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The Man Behind Mike Isabella 

An interview with Graffiato Richmond's chef de cuisine Matthew Robinett.

click to enlarge Matthew Robinett, chef de cuisine of  Graffiato in Richmond.

Scott Elmquist

Matthew Robinett, chef de cuisine of Graffiato in Richmond.

Graffiato's Mike Isabella is here for a while. The D.C. chef rented an apartment in Richmond just a couple of blocks from the restaurant. But Isabella also owns three other restaurants in D.C. and that will demand a lot of time on I-95, going up to check on things there and then back down again in time for dinner service on East Broad Street.

The man holding it all together, the guy who will be in the kitchen indefinitely, is Isabella's chef de cuisine Matthew Robinett. He's a native Virginian, and in the past, Robinett's worked at River's Inn in Gloucester, the Williamsburg Inn, Williamsburg's Blue Talon, Bourbon Steak Restaurant at the D.C. Four Seasons and Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore. He moved with his family to Richmond about a month ago to set up the kitchen and train staff with Isabella.

Style: What drew you to food?

Matthew Robinett: I always loved food — I have lots of memories of sitting on the back porch snapping green beans [in Crewe] with my mom. She knew a lot of farmers … all throughout the summer we'd be working on different projects. That's just the way it was.

When did you get into the restaurant business?

I went and washed dishes in high school, but my interests actually lie more in art and science. I was accepted [at] VCU for art, but I decided to go on a different path. [For a while], I became a historical interpreter at Yorktown, Virginia. But at the end of the day, food started speaking to me.

How did you end up here in Richmond?

Well, I [was] in Baltimore, because I have family there, and I worked for Cindy Wolf [James Beard Award finalist and co-owner, along with Tony Foreman, of five restaurants in Baltimore and Charleston]. Eventually, I was promoted to be executive chef of Petit Louis Bistro — they were fantastic people. At the time [though], I'd already left my job at Petit Louis and was doing some stuff on the side in D.C., trying to figure out what to do next, when this opportunity with Mike popped up. We were connected through mutual friends. I wanted to move back down here — it's my home — and … Mike and I just meshed.

The menu for the Richmond Graffiato is different from the one in D.C. How involved were you in creating it?

Well, I was at Graffiato doing some training and Mike showed up. I said something about the menu. He said, "Do you want to sit down and write it now?" I said, "Absolutely." So, we sat down, put our heads together and collaborated. … We just threw ideas back and forth — and that's how the menu came about.

So it's not a top-down kind of situation?

No, it's all collaboration. Of course, Mike wants what he wants — he's definitely our boss, but he really takes it from a collaborative standpoint. That's true of all his chefs. All of [them] in the company are extremely talented and really creative. It's just a lot of fun to work with all of these guys.

Graffiato opens tonight at 4:30 p.m. in the old Popkin Tavern space at 123 W. Broad St.

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