National Press Club

Preserved notes, source cooperation help Washingtonian get scoop on celebrity chef

January 18, 2019 | By Chris Teale | chris.teale55@gmail.com

A working relationship and years-old previously unused notes were some of the most useful components for the food editors of Washingtonian magazine as they reported on the downfall of celebrity chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella.

At a National Press Club Storytellers discussion Thursday night, Jessica Sidman and Anna Spiegel spoke of their efforts in reporting December's cover story on Isabella, which charted the collapse of his $40 million restaurant empire amid mismanagement, his issues with alcohol addiction and a lawsuit from former staffer Chloe Caras alleging sexual harassment. The claim was settled.

Spiegel said she had already laid the groundwork for reporting a major story on Isabella in 2014, when she spent three days with him for a photo essay when he opened one of his restaurants. Her notes from that time included details on his personal life, which all provided useful context for this article.

“I always thought if we did something bigger on him, it would be good to have those notes,” Spiegel said.

The pair conducted several interviews with Isabella over the course of their reporting, which also included interviews with current and former employees, investors and many of his friends and associates in the restaurant industry. Many people requested anonymity. Employees also had their hands tied by restrictive non-disclosure agreements, but each major development brought new sources willing to talk.

“Once people started not getting paid, people were coming out of the woodwork and started talking,” Sidman said.

Sidman said she was struck by the number of investors who thought Caras’ allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment were “overblown.” Sidman said she talked to approximately nine investors and was struck by the strength of feeling in his favor.

“I was really surprised how many of the investors still support him,” she said.

While the pair found Isabella largely willing to cooperate and sit for long interviews, except for a two-and-a-half-week period where he “went dark,” they noted that he was not used to having such tough coverage of his business, as it usually centered on glowing reviews of his new restaurants.

The Washingtonian article -- which focuses heavily on his mismanagement of his company and how it spiraled out of control, resulting in his filing for bankruptcy as he allegedly drank alcohol in excess and was abusive towards Caras -- still came as a shock to Isabella. Spiegel said that when the cover went online, showing a Photoshopped image of his face with egg on it, he sent her a message that simply asked: “Are you kidding me?”

The pair said they spent around two months working on the story from conception to publishing the final draft, with dozens and dozens of interviews and information going into a 27-page chronological timeline of Isabella’s career that was eventually whittled down into a narrative. It made for a hectic time, but the groundwork had already been laid.