As we head into the two-week finale of Top Chef Season 6, Washingtonians have a pair of reasons to celebrate. Brothers Michael and Bryan Voltaggio grew up in nearby Frederick, Maryland, and their careers have followed similar but distinctly different paths. Each brother has racked up an impressive three Elimination Challenge wins, and Michael can claim an additional Quickfire win to give him the slightest of bragging rights over his brother.
Over the course of the season, Bravo has been dilligent in bringing us the brother-vs.-brother tidbits, showcasing the rivalry and playing it up as the biggest thing since Cain and Abel. But what was it really like for the Voltaggio brothers? And how has their side-by-side success affected their family?
We caught up with each of the Voltaggios over the phone in advance of tomorrow night’s finale, and we asked them a few questions about their experience on the show. We also asked about what it’s been like in their restaurants since the season began and what they’ve got in the works.
Today we’ve got our interview with Michael Voltaggio, Chef de Cuisine of the Dining Room at the Langham in Pasadena, California. Check back tomorrow for our follow-up interview with even-more-local-boy Bryan Voltaggio, and then make up your mind about which brother you’re rooting for to win it all!
Capital Spice: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today, Chef. I’m sure you’ve been asked this by everyone you’ve spoken to since the show aired, but what was it like having your brother on the show?
Michael Voltaggio: It was a lot of fun, and definitely an incentive to do the show in the first place. We each expected the other one to do really well on the show…and we’re both very pleased.
CS: The show seemed to play up the sibling rivalry element in the kitchen. What was it like off-camera? Are you two really that competitive?
MV: There’s only so much they can do to play up what you see on screen. We absolutely push each other both on and off camera. You have to expect that kind of competitiveness among brothers to begin with – the fact that we work in the same field intensifies it. The bonus is that our shared experiences mean we’re able to support each other, too.
Favorite wins, plans at the Dining Room, and the effect of his and Bryan’s success on their mother after the jump.
CS: How have guests in your restaurant reacted to your appearance on the show?
MV: I’d say people are surprised when they come into the restaurant and meet me in person. I try to be gracious and humble to everyone I meet here, and they’re expecting someone more like the snippets they’ve seen on the show.
CS: Would you say the show’s challenges allowed you to cook ‘your’ food, to really show off your abilities?
MV: I think your style and skill show through no matter what the situation is…the person cooking the food is the same regardless of the circumstances. So I’d say everything I cooked represented something of my abilities, yeah.
CS: Which of your winning dishes would you say best reflects your approach to cooking?
MV: My take on Buffalo wings [from Episode 11] is the kind of food I like to do best – take familiar flavors and dishes and put a unique twist on them.
CS: Fans wait for Restaurant Wars each season, and past competitors have said that the chefs consider a Restaurant Wars win a real badge of honor. What do you think?
MV: Restaurant Wars is a chance for viewers to see a little bit of everything that goes into taking a restaurant from concept to opening night. Winning this season’s Restaurant Wars was definitely big for me…it really meant a lot.
CS: What was it like cooking for Charlie Palmer? Both you and your brother have described him as something of a mentor, and you earned a Michelin star in his Dry Creek Kitchen back in 2006.
MV: It was nerve-wracking. Chef Palmer is the total package…when you ask a professional chef to think about a chef, he’s the kind of guy they come up with. I remember a day back at Dry Creek Kitchen when the ice-maker was broken. Chef came in and asked why we didn’t have any ice. When he heard the machine was broken, he grabbed a screwdriver, opened it up and fixed it himself. That’s the kind of guy he is. Neither Bryan [who also worked under Palmer for years] nor I wanted to let him down.
CS: You’ve also had the experience of working for Chef Jose Andres…you earned four stars as Executive Chef at his new Los Angeles restaurant, Bazaar, before heading to the Dining Room at the Langham. What kind of impact did that experience have on you?
MV: Jose Andres is the guy who introduced a lot of the modern techniques I use to this country. He made me Executive Chef at Bazaar because I was already practicing those techniques in my cooking, but he certainly helped me to refine them. It was a great experience getting to work with him.
CS: I’ve read that the Dining Room is scheduled to undergo a three-month renovation starting next month. What will you be doing with that time?
MV: I wish it were like everyone thinks – lots of time off. In truth, there’s so much prep work that goes into getting a restaurant ready for a relaunch: refining menus, hiring new staff, things like that. It’s really time consuming. I’ll probably also do some promotional touring to other Langham properties, and maybe even make it back to the DC area for a visit.
CS: Sounds like you’ll be pretty busy. So what does your mom think about both of her sons making it to the finale?
MV: Mom kinda hoped this wouldn’t happen (laughs). It’s bittersweet for her to have to root for one of us over the other, but she’s told us both how proud she is that we’ve made it this far. She’s really happy for both of us…our whole family is.
CS: Any final thoughts about the experience?
MV: I’d say Bryan and I are both proud of what we accomplished, and we hope that everyone in the DC area is pleased with how we’ve represented our hometown. Even out here in Los Angeles I feel a strong connection to the east coast – it’s kept me grounded and helped me to know who I am as a chef and a person.
CS: Thanks for talking with us, Chef.
MV: Thank you.
So what do you think? Is a three-month closure a suspicious sign that Chef Voltaggio will be even busier than he lets on in a month or so, after Top Chef’s run is done? Or is it just a coincidence?
Either way, we’re rooting for Michael and Bryan to make it through tomorrow’s episode to the true finale next week. Check in with us again tomorrow for our second interview with Chef Bryan Voltaggio of VOLT.