. “We wanted to be closer to home but not in our hometowns,” he said, referring to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where his wife, Stacy, was raised.
In 2009, Isabella, then head chef at Zaytinya, met Colicchio at the home of the cookbook writer Joan Nathan, where he cooked a dinner in honor of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. (Colicchio had to perform the Heimlich maneuver on Nathan after an incident involving Persian shish kebab, but that’s another story.)
Isabella turned on his signature confidence, pressing the “Top Chef” judge to let him in. “I could already tell he had an outsized personality and was very ambitious,” Colicchio said.
When Isabella returned to Washington after the show, he continued for a while at Zaytinya, but in 2011 struck out on his own with Graffiato, an Italian startup in Chinatown inspired by his grandmother’s cooking. “Mike has used the opportunity to make a good name for himself,” Andrés said. “Since I met Mike, he always wanted more.”
Isabella’s pace invites the pitfalls that have tripped up many before him: overextending oneself, losing control over quality.
“With anyone who grows as fast as he has, one has to wonder how they do it, or if he can keep up,” said Marjorie Meek-Bradley, a “Top Chef” finalist who has worked with him in kitchens for decades and once served as his chef de cuisine at Graffiato. (Another “Top Chef” alumna, Jennifer Carroll, is the executive chef and a partner at the original Requin Brasserie in Fairfax, Virginia — and, as “Top Chef” fans may remember, the target of one of Isabella’s infamous rants, after she outpaced him at opening oysters.)
So far, careful hiring and training have been his secret sauce, Isabella said. George and Nick Pagonis, the culinary and managerial backbones of the five various Kapnos restaurants, have been with Isabella since the beginning. Taha Ismail, his beverage director, has worked with him since their Zaytinya days.
“If you grow too big too fast you have to hire, hire, hire, and if you build too fast, you dilute your brand,” Meek-Bradley said. “It becomes, ‘Oh, they are never in the kitchen, they have too much going on,’ when you don’t have the right people in place. Mike understands the need to bring in some strong teams. He is a good person to work for and rewards hard work.”
Chefs in Washington are a tight group, proud and at times defensive of a city that was long ignored as other cities’ restaurants and bars lapped up praise. (Recent years have brought critical acclaim — Washington was named America’s best restaurant city last year by Bon Appétit — and an influx of chefs, despite the lack of a large culinary school or training culture.)
Chefs here back up one another, when needed, with spare pots and pans; they cook together on the extensive charity circuit and are happy to share excess tomatoes, the names of suppliers and advice.
“When I worked at Per Se in New York, no one was friends with the people at Jean-Georges, which was across the street,” Meek-Bradley said. “The thing I love about D.C. is there is this sense of camaraderie here and sense of pride.”
Isabella remains very much a part of that world, dining often with chef friends at home. Still, the scale of his enterprises sets him apart.
Although he long ago shed his bad-boy image, his name can sometimes prompt undefined unease among food professionals here, as if his high profile were a personal threat to the city’s nascent culinary status.
“Of course, people are going to be a little resentful or jealous,” Meek-Bradley said. “But that’s what happens when you are willing to take those calculated risks that a lot of us are not willing to do, or don’t do.”
The ultimate test of his ambitions may come at Isabella Eatery in the Tysons Galleria, which will pack nine different spaces into 41,000 square feet, served by one commissary kitchen. Flailing malls have looked to food to lift their businesses, and Isabella sold General Growth Properties, which owns the Galleria, on a one-stop solution.
In addition to a coffee bar and an ice-cream parlor, the complex will serve the greatest hits of Mike Isabella: tacos, a raw bar and Mediterranean, Italian and Japanese offerings.
A cocktail bar will spill out into the traffic area of the mall floor, which retailers no doubt hope will fuel $2,000 handbag sales with ample manhattans and martinis. “His concepts have delicious food,” said Michael Schlow, a chef and restaurateur, “but he realizes that’s not the only way to be successful. It needs to be an experience.”
At a sushi tasting at Yona, one of his spots in Northern Virginia, Isabella plowed through giant plates of fish that were vying for a spot in its Tysons Galleria outpost.
“No ponzo sauce, too mainstream,” he said, waving off a slice of hamachi. A piece of fluke dressed up with shrimp paste he dismissed as “a little too cheffy.” A lobster roll drew an appreciative nod. Salmon nigiri with pea shoots and avocado and cucumber showed promise, he said, if the vegetables were cut smaller.
Isabella looked tired, and reflexively grabbed for his phone. Tacos were next. “It’s not always easy,” he said. “People think it’s fun. It’s very filling!”
So clearly, Isabella Eatery will be the end?
“Yes! No more D.C.!” Isabella insisted. “Well, maybe one more coffee shop.”