Top Chef's Mike Isabella packs his knives
Thursday, October 29, 2009; 1:15 PM
Local cheftestant Mike Isabella of Zaytinya was booted off Top Chef last night for his plate of undercooked leeks. He was online Thursday, Oct. 29 at 1:15 p.m. to talk about his experiences on the show.
A transcript follows.
Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan writes: From the beginning of this season, "Top Chef: Las Vegas" watchers knew that Mike Isabella, chef at Zaytinya in Washington, was no shrinking violet. His comment during a clam-shuck-off that "a girl shouldn't be at the same level that I am" had him immediately branded by some in the blogosphere as a misogynist, and his cocky attitude since then left him cast as the season's jerk.
Last night, Isabella was told the immortal words, "Please pack your knives and go," after his dish for a vegetarian challenge involving actress Natalie Portman left her -- and the judges -- with a bad taste in their mouths. Was it Isabella's time to go? How much of the personality we see on the show is really him, and how much is creative editing by the Bravo production team?
Mike Isabella: It's great to be here to answer questions today. Let's get started.
Vienna, Va.: Do you feel that you were presented fairly on the show? Were there aspects of your personality that didn't make the final cut, but that you wish had?
Mike Isabella: In certain things, yeah of course. The show is only so long, it's more of a competition. There's a lot of things I would have liked to come out, but didn't, but it happens.
Washington, D.C.: What was your favorite challenge and why?
Any predictions on who will win?
Mike Isabella: My favorite challenge was the Joel Robuchon challenge. That was the best competition of the entire season for the majority of us. I think that was a phenomenal challenge to cook for someone at that level. He's an icon in our industry. I'm rooting for the Voltaggio bros. Those are my good buddies. I've known Mike for years. Hopefully one of them will win it.
How fast do the challenges happen?: It's difficult to tell from the TV show, but how often are the challenges coming at you? Are they every day? And do you get a chance to take a break or recover (or just catch up on sleep)?
Mike Isabella: Challenges are almost every single day. We don't get much recovery time at all. We don't get much sleep. The stronger ones survive. It's a tough competition regardless. There's no layover time. Not at all.
Atlanta, Ga.: Mike - love the show and loved your appearance. You made it so entertaining. I've watched Top Chef the last four seasons, and this is the first one I can remember where it seemed so obvious that some contestants were starting to break under the strain and duration -- do you think that's because BRAVO is trying to make it a storyline, or because this season has so many talented chefs that it takes more than just that talent to make it to the end? Feels more like Survivor than previous seasons!
Mike Isabella: The challenges I think were very tough this season. I think the competition was elite. People do crack underneath the stress and they make it very stressful for you, but that's part of one of us hopefully becoming Top Chef. Yeah it's hard and people are cracking under the pressure. You can see it.
Arlington, Va.: So, you think no girl can top you as a cook? A chef? What makes you so sure?
Mike Isabella: That was a joke. I don't know why people take everything so seriously. I make a lot of jokes. I don't claim to be better than everybody else, but I try to win every day and be better every day myself.
I was raised in a broken family by my mother and my sister so I have plenty of respect for women. It was sarcastic. I'm friends with Jen also.
Washington, D.C.: If you could create any challenge, what would it be and why?
Mike Isabella: I don't like creating challenges. I'm done creating challenges. I love to create food. I love to come up with new dishes, but I don't want to create new challenges.
Richmond, Va.: I've read some stuff from previous contestants saying that this season had it easy with Restaurant Wars. Would you have preferred building a restaurant from scratch or did you think this year, which featured more of the food, was better?
Mike Isabella: You know, for me, I've opened multiple restaurants -- obviously real ones-- it takes millions of dollars. I think it was a much better RW this year. How could you start a restaurant with $1,000? It's stupid. This year focused more on the food. I liked it better that way.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Being a Philly girl, I can't help but root for Jennifer. Did you know her before the competition..sometimes it seemed like you did? What are your predictions for the final 3?
Mike Isabella: Yeah, my buddy worked with Jen a long time ago. I didn't know her that well, but once we met it was like we were friends. I lived in Philly and she knew some of my friends and I knew some of hers. We stuck together with the Voltaggio brothers.
Final 3... it's a given now that I'm not there. Looks like it's gonna be Mike, Brian and Kevin. Jen's starting to fall apart it looks like.
Representing your restaurant: Were you at all concerned that peoples' perceptions of you might affect their likelihood to visit your restaurant, or is any publicity good publicity?
Mike Isabella: They always say any press is good press, but I don't know about that.. If people are watching Top Chef for the food, I think my food speaks for itself. Top Chef is a competition about the food and the chefs. It's really unique stuff on the show. Things that people haven't seen much.
Washington, D.C.: Has Zaytinya seen a boost in customers/sales since you have been on the show?
Mike Isabella: Um, it's hard to tell. We're one of the most busiest restaurants in DC to begin with. I do get fans coming in every day between lunch and dinner. We've been around for a long time. We're a staple for DC. A lot of the people I talk to say they've been coming for years.
