Season Four gave us Spike Mendelsohn, a DC transplant, who checked out at a respectable fifth place. Season Five gave us Carla Hall (not to mention Jill Snyder from Baltimore). We were able to root for her as a local – and an all-around solid competitor – all the way to the finale. With the season premiere of Top Chef’s sixth season just a few days away, we here in Washington have high hopes that this may be the season where one of our local cheftestants takes the win.
With not one but three competitors representing Washington, Baltimore and points in between (Frederick), those hopes have a better shot than ever before at being fulfilled. Mike Isabella, head chef at Zaytinya; Bryan Voltaggio, chef/owner of Volt in Frederick; and Jesse Sandlin, executive chef of Abacrombie Fine Foods & Dining in Baltimore all packed their knives and headed out to Las Vegas this spring to measure themselves against fourteen other chefs from across the country.
We here at Capital Spice reached out to all three locals to talk to them in advance of Wednesday’s premiere. First up: Mike Isabella. Of the three cheftestants we interviewed, Isabella definitely brought the most swagger. This Jersey boy has cooked his way up and down the Eastern seaboard, working in some of the top kitchens in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta before making his way to Washington about two and a half years ago. These days, he’s the head chef at Jose Andres’ Zaytinya. He oversees their menu of Greek, Turkish and Lebanese small plates (with a few other Eastern Mediterranean cuisines thrown in for good measure), squeeze bottle of Greek olive oil in hand.
Capital Spice: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. So what kinds of thoughts did you have going into the competition?
Mike Isabella: From past seasons, I had an idea that the competitive aspect of the show would be tough. I didn’t find out just how tough until after I got there. I wanted to make sure my flavors showed through in everything I did.
CS: And how would you describe your flavors?
MI: I’m definitely an ethnic chef, and I’ve learned under some of the best ethnic chefs as I’ve come up. I’ve got a lot of experience with Greek dishes, so I’d say those flavors are my flavors.
CS: It was something of an open secret that you were out in Vegas competing. Any idea how the cat got out of the bag?
MI: Zaytinya is a monster restaurant. We’ve got a staff of 160 employees at Zaytinya – 60 in the kitchen alone. That’s a lot of opportunities for leaks. On top of that, I’m usually out of the kitchen a lot in the restaurant; people noticed that I wasn’t around for a while.
More with Mike Isabella after the jump.
CS: When you found out you were going to be competing, did you reach out to anyone for advice?
MI: I talked with Spike and Marcel [Vigneron, a competitor from Season 2], but neither one of them told me much. They didn’t want to give too much away.
CS: Once you got to Vegas, did you start sizing up your competition right away?
MI: Not really. I mean, everyone there were great chefs – that much was obvious as soon as we started talking. Going into the show, I just didn’t want to beat myself.
CS: Back to DC for a bit. Zaytinya is a Jose Andres restaurant – would you say the menu there reflects your vision more, or his?
MI: Chef Andres is great about giving his chefs a lot of freedom in their restaurants, though he’s got the ultimate say on whether or not a dish goes onto the menu. I really get to be creative.
CS: That brings up an interesting point. Jose Andres is a BIG proponent of Spanish products…including their olive oil. But your cuisine is primarily Greek. Which country’s olive oil is in the kitchen at Zaytinya?
MI: Greek, all the way. I’d say Greek olive oil touches almost 100% of my dishes. We even keep squeeze bottles of it on the line and for finishing touches.
CS: So how hard do you think it’s going to be to handle all of the questions from prying diners?
MI: I’m looking forward to it…I like to keep people on their toes.
CS: Any thoughts about what we can expect to see when the new season debuts?
MI: Expect the unexpected. This is going to be an awesome season.
CS: We’re definitely looking forward to it, considering the talent from our area…
MI: Absolutely. DC has a lot going on when it comes to restaurants, and Bryan and I are two of the best you’ve seen so far.
CS: Thanks again, Chef. It was great speaking with you.
MI: Thank you.
After talking with Isabella, we went to Good Stuff Eatery’s Spike Mendelsohn to see what he had to say about Isabella’s chances. In between interviews with “Washington Unplugged Under 40” and his own branded pool party/film festival, he gave us some quick thoughts: “I eat at Zaytania a lot so I’m completely biased. I love that greek cuisine that uses sea salt, olive oil, lemon and fresh cracked pepper so I’m hoping Michael shows us what he’s got full force – he’ll be edgy but deliver simple cuisine that will win over the judges.”
As for worries that this season will deliver a new contestant to rival Spike’s signature style? “My look is pretty intact – no fedora wearing in your face character this season but it does look like a casting call for LA Ink. We’ve got some pretty serious contenders this time around looks llike an exciting season.”
Check us out tomorrow and Wednesday for interviews with Bryan Voltaggio and Jesse Sandlin as we count down to the new season premiere Wednesday night at 9 on by(huh? – can’t say I love that new slogan) Bravo.