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Mike Isabella On Being Top Chef Runner-Up, Plans For Graffiato, And DC's Culinary Scene

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Mike Isabella
Mike Isabella
Photo: Alicia Griffin/Flickr

Top Chef All-Stars may have ended last night with a win for culinary wizard Richard Blais, but DC's own Mike Isabella made sure the competition was tight. Top Chef may be over, but things aren't calming down yet for Isabella: His new restaurant Graffiato is slated to open in May. We talked to him about the finale episode, his plans for the new Penn Quarter digs and what it was like to represent DC in such a big way.

You had a lot of momentum going into the finale. How did that affect your mindset?

I thought I was going to win, going in with so much. I won almost every competition during the Bahamas. I won a couple Quickfires, I won a couple Elimination challenges. I thought I was going to roll right in and win the championship. I cooked to win the championship and it showed. Anyone could have won. That's how close it was. It was splitting hairs. I feel like I did win — I just didn't get the check for $200,000.

Are you going to hassle Blais for the money he offered you?

He's got his own thing and he's probably not going to give me the money, but it's all good. Hopefully down the road we can do a project together.

The challenge was to create the restaurant of your dreams. How does what you did play into your plans for Graffiato?

I signed a lease for Graffiato almost a year ago. I was working on Graffiato even before that. So I've been really working on this project for over two years. And now it's coming all together. We're opening up in May, we're about five or six weeks away, so everything's rolling.

So did you use some of your plans for Graffiato in the finale, then?

To an extent, I put in that mentality. Graffiato is a casual place, a lot of wood-oven cooking. We'll have pizzas, pasta, a lot of seasonal, local products. That's more of the mentality. Everything is more played for the sharing at Graffiato. So I just took some of the flavor profiles we're going to use at Graffiato and I incorporated that into a tasting menu, which we won't be doing at Graffiato. Let me say, I put an Italian flavor profile that I grew up with in each course. So, I went mozzerella then pancetta then to pepperoni then rosemary. And those are Italian flavor profiles that I grew up with that I incorporated into Restaurant Iz at the finale.

And it got pretty emotional there at the end. Can you tell me a little bit about what goes going through your mind? A lot of people really seemed to like seeing the softer side of you last night.

It was emotional. My wife came, my mom, my sister. I put everything out there. I put everything on the line for the finale and for the season. The number one thing, I wanted to really do it for my wife and for my family and friends and my restaurant, my city. So I felt like I accomplished what I wanted before they made the judgment with the food I cooked and the concept I came up with. The finale, competing against the best guy, Blais. I just wanted to win for everybody else.

And so I know Graffiato's not even open, but I've heard you've been coming up with other projects like a cookbook. I was just wondering if you could talk a little about that.

Nothing with a cookbook. Right now my focus is getting through Top Chef and opening up my restaurant. That's the only thing on my board right now. A lot of the other stuff is just talking gossip. I'm really busy right now. I'm a couple weeks from opening. I've got to open up this restaurant. Yes, do people come up to you with all these different things in front of you, "Here's a million dollars, here's this, I want you to do a book, I want you to write a movie" and all this? Sure. But at the end of the day, as I said, the check's not in the mail, it doesn't mean anything. No, right now it's just Graffiato.

And how do you feel representing DC so far into Top Chef All-Stars?

For me, I'm really happy to be a part of that. I feel like we're one of the biggest growing culinary scenes. Yes, New York is New York and will always be New York. Cali and Chicago are the two other major powerhouses. Well, DC's hoping to be a powerhouse also one day. I'm a part of the growth and it's just been great and it's been better every day.

· The Winner of Top Chef All-Stars Is Richard Blais! [-E-]
· All Previous Mike Isabella Coverage [-E-]
· All Previous Graffiato Coverage [-EDC-]