It's hard to tell. Again, we're a busy restaurant.
Washington, DC: Hi Mike.
Carla Hall (TC5-NY) once said (referring to Stefan's edit), "If you say it, they can play it." You were portrayed as cocky and sexist. Were your comments cut in out of context? Do you feel that you received a fair edit?
Mike Isabella: Um, you know, you say it, they play it, that's exactly right. Cocky? I can deal with that. Sexist? Not one bit. Not oooone bit.
Anonymous: Hi Mike! Loved watching you on TC, though it was a bumpy start . . . I have a question re: Restaurant Wars. I read on a Toby interview that there was heated discussion on the Blue Team during Judge's Table about who should go home - can you get into that at all? Wondering if Kevin or Jen tried to fall on the sword. I think you would have rocked FOH.
Also, you took a lot of heat for the 1st episodes, but I ended up thinking you were one of the most likable, personable chefs. Robin IS annoying.
Mike Isabella: I don't think anyone wants to send themselves home. I think they both had very poor performances. Jen crumbled. She couldn't execute, wasn't set up. She brought the rest of the line down. She brought Kevin down, expo down. It is what it is. Was Laurine the right one to go home? I don't know about that. I'm not going to say who should or shouldn't go home.
Petworth, Washington, D.C.: Have you gotten any feedback from Jose Andres (your boss, I assume) or did Jen get any from Eric Ripert?
Mike Isabella: I mean yeah, I definitely got feedback. I talked to him before, during and after the show. He was the only one who knew everything that was going on. I told him how I lost and he told me some things he would have done differently. He's one of my mentors.
Washington, D.C.: I'm sorry to see you go. Here is my question: How much is the Michael/Bryan rivalry played up by producers? Did this go on when the camera's weren't rolling? Thanks!
Mike Isabella: It was played up by producers. They're brothers. They love each other. There's some rivalry, but of course they're going to produce it because it's marketable.
Washington, DC: Was/is it hard to keep things secret during/after filming Top Chef and before it was aired?
Mike Isabella: The hardest thing to keep secret was not telling people I was on Top Chef when we recorded it, before it got announced. Everyone has respect for knowing I can't say what happens next week. The hardest part was lying to people and saying I wasn't on Top Chef before it got announced.
Silver Spring, Md.: What are your favorite places to eat in D.C.? Have you been to Volt since the show finished (and has Brian been to Zaytinya)?
Mike Isabella: Yes and yes. I've been to Volt and Brian has been to Zaytinya.
I go out a lot. One of my favorite restaurants is called New Big Wong, a Chinese hole in the wall that has awesome Chinese food. I love the Source, Volt and then also Good Stuff Eatery, Spike's burger joint.
D.C. Native: This seemed like the first time the DC area was well represented on Top Chef. You also commented last night that TC represents the next generation of great chefs. How do you think D.C. is as a learning environment for young and upcoming chefs?
Mike Isabella: I think DC is a culinary scene right now. A lot of great restaurants, a lot of upcoming chefs. I think it's a great city to be a part of right now.
Silver Spring, Md.: Were you as star struck by Natalie Portman as the editing made you appear?
Mike Isabella: Not one bit. I don't get star struck over anybody.
Stone Ridge, Va.: Who would you rather have dinner with - Padma or Tom? Bryan or Michael?
Mike Isabella: Tom without a doubt. Tom's a chef. We relate. Padma --- pbbbbtt -- I wouldn't go out to dinner if she was buying. Just joking!
That's a tough one. I'd probably say Mike because he's on the west coast and I don't see him as much. They're both great people.
Washington, D.C.: I didn't think you were a jerk -- and you certainly had personality. I've never tried your restaurant in D.C., but will stop in sometime. Enjoyed your style of cooking. You mean to tell me Robin is still there? That woman could not cook her way out of a paper bag.
Mike Isabella: That's totally true. She can't cook.
Rockville, Md.: Did Spike give you any tips for your Top Chef appearance?
Mike Isabella: One tip he gave me was in quickfires make sure you get your proteins first out of the refrigerator. There's only one bag of tuna, one this, one that. It was a great tip.
Washington, D.C.: Will any of the dishes you made on Top Chef be making their way to the Zaytinya menu?
Mike Isabella: I have some similar dishes on the menu. I have the kibbeh fritter that I did on the pork challenge. Also the snails from the snail competition I did too. I have a similar dish on the menu.
Why no eggs?: I was very curious with last night's challenge why no one made a frittata or used dairy at all. At first, I figured it was because Natalie is hard-core vegan & not ovo-lacto, but Bravo's editor wrote on the site that everyone was encouraged to use dairy. Did you guys think it too risky to serve Natalie dairy products?
Mike Isabella: No, I don't think it was too risky. I can't speak for anyone else. I wanted to do something more with vegetables, cook em, serve em in a little bit of a nicer way. If I was to redo the challenge I probably would have done a risotto or paella.
Jerry's Apartment: How is it that you've never seen Seinfeld?
Mike Isabella: I don't really watch TV much at all. When I do watch it I watch ESPN or MTV. I don't really watch regular TV.
