Image by Bravo

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. (more…)

ExteriorDuring our interview with Chef Mike Isabella, he pointed out just how big a restaurant Zaytinya is.  160 employees, 60 of them in the kitchen…this is a massive undertaking.  We couldn’t get a reservation, but we naturally assumed we’d have no trouble getting a table on a Friday night in August, when half of DC has left town.  Makes perfect sense, right?


Turns out, Zaytinya holds a majority of their tables back for walk-ins.  Because they get A LOT of walk-ins.  When we arrived at the restaurant around 7 o’clock, we were told that our wait for ‘first available’ seating could be as long as 45 minutes.  So we did what any sensible people would do: we retired to the bar.

Beef TenderloinZaytinya’s bar is centrally located within the restaurant and elevated slightly from the dining areas on either side.  The cool stone surface, white walls and bright blue bar backing set a soothing tone that offsets the drop ceiling and the overall volume of the space.  Flipping through the drink menu, we were impressed by the diverse options: plenty of wines from the eastern Mediterranean (primarily Greek), traditional anise liqueur (ouzo in Greece, raki in Turkey, arak in Lebanon) and beers from around the region abound.  But Zaytinya also boasts a creative cocktail menu overseen by Rachel Sergi, featuring such winners as the Apple Cart Upsetter (Maker’s Mark, apples, lemon and moscato) and the Eros (42Below honey vodka, St. Germain, lemon juice, baby roses and honey dust).  It was a great way to kick off our evening…with one exception.  Looking up at the tiles in the drop ceiling, we couldn’t help but notice a number of fruit flies congregating above the bar.  No doubt all the freshly-squeezed juices and glasses of wine were just too much of a draw for the little annoyances.

After half an hour or so at the bar, our table was ready.  Hungry for mezze, we dove into the menu.

A great collection of small plates (don’t call them tapas!) after the jump. (more…)

Photo Credit: Bravo
Photo Credit: Bravo

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.

top-chefCapital 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. (more…)