Millions know Mike Isabella as a tough-talking “Top Chef” competitor and the celebrity chef behind two new D.C. restaurants, Graffiato and Bandolero.
But to Charlie and Nancy Nemeth, of Adams Township, Isabella is the man who not only stole the show as runner-up on Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars” in Season 8, but also the guy who won their daughter Stacy’s heart. She is a 1999 graduate of Forest Hills High School.
Following the success of Isabella during Season 6 and Season 8 on “Top Chef,” he and Stacy decided to open a trendy restaurant in the Chinatown section of Washington, D.C.
But before the grand opening of the restaurant that is across the street from the Verizon Center, home of hockey’s Washington Capitals, the couple needed to furnish the restaurant.
They turned to Charlie Nemeth and his skills as a woodworker to lend a hand to build tables and an over-sized credenza to accommodate restaurant equipment and supplies.
Nemeth, 55, owner of Nemeth Landscaping near Salix, modestly said he is not a professional woodworker, but does possess the basic expertise to handle such a job.
As testament to that skill, manned with only desire and a set of house plans of his own design, Nemeth set out building his 2,500-square-foot home in the spring of 1977.
“By December of 1977, we were able to move into the basement of the home,” he said.
“The upstairs was framed and under roof, but we took it a step at a time, paying for materials as we went.”
After a year of working on the home in his spare time and weekends, he moved his family upstairs.
“My wife says we are still not done,” Nemeth said with a laugh.
He got involved in the restaurant when his daughter asked if he could make some wooden serving trays for the wait staff to carry food from the kitchen to the guests’ tables.
There was only one problem, they had no tables.
While the couple had an idea of what they wanted, they turned to Nemeth for help.
“When my daughter asked me about it, my only reaction was that we will make it work,” he said.
Nemeth came up with three prototypes after getting some guidance from the couple over the telephone.
Their only request was that the tables be made of a solid piece of wood.
“I knew durability is a key at any restaurant table because of all the spills and wear and tear,” Nemeth said. “I came up with an idea of using a bamboo flooring material that would easily handle the harshest treatment.”
He said the tabletops will last forever or until the owners decide to change the decor.
The restaurant had an expansive blank wall, and a designer suggested installing a custom-built credenza.
The space could accommodate a unit that would measure 14 feet long and 9 feet high.
“When Stacy came home for a visit, she and I went to a tavern in Sidman where I saw a piece that might be what they were looking for,” he said. “It was a lot more ornate than what they wanted, but the size and scale were perfect.”
Nemeth came up with a design that fit the restaurant’s industrial motif and went to work building a set of base cabinets. He followed up by creating open cabinets with solid wood shelving to store and display wine.
The eight-piece base cabinet has space for stemware, linen storage, drawers for silverware and two refrigeration units to chill wine.
“I had the base cabinet done in time for the opening, but had to finish the hutch later,” he said. “In Salix, we call it a hutch, but in D.C., it’s a credenza.”
Isabella’s Italian-American Graffiato, an Italian-inspired small plates restaurant in
Chinatown, features Jersey-inspired pizzas and sumptuous pastas.
The Isabellas met in Atlanta when they both worked for the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group.
Graffiato is a two-story industrial-style space with concrete floors and graffiti murals on the walls.
“It’s the kind of place you can come for a pizza and a beer before catching a Caps game or you can stay for a longer dinner and order multiple small plates,” Isabella said.
The chef estimates Nemeth’s work saved him $10,000.
“We had a very limited budget to build my first restaurant and I knew Charlie could build anything, so I asked him to build my tables and the credenza,” he said. “We get a lot of compliments on the furniture and many people ask where we purchased the credenza.
“We’re also proud to say it was custom-built,” Isabella said.
Nemeth said it’s nice having an all-star chef in the family.
“When Stacy first brought Mike for a Thanksgiving meal while they were dating, they brought a mushroom dish to the holiday meal,” Nemeth said.
The next year they showed up with additional food that took the dinner to the “next level.”
“We always have great Thanksgiving dinners, but with Mike and Stacy now doing the cooking of all the sides for between 15 and 20 family members, I guess we can call it a five-star dining experience,” he said.
Woodworking skills were handed down to him by his late father, Albert Nemeth, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2007 in Windber during the Dog Run biker rally.
“As a kid, I would tag along with my dad when he helped friends with building projects,” he said.
All of the woodwork was accomplished in Nemeth’s modest-yet-functional workshop, which is located in an outbuilding on his property.
He has all the basic tools mounted on casters for mobility, including a compressor used to power various air tools.
In May, the Isabellas opened their second restaurant, Bandolero, in Georgetown. And Nemeth once again built the tables for that restaurant.
“They are similar in style and material but stained a different color,” Nemeth said. “When something works, run with it.”
He built special jigs to speed up the process of making more than 40 tables for Graffiato and 41 more for Bandolero.
With another daughter, Jessica, living in Maryland and fairly close to her sister, Nemeth said the commute to transport the furniture was effortless.
“I packed the tabletops into my van and delivered and installed them on the table frames in the same day,” he said.
Nemeth said his work is something any father would do for their daughter.
“However, I never did build the serving trays,” he said.
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