By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009
In the current season of the reality show "Top Chef," Michael Isabella comes off as brash, cocky and a bit of a misogynist.
Stacy Nemeth would describe Isabella, the man she married on Aug. 29, two weeks after the show premiered, in different terms: intense, straightforward and caring.
But it takes a while to learn to love the head chef at Zaytinya -- and no one knows that better than her.
Nemeth was serving as the maitre d' of a Greek restaurant in Atlanta when Isabella flew down from Philadelphia to interview for an opening in the kitchen. The owners seated Isabella at the bar for an introductory meal but forgot to assign him a server. Nemeth stepped in, keeping his wine glass full and chatting about life in Atlanta.
The pretty brunette with gray-green eyes made an impression on that May 2005 evening, but Isabella was keeping things professional; he didn't get her number. He did, however, accept an offer to cook at the restaurant, Kyma. But by the time he relocated three months later, Nemeth had moved on.
A few weeks after he moved to Atlanta, she walked into a bar where mutual acquaintances from the industry had gathered after work and Isabella recognized her immediately. Nemeth said she thought he looked familiar, but when she asked if they'd met before, Isabella tried to be cool. "I was like, 'Yeah, I don't know,' " he recalls. "I tried to play it off."
Quickly they fell into the same group of foodie friends, meeting at bars after their evening shifts, celebrating holidays on alternative days when none of them had to work. Within months, Nemeth and Isabella found themselves in the habit of spending Sundays together, having brunch and exploring new restaurants around Atlanta.
And Isabella found himself with a fierce crush. With his courage bolstered by cocktails on occasion, he'd tell Nemeth as much -- "but she kept fighting me off," he recalls.
The rejections punctured his ego, but didn't dampen his affections.
"I knew. I just knew. I got a funny feeling long before we started dating that this was the right one -- the one for me," says Isabella, 34. "I just hoped I was the one for her."
Nemeth's resistance held for almost a year, but as their Sunday outings progressed, Isabella's joking, boisterous front gave way to deeper conversations. Nemeth "started seeing a more serious side, knowing his goals and where he wanted to go in life and realizing, 'Okay this isn't just a guy who's looking to have fun,' " she says.
A mutual friend kept pushing Nemeth, 28, to go on a real date with Isabella -- "which we had kind of been doing all along" -- and when she finally did, the romance came fast and easy.
"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.' "