After putting out his "best food" on the Top Chef: All-Stars finale, Mike Isabella thought victory was his — until Padma Lakshmi announced Richard Blais as the champ. "I thought I won. I've never gotten comments like that before in both seasons," Mike tells TVGuide.com. "Regardless, I did win. ... It was a personal victory. To be on All-Stars and to make it that far — when it was time to step up, I stepped up. As it got tighter and tighter, I got better and better. I couldn't ask for anything more of myself. I'm really proud of myself." Find out how he prepped for the finale, why he's "so proud" of Jamie and if he ever got that "8:37" tattoo.
Top Chef's Richard: I wanted to embody the spirit of the underdog
Everyone said you were a different chef in the Bahamas. What kind of training did you do during the three-month break?
Mike: I knew that I barely got out of New York. I kept saying to myself, "Push through, push through. Let's go back and keep training." ... When I went back home, I started eating differently, I started seeing a trainer, I started working out to get my mental [health] stronger. I was fortunate that I was opening a restaurant and didn't have to work every day, so I was working in different chefs' restaurants throughout D.C. ... I was really fired up. I was changing things up.
Bryan Voltaggio is an investor in your new place. Did you train with him?
Mike: I worked with Bryan for about a week. I was up at Volt. He shared his technique on dessert, his food, different presentations. I knew I needed to work with him because of his style of food and putting tasting menus together [and] making it all cohesive. He was definitely a big part of my success from start to finish.
Did you have an idea of the dishes you wanted to make for the finale?
Mike: I had three out of the four in my mind. I knew the way I wanted to do my menu. ... I wanted to keep the Italian flavor profile — the beet salad with mozzarella and chocolate vinaigrette, the steamed fish with the pancetta crumbs, which I thought was one of my best dishes ever. I didn't plan on doing the pork. When I saw the pepperoni, everything kind of fell into place and now everyone's waiting to taste this pepperoni sauce! [Laughs] The dessert, I kind of knew where I wanted to go with it. ... When the judges say it's 2-2 — same thing with me and Antonia before — it's a matter of opinion. I put up my best meal. ... I respect their decision. There's nothing I would've changed. I feel like I was a winner regardless.
You were dying to get Jen as a sous chef. Did you pick dishes you thought were hers?
Mike: I was looking for fish and she yelled at me afterwards: "I'm not gonna serve the s----y fish they have out here!" [Laughs] She made a tomato salad. She was pissed. I was pissed. ... After I picked, I tasted the marmalade and said, "I wonder if that's Jen's." But it was too late. We talked before I went away. She gave me pointers on stuff, how to extract conch. She's the seafood queen! But the team that I had — I couldn't replace them because they did the best job, especially Jamie.
Top Chef's Antonia: Mike didn't have it out for me
Were you nervous at first when you picked her?
Mike: She had a rough season on All-Stars. She wanted to step it up and she did. She rocked it out. ... I was nervous. But being a chef and running restaurants and kitchens, it's about putting people in positions to succeed and I felt ... maybe I had to help her out a bit with prep to speed her up, but that's fine. I wrote out prep plans. I took care of everything I needed to take care to put her in a position to succeed. She succeeded more than I ever imagined. I was so proud of her. All I can do is thank her for the hard work she did for me.
You talk a lot of smack and some fans thought you were dismissive of female chefs. What do you have to say about that?
Mike: A chef is a chef. When I say, like, "Michelle Bernstein is one of the best female chefs," I was just giving an explanation. I wasn't saying she's not as good as males. She's one of the best chefs in the country. Period. She's an icon to me. It has nothing to do with being a guy or a girl. I joke a lot. People take it the way they want. What they don't see is the whole conversation. ... If you talk to anyone — people from my season to this season — they [will tell you] I'm very sarcastic. I thought going into the competition that Blais was the best chef there and I wanted to compete against him. ... If he was a girl, I would've still wanted to compete against him.
Do you think you've changed people's opinions of you as a middle-of-the-road chef from Vegas?
Mike: Yeah, I definitely think I've changed people's opinions. Honestly, that season with Mike, Bryan, Kevin and Jen — they were very dominant, especially the Voltaggios. I did 20 competitions [and] I was in the top [for] nine out of 20. ... Maybe I only won a Quickfire, but at the end of the day, when you're competing against these world-class elite chefs and competing right next to them half the time, I don't feel middle-of-the-road. I felt like I was a strong competitor. I had a bad day. And I redeemed myself this season in the first episode.
You won a car in the "beat Tom's time" Quickfire. Did you get the "8:37" tattoo?
Mike: [Laughs] No, I didn't get the 8:37 tattoo. I was joking around about it. It was the same thing when I won money in the cactus challenge in Vegas. I said I would get a cactus tattoo. It was me being sarcastic. But I've got other tattoos. I've got plenty of them!
What's the latest on Graffiato?
Mike: We should open up hopefully in the next few weeks — late spring. You'll see some similarities with some of the dishes you saw in the finale. It's going to be a great restaurant. It's right in the heart of D.C. It's all small-plate, Italian-inspired dishes — all new touches. There'll be pizzas, a lot of wood-oven cooking. We're just so excited to get testing and to get going on the recipes.