When Mike Isabella was a kid, his grandmother put him to work in the kitchen — picking parsley, cleaning garlic, rolling meatballs — to keep him out of trouble. It was enough to instill fond memories and a deep love of cooking in the admittedly wild kid.
“Growing up in an Italian family, cooking was very important,” Isabella says. “It was my grandmother and all of her sisters always in the kitchen cooking. There weren’t men in the kitchen. When I went to my Aunt Connie’s house or my cousin Carol’s house, I always wanted to get in the kitchen, and they’d always push me out; but I’d always sneak my way in and ask, ‘What are you putting in there?’ and ‘How do you make that?'”
For Isabella, what started as a distraction and simple family tradition has turned into working with some of the world’s most celebrated chefs, two Top Chef appearances and far-flung tasting expeditions, spawning 10 Washington, D.C.–area restaurants and counting.
His latest, Arroz, is a fusion of southern Spanish and northern Moroccan cuisine inside the Marriott Marquis Washington, DC. It’s here that Marriott TRAVELER caught up with Isabella to talk about his growing, globally inspired restaurant empire and D.C.’s exploding food scene.
[Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]
How has travel influenced your restaurants and particularly Arroz?
Some of my favorite countries to go to are Greece, Italy and Spain. I have Greek restaurants, Italian restaurants, Spanish restaurants. For me it’s the islands of Greece and Tuscany in Italy.
In Spain it’s the south of Spain, Seville. I love the different regions. I’ve been all over northern Spain. I’ve been to Barcelona. But the food in southern Spain, it’s just something special. … When you look at the flavors of southern Spain, you have a lot of Moroccan flavors in the spice work.
While travel has inspired your restaurants, who has influenced you as a chef and restaurateur?
I’ve worked for a lot of great chefs, and I’ve learned different things from all of them. Back in the day I worked for Jose Garces in Philadelphia. He was a great creative chef but also a phenomenal business chef. I learned a lot about the business from him.
Working for Marcus Samuelsson, a world traveler, a guy whose flavors are amazing, and the combinations of flavors are so unique and different that he kind of blew my mind from a flavor standpoint.
Working with José Andrés, he’s a great leader, and being a leader is very powerful. I learned from him how to run a kitchen and run a restaurant. Just taking different things from all the chefs has been a great experience.
How would you describe your time on Top Chef?
It was great. The first time I went on, in season six, it was great to go on in a season with so many great chefs from around the country. The competition level was serious, and to be able to be there for six weeks cooking every day and seeing what they’re doing compared to what you’re doing, it’s like training from 15 other chefs.
It’s seeing really cool stuff, especially when you’re doing Quickfire. It’s like here’s your potato, and you see 15 different potato dishes … I would have never thought to do that, or that or that, and we’re all looking at each other’s food.
It’s just really inspiring to work alongside amazing talent like the Voltaggio brothers, Jen Carroll, Kevin Gillespie. … Kevin has multiple restaurants. Mike [Voltaggio] has multiple restaurants. Bryan [Voltaggio] has multiple restaurants … Eli [Kirshtein].
There were just a lot of great people coming from that season that made it special, and now they’re all successful chefs.
Did the competition elevate your creativity as a chef?
It really changed when I got back to D.C. I just started exploring more with food — different cuts of meat and vegetables and presentations and techniques of cooking things. It just really opened [my] eyes to a lot more.
It’s like spending a lot of time traveling for months to eat at different restaurants and also working in them and taking all that on in a faster realm. It showed me that it was time to take the next step and do my own project.
Was it easy to make the transition from chef to restaurateur?
After opening up Graffiato, having a line down the block after Top Chef certainly helped. Made it a little bit easier. It makes you more of an operator when there are issues, and you have to know how to fix them and have an answer for them.
I felt like as a chef I wasn’t being challenged. I had an answer for any question that people asked me. I wanted to take the next step to challenge myself, and that’s what led me to open Graffiato.
For me, being a chef, it was great giving people great food and great dishes. Being a restaurateur, I’m not just giving you good food — I’m giving you good drinks. I’m giving you good service. I’m giving you good ambience. I want to give you the whole experience when you walk in my doors. That was a big thing for me when I opened my first restaurant.
You have 10 restaurants in the D.C. area, but your next big concept combines 10 in one massive food hall. Tell us about it.
As I continue to open new restaurants, I am always thinking of new concepts. Isabella Eatery will be 42,000 square feet with 10 concepts in Tysons, Virgina. Putting something like that together is challenging but exciting, fun and scary at the same time.
You’re going to have a little bit of all my stuff in there — six bars, coffee shop, ice-cream parlor, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, raw bar, sangria bar and a craft cocktail bar. You’ll be able to sit at one table in one main dining area, and you’ll be able to get food from the different concepts. You can’t get that anywhere. Here you’ll get it all.
I visited Eataly in New York when it opened, and I’ve been traveling to food halls all over the world. I’ve been to a lot of places, and I wanted to do something different and unique. There are cool [food halls] in Italy, cool ones in Portugal, cool ones in Spain, but they are all focused on one indigenous cuisine.
There are food halls where you can sit one place but not bring food from another. It’s annoying. I’m a restaurant operator, and I wanted to make this food hall one big restaurant with a lot of different amenities. There’s nothing like it, just like there is nothing like Arroz.
How would you describe the growth of the food scene in D.C?
I’ve been in D.C. for 10 years, and there’s nothing like it. From moving here 10 years ago, you had a couple of big-name chefs, and that was it. And now you have all these new neighborhoods, chefs from out of town, chefs from New York. It’s great. This dining scene is monstrous. It’s great to be a part of.
Where are you eating now in D.C, besides your own spots?
There are a lot of great restaurants. The Dabney is a great restaurant. There’s so many different types. Daikaya‘s got great ramen. Masseria is a really good Italian restaurant from Nick Stefanelli. Chiko just opened, and it’s fast-casual Korean Chinese. Del Campo is an awesome Latin place. The list goes on. I could go on naming restaurants forever.
What do you do in your downtime in D.C.?
I love the Caps and the Nats. I bounce around to friends’ restaurants. When I have time I like to travel. I like to get inspired by other countries and cities. I like to do my three- or four-day trips, whether it’s Chicago or New Orleans or Miami, Carolina or Boston.
What places have inspired you recently?
Momotaro in Chicago, Uchi (Japanese) in Austin, Zahav (Israeli) in Philly. … It’s the design, the service, the food, the creativity, the vibe. The vibe is always a big thing for me. They’re unique. They’re different. There’re fun.
When you’ve got friends or family coming to D.C., where do you take them?
When I’ve got friends or family that come to town, I want to take them to my restaurants and show them what we do. I’d take them to Arroz for a classy dining experience and brunch at Kapnos. For a snack, get pizza at Graffiato. In Virginia I love Pepita for the margaritas and the sushi at Yona. You can pretty much eat your way around D.C. at a Mike Isabella spot.
This story appears as a part of a partnership with Marriott Hotels and Travel Brilliantly, fostering the creativity of the inventive class through stories that motivate, inspire and fuel a constant quest for knowledge. Read “At Arroz, Travel Is Mike Isabella’s Secret Ingredient,” there.