Mike Isabella’s announcement this week that he will open Kapnos Kouzina in the former Vapiano space in Bethesda caused quite a stir. The 40-year-old chef became famous after appearing on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars, and since has opened several popular and well received restaurants in D.C. He will open another Greek concept in Arlington this month and then his Bethesda restaurant this summer. We caught up with Isabella to talk about his new restaurant and the Bethesda restaurant scene.
Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Bethesda?
Obviously my home base is D.C., but it’s always been a goal of mine to open in Maryland. A lot of our clients and guests live in that Rockville, Bethesda, Potomac area and we thought it would be a good location for us to hit. We’ve been eyeing Maryland for a while now and it finally came together.
Some critics say there are few good restaurants in Bethesda. Do you think that is a fair assessment?
I think they have good food everywhere in America. I just think in certain cities and certain areas there’s a higher density of it. New York City is probably one of the biggest densities of great food, but you can still go to Nashville, Maryland, D.C., all over the place and still get great food. In Bethesda, I think it’s the amount of density of it—I don’t think there’s as much as D.C. has, but I think it’s going in the right direction. You have some great restaurants out there, some great fast casuals there. There’s a lot of great chefs [in Bethesda] right now.
Have you talked to other Bethesda restaurateurs about the market? What did they say?
Yes, I’ve talked to a couple people. You do get mixed reviews about how densely populated it is, but that people don’t always do the business they want to do. I always feel like we’ve been successful pretty much everywhere we’ve been and if you offer a great product from start to finish from service to food to beverage to ambiance, design and value and something unique, I think you can do the business you want to do. I think that’s what we’re going to try to bring to the table with Kapnos Kouzina.
What have you learned about restaurant patrons in Bethesda and how they are different than diners elsewhere? Why do you think you can attract them?
I would like to consider myself someone similar to José Andrés. I think he’s very successful at Jaleo, which is across the street from [Kapnos Kouzina]. I think he offers a great product, a great concept, with a great brand behind him. I think Mon Ami Gabi does very well out there. Robert Wiedmaier continues to open more restaurants out there, I assume he’s doing pretty good.
In my eyes, those are all people who we would associate with and we plan to do something with similar value and style, but obviously different food.
You worked with Jose Andres previously, have you talked to him about opening a restaurant in Bethesda?
No, you know José is a very busy man, I’m very busy. We don’t get to see each other that much. But I am familiar with the business and what type of numbers [Jaleo] has done and they do.
How did you end up with the Bethesda location, did Federal Realty approach you with the former Vapiano space?
It was a combination of both Federal approaching and us knowing we were interested in Maryland.
What do you like about the location?
I love the space. I really like the location—it’s on the main strip, but we’re obviously going to make some changes to the design—everything about it.
How will the Bethesda Kapnos differ from the D.C. location and the upcoming Arlington one?
The design, the food, the color, the style, I mean everything about it. I’m really excited, number one about opening up Kapnos Taverna in Arlington, which will open up this month hopefully. People will see how different that restaurant is in design and menu from Kapnos [in D.C.]. The uniforms, the style, everything. That’s going to be the same effect in Bethesda. Kouzina is going to be totally different than Taverna and totally different from Kapnos. Kouzina won’t cook whole animals on a roasting spit like we do in D.C. and there won’t be a raw bar with ice displays and fish like we have at Taverna.
[Kouzina] is going to be designed more toward the market feel and kitchen-y style and we’re going to go with more Greek comfort food.
Why did you decide to make the Bethesda restaurant different than your other two Kapnos concepts?
People have a misconception sometimes about what Greek food is. It’s not just tzatzki, there’s so much more to it with flavor profiles and cheeses and textures and cooking techniques than people are familiar with. And that’s what we’re trying to show people.
If you go to Milos in New York City or to Kyma in Atlanta or Molyvos in New York, all of these are similar concepts across the board. We don’t want to do that, we don’t want to be like that. That’s why we’re doing different styles of foods.
