From The Ground Up: Top Chef’s Mike Isabella on Opening His First Restaurant, Graffiato, in Washington, D.C.
It’s odd, whether it’s watching someone of television, following them on twitter, or, god forbid, hearing about someone before meeting them (I’m talking real-time here), you never quite know what’s going to happen when you finally meet face-to-face. That being said, I had an amazing opportunity to sit down with Chef Mike Isabella from Top Chef: Las Vegas, and most recently Top Chef: All Stars, where he was the runner-up, to talk about his restaurant, Graffiato, which is slated to open soon in the heart of Washington, D.C. in just a few weeks.
Needless to say, I was excited to finally meet the man behind the pepperoni sauce.
What was it like transitioning from an executive chef to a first-time restaurant owner? It was scary. You know, I had a great job, a lot of control, they were talking about partnership, and giving it all up, not taking any pay and putting it all into [my own] restaurant. Now, being three or four weeks away from opening, it was the best decision that I have ever made. We just have to get the people in here now and see if they enjoy the food.
Would you say it was a smooth or bumpy road? You have to sacrifice a lot. My wife knows what goes on, she helps me with this, and all of those people who you’ve done favours for over the years, you reach out to them too. Once Graffiato opens, I’ll be here seven days a week, open to close.
Has the idea of opening Graffiato been in your mind for quite some time? For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on this concept, trying to make it great. I really wanted to encorporate eveything to get that perfect restaurant, and this is the first of hopefully many. Graffiato [will be] my ‘home base’…simple food, but fun. I want to do different concepts. I want to open all the different types of food I like to eat, then open up those concepts, and be good to go!
I love the fact that you’ll be curing all your meats in-house. My favourite restaurant in Calgary, Charcut, boasts a signature pig’s head mortadella. Any signatures you forsee for Graffiato? I like to do everything in-house. The down side is that you can make something that takes three months to cure, then taste it, and realize it’s not what you want it to taste like, then have to start over. Lomo is my favourite cured meat. You take the whole pork loin, brine it for a few days, then marinate it, brine it, marinate again, and hang it for awhile. It’s simple, and it tastes great.
You’re setting up Graffiato as an open concept-feeling establishment. With a butcher bar and seating in front of the wood fire oven, what do you think will be ‘the’ place to sit here? People have been asking me that a lot lately. I think probably the pizza bar. Lots of people want to see the chefs doing the work. I’ll be here 7 days a week, open to close, for the first while, so if people want to see me in action, they can come on down!
What do you think the menu at Graffiato says about you, both as a person and as a chef? I think if you read the menu, you’ll think ‘This is Mike Isabella’s menu’. When we talk about Graffiato being ‘Italian-inspired’ the best way to put it is that I take flavours that I can remember tasting when I was a kid…
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