Olney, Md.: How long is the actual contest? A few weeks? A month? I'm curious.
Mike Isabella: Six weeks.
House of no love: Hi Mike,
Really enjoyed your time on the show & thought you ended up (or started with) a bad rap. My question is about the tense atmosphere in the house. Did that get progressively worse as people left? It seems to be almost unbearable now.
Mike Isabella: The hard part is it's tough living in that house. There's nothing there. It's just a space with people in it. No TV, internet, books, newspapers, radio, nothing. It's tough living there.
DC: Hi Mike, thanks for taking questions today.
What do you do after work? Are there any chef go-to places in Washington? You hear about New York restaurants that are frequented by the after-work chef crowd, but where do DC chefs like to eat?
Just wondering. Thanks!
Mike Isabella: I go to the bar lounge at The Source sometimes. Zaytinya is a big chef's hangout. It's open late and has a big bar, lots of small plates. Also, an upcoming area is the 14th St. area. Lots of new restaurants and bars. A lot of people have been going there lately.
Washington, D.C.: How do you handle customers who have food allergies? I am gluten- intolerant and do not eat out often as it is quite a challenge. Even simply not being able to eat the wonderful breads in bread baskets leaves me disappointed.
Mike Isabella: In my restaurant we get a ton of people with allergies. We have a big menu with a huge array of vegetarian dishes. I have seven different allergy menus that simplify ordering if someone has a shellfish or gluten allergy. Come to Zaytinya. You won't have a problem eating.
Virginia: There have been calls to boycott Zaytinya based on your "girl" comment. How do you feel about that?
Mike Isabella: Again, it's something that was taken out of context. It was a joke. I'm sorry they feel that way. If they're watching the show for the food, they shouldn't have any issues coming to Zaytinya. If they're watching for other stuff, so be it.
Washington, D.C.: Did you guys do anything crazy and fun while waiting for the judges' decisions?
Mike Isabella: No. We drove each other nuts.
NW D.C.: Congrats on making it so far! Where do you see yourself a year from now? 5? 10? Has being on TC given you a boost? Street cred, so to speak?
Mike Isabella: Hopefully owning my own restaurant and multiple restaurants down the road. That's the goal. Top Chef helped out by putting my name and face out there, and my food. Hopefully it will help out.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think that part of the reason you were eliminated was karma coming back around to get you for your cocky, demeaning attitude towards other contestants?
Mike Isabella: Ha. Uhhhh, these people are crazy.
No, I don't think it's karma. I didn't do a good job on the dish and I got sent home for it.
Arlington, Va.: I was confused by last night's episode. Why was there no cheese, rice, or pasta used in the vegetarian dishes? Were there rules that were not made clear on the show? It seemed like contestants used vegetables only.
I don't think I saw any fruit, either.
Mike Isabella: No there were no rules. There were some lentils, I think there might have been rice. We all wanted to cook fresh vegetables.
Washington, D.C.: Your confidence was obvious, were you maybe too confident?
Mike Isabella: I've competed a lot in sports. I never go into a game or a match second guessing myself. I go in with the attitude that I'm going to win. That's the way I work.
Washington, D.C.: Is Toby really as mean as they make him out to be?
Mike Isabella: I don't know. He wasn't there a lot and when he was there I wasn't in the loser circle. The harshest judge there is Padma. It's her demeanor as a person. It's who she is! It's TV. She's harsh and rude. I don't agree with certain things that they say, but that's not my decision.
D.C.: If someone is just learning to cook -- where should they start? Would you recommend any best practices or books for a beginner or someone who loves to cook but has no training?
Mike Isabella: Uh, books? You can't learn how to cook out of a book. School? Some cooking classes? That's the best way to do it. School or classes, not a book.
Arlington, Va.: If you were to enter a restaurant where Robin is the chef, what would you order?
Mike Isabella: Nothing.
Washington, D.C.: How come 'Top Chefs' have so much difficulty cooking vegetables?
Mike Isabella: Do we? We have a tough time with vegetables? I think it's being given restraints. Being in a different kitchen, having restraints, having different ovens, that's what makes it tough. The food is secondary for us. If you put us into new equations every time, it stirs you up a little bit.
D.C.: Well, now that you are gone, I'm rooting for Kevin. At least if he wins, he will SMILE. I think the Voltaggio brothers don't even know how to smile. Meanwhile Jennifer is like a robot.
See ya at Zaytinya soon and congratulations on your efforts on the show.
Mike Isabella: Thanks for your support.
Washington, D.C.: Mike, I'm a big fan of T.C. Did you like doing the challenges in pairs? I felt that some chefs were able to slide to the next round based on their partner's work. Especially when the chefs were teamed up w/the Voltaggio bros.
Mike Isabella: Yeah, I don't like team challenges at all. I'd rather it be individual challenges every single time. It was fun sometimes with the groups, but definitely people skated along...a.k.a. Robin.
Mike Isabella: I want to thank everyone for their support and for rooting for me throughout the season. Come to Zaytinya and say hello.
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