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'I Just Hoped I Was the One for Her'

Stacy Nemeth & Michael Isabella

Common interests and a passion for all things delicious brought Stacy Nemeth and Michael Isabella together.
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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.

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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.

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