We’re a little more than 24 hours away from the premiere of Top Chef’s sixth season (Cleaving Las Vegas, anyone?), and the excitement is definitely building in Washington as we watch for our local competitors to show the rest of the country what we already know: that DC is underrated when it comes to the quality of our up-and-coming chefs.
Yesterday, we gave you a first look at Zaytinya’s Mike Isabella. Today, we’re chatting with Frederick’s own Bryan Voltaggio. After working his way up through the stations at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole (eventually earning the role of sous chef), Voltaggio was named Executive Chef of Charlie Palmer Steak when it opened here in Washington.
As much of a home coming as that was for Voltaggio, he had always envisioned owning his own restaurant and bringing something back to Frederick County where he grew up. In July 0f 2008 that vision became reality with VOLT, a modern American restaurant that is at once part of the DC restaurant scene and the agricultural community that supports it.
We talked with Bryan Voltaggio about his approach to Top Chef, the way he was able to stay under the radar (at least relative to Isabella) and sibling rivlary:
Capital Spice: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, chef. We’ve heard you were actually a big Top Chef fan even before you started the application process. Is that true?
Bryan Voltaggio: Absolutely, though I rarely get to watch the episodes when they first air since I’m usually working.
CS: Did that have anything to do with your decision to apply for this season?
BV: It did. I’ve actually always wanted to compete [on Top Chef].
CS:Was it a tough decision to make to apply this time around?
BV: Yes and no. On the one hand, it meant that I was applying soon after VOLT opened up, and I knew that if I was accepted I would need to leave the restaurant for a month or more. But I’ve got a great team working with me at VOLT, so I wasn’t too worried.
CS: It seems like you had an easier time keeping your participation under wraps than Chef Isabella of Zaytinya did. Considering how many food bloggers DC has these days, how did you manage to pull it off?
BV: I think there were a couple of factors that helped. First off, we’re a bit removed from the downtown dining scene, so I’m able to keep a lower profile in general. Second, I think the timing made a lot of people skeptical that I would do it. And the fact that I’ve already opened my own restaurant makes me different than a lot of the other competitors, whose goal is to win and then roll the prize money into a new venture.
Voltaggio vs. Voltaggio and Bryan’s connection to another Top Chef after the jump.
CS: It hasn’t escaped notice that you’re not the only Voltaggio in the competition (Michael Voltaggio, his brother, is currently chef de cuisine at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa and was most recently chef de cuisine at Jose Andres’ Bazaar) . Did you and your brother both know that the other was auditioning for the show?
BV: We did…actually, that was part of the attraction. We’re both naturally competitive, and the idea that we might be able to compete head-to-head made it that much more exciting. We actually started out cooking in the same kitchen, so it was a lot of fun to be back together again.
CS: Guess you can’t tell us who wins that head-to-head, but we’re hoping it doesn’t come until the finale! Did you do anything to prepare for the competition?
BV: I paid attention to the past seasons, hoping to pick up some tips and tricks from the chefs who did better. I’ve actually worked with one of the previous seasons’ winners: Ilan Hall was one of my interns while I was at Aureole.
CS: Contestants on Top Chef frequently talk about their cooking philosophies. What’s yours?
BV: I’m a big proponent of chefs working closely with their local farmers…that shows through in our menus at VOLT. To me, the phrase “modern American” means thinking about how you apply techniques – both classic and modern – to the ingredients at hand. I use some techniques that you could call “molecular gastronomy,” but it has to be about the food first and foremost.
CS: Do you think the challenges of Top Chef will allow you to get that across?
BV: I thought this would be a great way to showcase what we’re trying to do at VOLT on a larger scale. We know we can’t change the entire world, but I definitely want to spread the value of getting closer to your food sources.
CS: So how have your diners reacted since the news broke that you were going to be on the show?
BV: People have been pretty considerate so far, not prying too much and respecting the fact that there’s a lot I can’t talk about. But they’re excited for me.
CS: You’ve got a big event coming up while the episodes are airing…how are you going to handle that?
BV: We’ve got a six-course “Late Summer Farm Dinner” coming up at Whitmore Farm in Emmitsberg, Maryland. I’m sure the guests will have lots of questions; we’ll see how it goes.
CS: We’re eager to see how you did…and for what it’s worth, we hope you beat your brother.
BV: Thanks. (pauses) You’re not saying the same thing to him, are you?
When we learned that the Voltaggios, both proteges of Chef Charlie Palmer, would be competing this season, we reached out to the Healdsburg-based Palmer for some thoughts on what set them apart. “I think they’re both very talented and accomplished chefs,” said the response we received from Chef Palmer. “Maturity [goes] to Bryan – it’s natural, he’s older. Michael definitely experiments with his food and creates very inventive dishes. Bryan has more of a classical approach, while certainly embracing modern techniques and trends.”
He went on to praise the duo equally, saying, “Both [are] very accomplished.” And in a nod to the local Voltaggio’s DC connection, Palmer ended by noting, “Bryan spent many years at the helm of CP Steak in DC and did a fantastic job.”
Check in with us again tomorrow morning for our final pre-premiere interview, and then join us throughout season six as we root for our local favorites to cut down the competition in Vegas.