Mike Isabella ended his second — and more successful — stint on “Top Chef” just three months before opening Graffiato, an Italian restaurant in Chinatown last summer. When it opened, reservations in the 130-seat dining room were very hard to come by for months.
“ ‘Top Chef’ was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “It definitely took a lot out of me and gave me a lot more gray hair than I intended on having . . . and it opened a lot of doors.”
While Isabella, 37, is known for cooking on TV and in the kitchen of his restaurant, when it comes to making meals at home, his approach is less hands-on.
“I don’t do much,” the New Jersey native admits as he glances at his wife, Stacy. “If she wasn’t here, I’d tell you I did.”
The lack of cooking he does at home is one reason it wasn’t the kitchen that drew him to his new Chinatown apartment. It was the open floor plan and the view. Directly opposite the kitchen is an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the city.
“I love the city and being able to cook and stare out into it,” he says. “Graffiato and Bandolero have open kitchens. I think every kitchen I have will be open. If there is a wall, I will knock it down.”
The open nature of Isabella’s home kitchen makes the 18-by-9 foot space feel larger than it is. But the size, he says, is perfect for an apartment.
“If you have a big kitchen, it’s a waste of space,” he says. “You only need the essentials.”
Essentials for this chef include a good stove (“the heart and soul of a kitchen,” he says), sharp knives, heat-resistant utensils and enough cabinet space to store his Le Creuset cookware and his appliances.
“I don’t like to leave appliances out,” he says. “It’s messy.”
When asked if that means he’s neat when he cooks, Isabella hesitates and laughs. So does his wife. “I’m very organized in the kitchen,” he says. “That’s the best way to put it.”
In Isabella’s organized kitchen, light-color cabinets, polished black granite countertops and a suite of GE Profile stainless-steel appliances sit across from a granite-topped island with a row of backless stools.
Because they are renting, he has no plans to make changes to this kitchen, such as tiling the backsplash (which would be easier to clean, he says) or swapping out the electric range for a gas model.
“I don’t mind having electric because I don’t cook on it that often,” he says. “If you’re cooking for two to six people, it’s perfectly fine, but if you’re cooking for more people, you want more firepower.”
If he were to make changes, function, not aesthetics, would come first.
“The more details you have, the more the cost goes up,” he says. “So for me, less is more.”
That rule doesn’t appear to apply to his career.
“I’d like to continue to be part of the growing D.C. culinary scene, and I’d like to open more casual restaurants, because I think we need more of them,” he says.
Isabella may have just missed winning the $200,000 grand prize and title of Top Chef, but it clearly hasn’t fazed him.
“I didn’t win,” he says, “but I got what I wanted.”
Lives in: Chinatown
‘Top Chef’: Season 6, 7th place; Season 8 (All-Stars) runner-up
Graffiato. Italian-inspired restaurant in Chinatown, opened June 2011
Bandolero. Modern Mexican restaurant in Georgetown, opening spring 2012
Kapnos. Greek restaurant, 14th Street corridor, scheduled to open early 2013
G. Italian restaurant, 14th Street corridor, scheduled to open early 2013
“Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian.” Cookbook, to be published fall 2012
Most important element of a kitchen: Space. That doesn’t mean huge; it just means being organized. When you live in the city, you have to be organized in a small space to be able to put out good food.
Advice for someone renovating a kitchen: Get a good oven because it’s the heart and soul of your kitchen. And don’t worry about getting an oven with a bunch of special features. If you know how to cook, all you need is an on-and-off switch. Besides a good oven, a double sink. You don't want dirty dishes sitting out in the open. It looks messy.
Most recent kitchen purchase: I always make sure we have nice, sharp Japanese knives. Misono knives are great for the home.
Describe your dream kitchen: It really depends on the space, but it would be a custom kitchen with a nice gas range, a big fridge and an island with a deck oven for pizza. My goal is buy an old D.C. brownstone, gut it, redo it and put in a professional kitchen.
What you have at work that you wish you had at home: A Vitamix blender. It’s the best in the world. It can make anything. It’s so powerful, it’s as fast as my scooter. It purees everything into silkiness.
Favorite dish to eat: I do love a good cheeseburger, I’m not going to lie. And, no, I’m never going to open a hamburger place.