When the list of competitors for this All-Star season of Top Chef was announced, we were excited to see Washington represented by three of the most memorable characters from their respective seasons. As the season has gone on, we’ve been cheering ever more enthusiastically as two of our three local cheftestants demonstrated that they have what it takes to go the distance (or at least as far as the Bahamas). Our chefs now represent 40% of the Final Five, and the smart money is on at least one of them making it into the Top Three.
We got a chance to chat with both of our local chefs after last week’s episode, and what we heard from Mike Isabella and Carla Hall made us even more excited for what is yet to come – both on the show and in their local endeavors. Check out our interview with Mike today, and then join us tomorrow for our chat with Carla before watching the first of the finale episodes tomorrow night.
Capital Spice: Congratulations on making it all the way to the finals, Chef. You’ve been a solid competitor throughout the season.
Mike Isabella: Thanks. It was definitely tough competition to get there.
CS: Let’s talk about your new restaurant, Graffiato, first. How’s everything going?
MI: It’s going good. We’re still under construction, putting in the duct work, the heaters, the framing. Next week we’ll be laying the pipes for the water and gas. I’d say we’re looking at a later spring opening at this point.
CS: Being in the middle of all of this construction, it must have been hard to travel and stay focused for the finale episodes as a result.
MI: Actually, I was really focused. I have a great team working with me on Graffiato, including a lot of chefs and staff who are coming over with me. That freed me up and allowed me to focus [on Top Chef] again.
After the jump, we talk Quickfire wins – both satisfying and controversial – and find out who Isabella thinks went home before their time.
CS: So you won the “Colicchio Cookoff” Quickfire Challenge with a branzino dish that looked absolutely delicious. Any chance it might show up on the menu at Graffiato?
MI: You know, I’ve done a lot of seafood dishes at my previous restaurants, but Graffiato is going to be veg-oriented. The branzino probably won’t be a dish I’ll do much at Graffiato, but I might work with the fish as a weekend special from time to time.
CS: That win had to feel good. How’s the Toyota Prius you won treating you?
MI: Absolutely. It was a point of pride being able to keep up with Tom like that. As for the Prius, I haven’t actually received it yet – it’ll come after the season is over.
CS: And how about your second Quickfire win – you took a lot of heat for doing a dish that seemed to be pretty heavily influenced by one of Richard Blais’ concepts.
MI: I stand by my dish – it was a solid win. We’re all chefs, and yes we talk in the house. Just like in the kitchen, we feed off of each other, we take different visions and we make them our own. Everyone has their own version of a dish. I acknowledged that he inspired the dish. The comments I received were pretty hurtful.
CS: For all the negative responses you got, there was one pretty significant voice that came to your defense. In his comments on Bravo’s site, Chef Eric Ripert seemed to argue that all’s fair in the kitchen.
MI: Exactly. Chef Ripert was being honest. I mean, even Colicchio’s restaurants have dishes on the menu that you’ve seen elsewhere…but they’re his takes on those dishes.
CS: There’s no easy description for the role you played on the show this season – sometimes you were the bad guy, other times people were rooting for you and cheering your successes. How do you feel about the way you came across this time?
MI: I feel like almost every episode, people misjudged me in some way. There were definitely some times when I didn’t come across in the best light, but people also got to see me dancing, having fun. It’s hard to watch, and I know people are talking about me. I went there to cook.
CS: The talent in this cast of cheftestants was undeniable. Who among your fellow competitors did you think went home too early?
MI: Tiffani Faison, for sure. She’s much more talented than what she showed this season. Angelo, without question. And Dale [Talde] came across like Kevin [Gillespie, season 6 finalist] – you expected him to do well, but he flat-out dominated. I couldn’t believe Jen Carroll went out when she did.
CS: Speaking of Chef Carroll, you’ll be working with her at a James Beard Foundation event in Yankee Stadium on March 28th. How does it feel for a guy who grew up in Jersey to be cooking in Yankee Stadium?
MI: I’m really excited about this. It’s my first time cooking for a Beard event as the chef-owner of my own place, and it will be my first time in the new Yankee Stadium. I went to the original a lot as a kid, so I’m stoked. I’ll be doing a passed hors d’oeuvre as well as one of the plated courses.
CS: You caught some crap for the weight you put on between the Vegas season and All-Stars, and you were featured in a Washington Post piece back in January talking about chefs’ weight-loss regimens. How’s it going for you these days?
MI: It’s slow and steady. I haven’t been working with the trainer as much lately, but I’ve been trying to do it myself and continue working out. People will have to watch [this week’s] episode and compare it to previous ones to see my progress for themselves.
CS: Thanks for your time today, Chef. Just one more question: Any big plans for watching the finale episodes or the reunion show?
MI: Not really. I’ve got a lot coming up so I haven’t had a chance to plan anything big. I’m just looking ahead from one thing to the next.
CS: Thanks again, Chef. Best of luck!
MI: Thank you.
Check back with us tomorrow to read about what Carla Hall has going on as she heads into the finale!