2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Community Chef Mike Isabella of Kapnos

2014 Washington, D.C. Area Rising Star Community Chef Mike Isabella of Kapnos
December 2014

For Mike Isabella, becoming a chef meant a trip down the East Coast, starting with culinary school at The Restaurant School in New York. He then moved to Philadelphia, cooking with Douglas Rodriguez at Alma de Cuba, delving deeply into Latin cuisine with StarChefs.com Risng Star Chef Jose Garces at El Vez, and learning meticulous fine dining as executive sous chef of Marcus Samuelsson’s Washington Square.

Isabella’s next stop was Atlanta and seafood-driven Greek restaurant Kyma, complete with inspiring culinary tours of Greece and the Middle East. Back in the States and in Washington, D.C., Isabella worked as executive chef of José Andrés’s Zaytinya before opening his first solo restaurant, Graffiato, where he pays homage to his Italian-American grandmother and the flavors of his New Jersey childhood.

Since then Isabella has expanded his empire to include a second Richmond location of Graffiato, two locations of his Italian sandwich shop G by Mike Isabella, and the upscale Greek restaurant Kapnos, with Kapnos Taverna and Pepita set to open in Arlington, Virginia late 2014 and early 2015, respectively. Isabella has made regular appearances on television, including season six of “Top Chef,” “Top Chef All-Stars,” and “Top Chef Duels.” He was also Food & Wine’s “People’s Best New Chef, Mid-Atlantic” in 2012, and released his first cookbook, Crazy Good Italian: Big Flavors, Small Plates, in the same year.

Interview with Washington D.C. Area Rising Star Community Chef Mike Isabella of Kapnos

Meha Desai: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
Mike Isabella:
D.C. has a very tight-knit restaurant community because so many of us stick together and support one another. Graffiato Industry Takeover Nights are a great way for me to bring chefs together locally and from all over the country. If someone has a project coming up, I'll ask them to participate in ITN and they can promote their new concept and test dishes. 

I get asked to participate in collaborations frequently and do so as much as possible, in addition to supporting all the fundraisers, my chef friends ask me to support through donations and participation. 

Through the U.S. Department of State, I’m a member of the American Chef Corp and have done programming with embassies in Turkey and Greece on behalf of the State Department.

I’m also a big supporter of culinary students. All of my restaurants take interns and stages and we work with C-CAP. I’ve also hosted high school students interested in a culinary career through NRA's ProStart program.

MD: What charities do you support?
This year I started a weight loss challenge and fundraiser called, Fit to Fight, which benefits Live To Fight. I also participate in more than a dozen fundraisers for various organizations annually, hosting food stations at events, donating gift cards, signing cookbooks, preparing and serving dinners in private homes that were purchased as part of charity auctions. 

Earlier this year, I was one of four chefs to participate in a learning tour with CARE. We traveled to remote parts of Peru, met with farmers, and learned how CARE has helped rural farming communities become more self-sustaining.

In November 2014, I will serve as the chef chair for March of Dimes Signature Chefs, and in September 2013 I was the chef chair for Taste of Hope and a program I created called Fit for Hope, both of which benefitted the American Cancer Society.

Some of the organizations I support annually include CARE, Share our Strength, St. Jude's, Martha's Table, March of Dimes, American Heart Association, D.C. Central Kitchen, and Autism Speaks.

MD: Are you a member of any chef organizations?
The James Beard Foundation and the U.S. Department of State Chef Corp.

MD: Tell us more about the industry take over nights at Graffiato.
The first Monday of every month, Graffiato turns over the stoves to chef friends and mixologists to co-host industry night. From 10pm to 1am guest chefs serve complimentary late night snacks at the first floor pizza bar and offer drink specials, including some from guest mixologists. Industry Takeover Nights are open to the public. A $10 cash-only cover charge is requested at the door and 50 percent is donated to a different charity benefactor each month.

Since it started in January 2013, we’ve hosted chefs from all over the country, as well as D.C. It has a very strong following from D.C. industry and fans. We receive requests from both chefs and charities to participate. 

MD: Tell us more about Fit to Fight.
Fit to Fight is a 12-week regional weight loss challenge and fundraiser I launched in June 2014. It was inspired by the weight loss challenged I developed and led in D.C. in 2013 called Fit for Hope, which benefitted the American Cancer Society. Fit to Fight helps chefs and restaurant industry contestants focus on their health so they can live to fight another day and give back to their communities. Proceeds benefit Live to Fight, a non-profit organization supporting members of the martial arts, mixed martial arts, and combat sports community who are battling life-threatening illnesses. Each competitor is asked to commit to the 12-week weight loss challenge with a $1,500 fundraising goal. 

We're in the midst of the Miami challenge, which will wrap up on September 29. In 2015, we plan to take Fit to Fight to Philadelphia.