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'Top Chef' Alum Mike Isabella on Why He's Constantly Reinventing His Food in D.C.

By Michael M. Clements | January 24, 2018 | Food & Drink

The amount of responsibility chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella has on his plate is a tall order for anybody, but by embracing his passion for experimentation and hard work he’s cooking up something special.

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Restaurateur and chef Mike Isabella strolls by the fountains in front of Requin. The upscale contemporary French concept is the Wharf’s only stand-alone retail site—Isabella said it was the only location he wanted in the new Southwest DC mega-development.

It’s one of those crisp and sunny mid-Atlantic fall mornings and Mike Isabella is soaking it in seated at a two-top outside his Wharf-based French restaurant, Requin. “I haven’t felt like this in awhile,” he says, squinting at the sun reflecting off the Potomac. “Just kind of sitting on the pier in an amazing restaurant. I always wanted to have a restaurant on the water,” he confesses.

He looks surprisingly relaxed for a celebrity chef with 12 local restaurants including, Requin; a catering company, Plum Relish; multiple stadium and airport concessions; and the ambitious 41,000-square-foot namesake, Isabella Eatery in Tysons Corner.

“You are only as good as your team,” he tells me. I’m sure most restaurateurs would agree, but for this chef, there is denitely an “I” in team—as in Isabella. “You have to recruit and train and put people in a position to succeed; but getting them to envision what I envision; getting them on board to succeed with me—that is what it comes down to.”

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Aged duck bomba rice from Arroz. The restaurant reflects Isabella’s take on the contemporary flavors of Southern Spain and Morocco.

It’s the ultimate leadership conundrum—commanding and empowering a team to excel while remaining steadfast and unwavering when executing your vision. “Being involved at every point of access has made me who I am,” he explains. “How do you change that? You can’t. You hand the keys o to someone and it’s not going be what you like, you’re going to walk in there and be like: ‘What’s going on, this is not what I wanted.’ You can’t put that person in that situation, you have to support them and train them and teach them what you want and how you want it.”

And what Mike Isabella wants is constantly evolving. He’s done Greek (Kapnos), Italian (Graffiato), French (Requin), contemporary Moroccan (Arroz), Japanese (Yona), and Mexican (Pepita). He traces his diverse palate back to his mom. “I grew up in a very Italian family—gravy every Sunday, family, pastas, pizzas—but my mom was a vegan so I also ate tabbouleh and hummus,” he recalls, nishing, “the Mediterranean vegetarian style—that’s what I loved. When I found out about cooking Greek food on a dierent level, it changed the game for me.”

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The bar program at Requin is headed up by Taha Ismail and general managerwine director Jennifer Knowles. The cocktails include martini service where your cocktail is escorted by housepickled onions and extra gin in an icy carafe.

Game changing because that revelation brought him to the upscale Greek restaurant Kyma in Atlanta—which eventually led to the opening of three Kapnos restaurants in Washington and Virginia. It also began a post-culinary school formative period where he sought out working with some of the industry’s most skilled restaurateurs—not to mention his winning Top Chef foray.

“I didn’t want to be like everyone else, I wanted to be something different,” he explains with emphasis. “That’s why I worked for a lot of dierent chefs doing a lot of dierent things, doing dierent foods. Chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Jose Garces, Stephen Starr and José Andrés. Because when you start putting avors together and making them your own—that’s what sets you apart.”

Aside from refusing to get locked into one cuisine, the now 43-year old chef also attributes his success to putting his nose to the grindstone. His motto is “work hard, play hard” and you’re either with that or not.

“If you’re a chef you have to commit your life,” he explains. “No more nights. No more weekends. No more holidays. No more days off. Twelve to 15 hour days. This is our life. You have to believe in that; and if you do, then I want you to work for me. If you don’t, you know, go down the block, I’m sure that guy will probably pay you more money then I will,” he says with a robust chuckle. Joking aside, his approach is working—the majority of his executive team have been with him for eight to nine years.

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The marrow bone au poivre at Isabella’s French-Mediterranean concept, Requin.

Isabella credits his grandmother for focusing his frenetic energy. “My first food memory is running around like a wild child when I was around five [he laughs] and my grandmother grabbing me by the back of my shirt and pulling me in the kitchen because I was harassing my cousins and my family, and she said, ‘You’re going to roll meatballs.’ That’s when I learned how to cook.” He finishes sentimentally, “I wish she were around to see what I’ve accomplished.”

That list of accomplishments is growing daily. Between all his food and beverage ventures, he estimates he’s reaching thousands of people each week. But ultimately, he claims, that’s just the beginning.

“I want to serve a billion people. I want to touch everyone with my food and my vision. It’s not just about doing lunches, stadiums or airports,” he says before invoking his grandmother again. “It’s the same mentality as having my friends come by and my grandmother saying, ‘Let me cook for you—here’s some pasta, here’s some meatballs,’ that’s what it’s about.”

Does this mean he’ll be leaving Washington to expand? “I really love being able to drive to my restaurants. I don’t know if I want to leave the DMV. I love it here.” Just then two women interrupt and ask to see a menu. Isabella smiles and heads inside to grab one—time to roll the meatballs.



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