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OnLove: Stacy Nemeth and Michael Isabella's Wedding
"We were friends for over a year, but then we were serious instantly," Isabella says.
But within a few months of becoming a couple, Isabella told Nemeth there was something she needed to know: "Atlanta's not for me."
"I wanted to continue to evolve my career and I knew I had to come back up North," he recalls. So when Zaytinya owner José Andrés called to say the head chef position at the Mediterranean restaurant in Penn Quarter was about to come open, it seemed "like kind of a perfect fit."
"I got a job offer," Isabella told Nemeth after five months of dating. "I really want to go. And I want you to come with me."
Nemeth packed her bags, deciding the sacrifice of leaving friends and an established career was worth it for "a future and the relationship."
The pair came to D.C. in the spring of 2007 and learned to live together. (She discovered Isabella never cleaned and had always paid his cooks to clean his apartments in the past; she opted to take over the task.) They fell into a routine, cooking together on Sundays and immersing themselves in the local restaurant scene. A year later, they were engaged.
Nemeth, who works as an event manager at Poste in Hotel Monaco, was the one who faithfully watched "Top Chef," the Bravo network cooking competition. Isabella would wander into the room, catch a few scenes and declare: "These guys are bums. I'll beat all of 'em."
"It didn't look so tough," he recalls.
In March, a friend told him the show was having a casting call in Philadelphia. Andrés encouraged Isabella to go, and so did Nemeth. "I was like, 'Go for it -- that's such a great opportunity,' " she says. "I never thought that it would really come to what it did come to."
But Isabella's tattooed, tell-it-like-it-is style -- in addition to his culinary skills -- made him a natural fit for the show. Within weeks the producers asked Isabella to fly out to Las Vegas to be a contestant. But Isabella had serious reservations: It would mean five weeks away from his kitchen, leaving Nemeth at the height of their wedding planning process, and potential career suicide if things went badly. An e-mail from spotlight-averse Nemeth made up his mind: "I want you to go," she wrote.
The couple was allowed five phone conversations while Isabella was away -- all of them 10 minutes long and recorded for potential use on the show. Isabella returned in June, dazed and contractually obligated not to reveal anything about what happened during the competition.
On Aug. 29, after two episodes had aired, Isabella and Nemeth married before 100 guests at Mount Airy Mansion in Upper Marlboro. The groom devised the wedding menu but left the cooking to others -- giving him more time to laugh with friends about his less-than-flattering portrayal on the show.
"Obviously they've taken some bad parts and are focusing on his loud and crazy intenseness," Nemeth says. "But if you know Mike, know how he is, you know he's just joking around."
And that he's enjoying all the attention.
"All I tell people," he says with a sly smile, "is, 'Watch and root for me.' "