I’m partners with Nick and George [Pagonis] who have been with me most of their whole career and these guys, their family is from Greece, they’re first-generation, they speak Greek, they have a house in Greece and we go out there every year together. We want to show people different things.
What menu items do you have planned for Kouzina? How will it differ from the other locations?
There’s going to be a lot more of that homey food—braised meats, braised top rounds, slow roasts. Kapnos is very whole animal spits, which we first started on holidays and then we made it an everyday thing. If you go to the [Greek] islands there’s a lot of seafood and stuff, so we have a big raw bar at Taverna so you can get oysters and shrimp cocktails and crabs and fish.
In Bethesda, we’re going more for the home-style cooking—a lot of braises and slow cooking, more of the roots of what you grow up with when you live in Greece as a kid.
How much time do you plan to spend at the Bethesda location?
I’m in my restaurants every day. Obviously, Richmond is 2 hours away, so I try to go there once a week or once every other week and that’s the one that gets the least amount of my time. But, you’ll always find me in one of them. Bethesda is 15 minutes away, just like Arlington. I live in Chinatown, so I’ll be there a bunch. In the beginning I’ll be there all the time and then it’ll slow down and I’ll make my rounds like I do now.
Have you selected a chef for the Bethesda location?
No, right now George [Pagonis] is the executive chef. Me and him will work on the menu, put it all together and then we’ll bring a team in. George will be there at the beginning, but his home base is Kapnos. He’ll open Taverna then he’ll go to open Kouzina with us.
After you open will you have a chef there full-time?
Yes, but people still have other jobs right now so I can’t say anything, but I pretty much know who is going to be the chef there.
What will the price points be at the Bethesda restaurant?
Check average, I would like to say around mid-$40s [per person with drink and food]. Kapnos is about mid-$60s, but I would definitely think Kouzina is going to be more casual like Taverna. More casual and bigger portions meant for sharing.
You’re 100 percent Italian, how did you get into Greek cuisine?
It’s all about the training. I trained in Greek cooking when I was younger. You know, you have Italian people who are great French chefs, Jewish guys who are great Italian chefs. Once you really hone in on the craft and you fall in love with it, and you put your time into travel, into dining, into cooking experiments and other things, you really get into it. I’ve been doing Greek for years. Before I was here I was at [the Greek restaurant] Kyma in Atlanta.
I grew up eating Greek food and cooking it with my mom. My mom was a vegetarian and I ate a lot of Greek dishes—baklava and those types of things.
What do you love about Greek food?
I love the simplicity, the freshness, the limited ingredients. I love the acidity more than anything. The lemon, lots of lemon, the vinegars, the freshness, the lightness, the yogurts, lots of vegetables. I mean Greek is one of those cuisines and one of those cultures where you can have an eggplant dish and that’s your dinner. It’s not a culture where everyone thinks you need to have a piece of meat or chicken or lamb. Vegetables are very important. It’s what you’re pulling out of the ocean and what you’re growing in your crops.
How do you maintain quality as your restaurant business continues to expand?
I definitely have a big core and nucleus of 10 guys who are partners who have been with me for years. Many of them are chefs. Obviously, I’ve had a lot of great exposure on TV with Top Chef, won some awards and things and we work with people who want to be a part of a company that’s growing. We get a lot of great applicants from around the county.
We’ve been very fortunate. We have a very good program that we put together and everyone has a belief in what we do. We all believe in the same thing and that’s putting out a great product, great food and great service.
What future expansion plans do you have?
The biggest year of my life is going to be 2015. I’m opening four restaurants—two different Greek ones, one cantina and one noodle bar with Jonah Kim. I’m opening up two airport [concessions], one in L.A. and one in Florida, and I still need to make sure my current restaurants stay consistent.
At the end of the year we’ll have eight restaurants and four different concessions around the country, so my main focus is staying focused and working hard.
Some chefs shy away from publicity, why do you seem to embrace it?
I think it’s always been my personality. I’ve always had a big personality. I’ve never really shied away from anything. I’m always trying to get out there and meet more people, do new things, experiment more in life. You live once, you know, I’m a friendly guy and I love what I do.