“If there was no spaghetti with red sauce,” chef Mike Isabella told Restaurant Hospitality magazine last spring, “I’d have no reason to live.” That hyperbolic quote gives you Isabella the Jersey Guy, who looks back fondly at growing up in Little Ferry cooking gnocchi with gravy with his Italian grandmother Antoinette.
“I’ve always respected Jersey,” he says, “and I’ve represented it wherever I went.” That includes the Food Network’s Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars, where, even though he didn’t win, he made a strong impression as a colorful, tough-talking, thoroughly tattooed competitor.
“I finished second,” he says of the 2011 Top Chef All-Stars finale. “I thought I won. But it’s all opinion.”
His TV notoriety helped him raise the millions necessary to open his first restaurant, a small-plates Italian concept with a large capacity (140 seats) called Graffiato, in Washington, D.C., that same year. “Chefs don’t have that money,” he says. “If you win a Beard award, the only people who know you are foodies and people in the industry.” The ones you need to reach, he explains, are those with money or connections to money, and more of those people had seen him on TV.
Now he has produced his first cookbook, Crazy Good Italian: Big Flavors, Small Plates (Da Capo Lifelong). Well organized, crisply written (with Carol Blymire) and handsomely produced, it ranges from Jersey Shore-style fried food to family recipes from Antoinette and others to his own lively take on Italian classics.
Red sauce may run in the 37-year-old’s veins, but he has the heart of an entrepreneur and is slowly building an inside-the-Beltway empire. Graffiato quickly became a hit. (Its menu has been described as “Jersey influenced.”) Last spring Isabella opened a modern Mexican restaurant called Bandolero. Next year he plans to open a Greek restaurant named Kapnos and something he describes as “an Italian sandwich shop.”
It may sound a bit scattered, but it all grows naturally out of his culinary experience. After graduating from the New York Restaurant School in 2000, Isabella moved to Philadelphia to work in influential chef Douglas Rodriguez’s Nuevo Latino hotspot, Alma de Cuba. Future superstar Jose Garces was chef de cuisine there. Their influence “changed my way of thinking,” he says. He realized that ethnic cuisines, including his beloved Italian, could be interpreted in modern and creative ways.
Alma de Cuba owner Stephen Starr, whose stable of some two dozen stylish restaurants reaches beyond Philadelphia to Atlantic City and New York, “became a major mentor to me, someone I definitely wanted to emulate.” When Starr opened El Vez, a Mexican-themed Elvis tribute, in 2003, Isabella was executive sous chef. From there he moved to Washington Square, a Philly venture Starr launched in 2004, headed by the Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson, another future superstar.
Leaving the nest, Isabella moved to Atlanta in 2005 to work in a Greek restaurant, where “the chef taught me a lot of fundamentals.” When he felt ready to become an executive chef, he sent his résumé to his old mentor José Andrés, who hired him in that capacity at his new Zaytinya in Washington, D.C. Winning favorable reviews, Isabella turned his sights to TV’s Top Chef. “I felt I could hang with the best of them,” he says.
He did well enough to be invited back for Top Chef All-Stars. The competition was formidable. “When you become an executive chef,” he says, “you’re the boss, you run the show. It’s not like you’re learning that much. But competing with these other chefs, I was learning every day. It was inspiring to see all the different techniques they used. I started incorporating some of these techniques to really evolve my food.”
While he admits that restaurants are “always better when the chef is there,” he says the key to keeping multiple restaurants operating at a high level is “a really strong team. You have to trust in them and have worked together a long time so they know what I want and how I want it.”
He returns to Jersey to visit family, but to complete his legacy, he says, “Hopefully one day I can open a restaurant in my home area.” Until then, there’s always Crazy Good Italian.Click here to leave a comment