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Q&A with chef Mike Isabella

Q&A with chef Mike Isabella

Mike Isabella is the chef/owner of Graffiato, Kapnos and G in Washington, D.C., as well as G GrabandGo, in Edison, N.J. Outside of his restaurants, Isabella is known for his appearance on Season Six of Top Chef, as the runner-up on Top Chef All-Stars, and as the author of Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian. Recently, Isabella took time out from testing the menu for Pepita, his Mexican cantina set to open in Arlington, Va., early next year, to talk about the importance of going back to basics, thinking differently in the kitchen and why he eschews flashy modern cooking techniques.

What is influencing your cooking/menu development right now?                                                                                                                                                       

Pepita Lamb Tacos
Lamb Tacos Image by Pepita

I’ve worked with a lot of different cuisines in my career. I’m Italian … most of my formal training is Greek. I’m doing things right now that I’m familiar with. You want food to be familiar with the [customers]. Rework some of the classics, put your touches on it. Take one element into consideration. [For example,] lamb roasted with banana leaves at Pepita. Lamb taco is a classic. Cooked slowly overnight in a banana leaf, put [it] in taco like a Greek gyro with cucumber pico de gallo, and Mexican crema.

After you opened Graffiato, lots of Italian spots opened up nearby. Are you worried about the competition?

Cherry Tomato Pasta
Cherry Tomato Pasta Image by Greg Powers

No, because I think differently. [For example, the] cherry tomato spaghetti sauce at Graffiato. I use a Thai basil. I’m always looking for that spin. At the end of the day, people want good food. People want to come back and see what you’re doing. It’s about getting them to want to come back.

Explain how you think differently, rethink/rework a dish?

Take it apart. Then think 100-percent opposite of it. If it was red wine, think white wine. If it was a glaze, try a stock. We try to break it down, map out our food. Think ingredients that go with the natural flavor. Then test it. You want to use flavor, spice, have some texture and crunch.

What innovative techniques are you using in the kitchen?

I worked for José Andrés [at Zaytinya], the king of modern … We try to use old world cooking in a new way. Graffiato has a brick oven. Kapnos has 10 spits we cook whole animals on. Technique is knowing how to do it. The basics. The foundation. We don’t do a lot of modern cooking. [We do] old world cooking cleaned up.

What food trends do you see coming soon?

Everything always goes back to the classic roots. What’s going on is you have to know the foundation of food. Around the world it’s about great products… . People are using classic technique, but evolving them into something new, fun. One of the biggest trends [you'll see] in 10 years is a lot of chains — the McDonald’s, the Burger Kings — going in a different direction. It’s going to be more chef-driven. Everyone wants to eat chef-driven food. By doing it in a fast-casual way, you reach so many more people. We’re doing that. Cooking good food, just make it quicker. [I’m] working on a line of wood-oven fast-casual pizzas, almost like a Subway [sandwich concept] where you get your pizza in about four minutes. [I'm] working on a gyro concept with coal-roasted meat.

What food trend do you wish would go away — fast?

Modern technique. Those foams, gelatins, molecular gastronomy. That’s a trend going away… . [Cooking is] going back to the roots.

What can we expect from your new concept, Pepita?

It’s a cantina. A bar that’s going to offer a lot of cocktails, beer — a huge list. I wanted a place where you can go get a drink and have fun and get some snacks. It’s about going to a cool bar.

You have put a lot of energy into creating drink menus at your restaurants. What’s next in beverages?

The craft cocktail is huge, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s coming up with the creativity. Serving the perfect, balanced drink. I hate going to bar that doesn’t measure the drinks. It’s a technique about how to make a drink. It started with Prohibition in the United States, when craft cocktails were made with exact recipes in secret.

What will you be cooking for your Thanksgiving?

My wife and I cook for family in Pennsylvania. About 25 to 30 people. We smoke, fry and roast turkey. Classics. Garlic mash, gratin. About five sides. A lot of people. Last year we did Brussels [sprouts] with curry yogurt, flavored gravies. We try to keep it traditional.

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