Bryan Voltaggio: From a teenager ‘amok’ to ‘Top Chef Masters’

July 23, 2013

By his own estimate, Bryan Voltaggio figures he logged 92 hours away from his restaurants during an eight-day stretch this month, an absence that had nothing to do with the side projects that typically occupy his time, such as an upcoming appearance on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.”

No, Voltaggio spent those hours at Frederick Memorial Hospital, supporting his wife, Jennifer, and fretting over the fate of their daughter, Ever, who was delivered a couple of weeks early on July 10. The newborn had a respiratory infection and was confined to the neonatal intensive care unit. For the first time that he can remember, Voltaggio felt powerless. The chef could not fix the complications facing his young daughter as if they were just another problem to solve at Volt or Range or Lunchbox or Family Meal.

“My wife and I and the doctors have been having a lot of discussions,” says Voltaggio as he stands near Table 21, his tasting-menu showcase at Volt. “I said, ‘Look, even if it’s grim, I want to know, because. . . if I don’t know where you’re going with it or I don’t understand your plan, then I have no trust in you, and I’m only going to hold you responsible and I’m going to question you. If you lay it out to me, if you tell me exactly how it’s going to be, I’m fine. I’ll support you.’”

Concerned parent. It’s not the role for which Voltaggio has garnered 205,000-plus Twitter followers, not to mention countless other fans outside the confines of social media, and yet the relationship between parent and child is the central one in his life. His own chaotic childhood, in which he was regularly forced to fend for himself, is what helped Voltaggio design his future in the kitchen — at an age when many are simply trying to decide what to watch on TV.

Voltaggio’s childhood, of course, is a ghost that still hovers in the background. While the circumstances of his youth served as a backhanded motivational tool, his lingering memories of those times continue to create tension for the celebrity chef who, by his own admission, struggles to balance the demands of his increasing fame with the demands of his family life. Regardless, Voltaggio, 37, holds fast to one commitment: He doesn’t want any of his three children, including Ever, who just came home on Monday, to find themselves in the same position he did as a teenager in and around the streets of Frederick.


(Photo illustration by Joshua Yospyn for The Washington Post)

****

The oldest of three children, Voltaggio bounced between his mother and father after they divorced when he was 7. He and his siblings lived with their mother, Sharon, until she went through a second divorce; that’s when Bryan and his younger brother, Michael, were sent packing to Jefferson, just outside Frederick, to live with their father, John, a Maryland state trooper. Both brothers invested time in the interests common to teenage boys in rural towns: sports, parties, girls. They were also inseparable.

“When Bryan became 16, I was riding around in his car with him. When Bryan became 21, I was using his ID to go into the same bars as him,” Michael Voltaggio says recently before dinner service at his restaurant, Ink, in Los Angeles. “What I realized as I got older was that I was really just following in his footsteps.”

The comment helps explain why it’s often hard to talk about the older Voltaggio without mentioning the younger. Their lives have been intertwined long before they appeared as finalists during Season 6 of “Top Chef,” which propelled both into the rarefied orbit of celebrity chefs. Their battle on the reality show was merely a cable TV manifestation of a competition born many years earlier, when the boys were teens trying to find their way in a household where their father was working day and night, first as a trooper and then as a security guard.

“We kind of ran amok,” Bryan Voltaggio says. “There’s no hiding that.”

“I was in trouble a lot more than he was,” Michael Voltaggio counters. “I did everything from drugs to selling them to fighting. . . . Everything that you don’t want your kids to be doing, I was doing.”

Michael’s admiration for, and relentless competition with, his older brother might have been the only thing that prevented the younger sibling from spiraling into a life of petty crime. As a teenager, Bryan Voltaggio had already come to grips with a troubling reality: He had no idea what the future held or whether his parents, strapped as they were for money and time, could help him navigate a path through the bewildering adult world. Bryan figured college was beyond his family’s means, and his hope for a soccer scholarship had withered away when he broke his ankle — twice, once on an all-terrain vehicle and another time playing a pick-up basketball game.

With no other apparent options, Bryan Voltaggio focused his energy on the kitchen. His father had scored him a position as busboy at the Holiday Inn in Frederick, where the trooper moonlighted as a security guard, and by age 15 Bryan had parlayed the opportunity into a cooking position by electing to take a vocational culinary program at Frederick Community College as part of his high school curriculum. When he graduated from Governor Thomas Johnson High School, he was offered the sous-chef job at the Holiday Inn. He was 18. “I got nothing else,” Bryan figured. “I might as well do it.”

Naturally, Michael Voltaggio wanted to join the hotel’s kitchen team, too, making the same jump from the busboy position that his father had secured for him.

“I think Michael was confused, and he didn’t have a way,” Bryan says. “Maybe he relied on me because I figured out some kind of path. Call it a path out. A path to somewhere.”

The Voltaggio brothers soon discovered they loved cooking, and they found ways to expand their education beyond the Sunday brunch buffets of the Holiday Inn. Bryan scraped together loans and other financial aid and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.; Michael won a spot in the Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship Program in West Virginia. “He got paid to go to school,” Bryan quips, “and I had to pay.”

****

In part because of his student debts, Bryan had less flexibility with his career choices than his brother, who flitted from kitchen to kitchen, sometimes leaving in a huff. Following his CIA graduation in 1999, Bryan and his high school sweetheart, Jennifer, moved to New York City, where the young chef had taken a job at Aureole, Charlie Palmer’s fine-dining flagship. Under the tutelage of mentors Palmer and Gerry Hayden, the chef de cuisine at Aureole, Bryan quickly rose among the ranks. By 2001, he was the restaurant’s lone sous-chef. In 2003, Palmer tapped Bryan to serve as the opening chef of his namesake steakhouse in Washington. It was a sort of homecoming for Bryan.

“Bryan is older than his years,” says Palmer, noting that a head chef does more than lead a kitchen. “It’s running the business. It’s managing people. It’s being a leader. . . . Bryan was pretty well-rounded in all those areas.”

During his five-year run at Charlie Palmer Steak, Bryan toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant, whether by himself or in partnership with another. One potential partner was Jonathan Umbel, who worked out a deal to have Bryan serve as the opening chef at Hook, the sustainable seafood restaurant in Georgetown. But after Palmer and his financial team reviewed the place’s business plan, Bryan managed to wriggle off the Hook.

“Hook was not the right thing” for Bryan, Palmer reflects. “He knew it, and it just took him a while to realize it.”

The Hook gig eventually went to Barton Seaver, who would leave the place after working just over a year there. The restaurant closed in 2011 in the aftermath of a two-alarm fire.

In 2007, the year Hook opened for business, Bryan started getting calls from a total stranger about opening a restaurant. Perhaps “restaurant” is too generous a description for what Hilda Staples wanted to do with a 19th-century brownstone mansion in Frederick: She hoped to operate a small tavern outfitted with a microwave oven and a panini press, the kind of place where the former P.R. executive could occasionally escape her new life as a stay-at-home mom. Staples had read that Bryan was similarly hoping to launch a restaurant in Frederick, so she cold-called him in the Charlie Palmer Steak kitchen. Repeatedly.

“I was given her plan and her vision,” Bryan recalls. “She really had nothing.” At least nothing the chef was interested in. So he made a counter-proposal: a destination restaurant in Frederick that emphasized local, organic and sustainable ingredients. “I wanted to take food that was familiar and make it fun and playful,” Bryan says about his modernist cooking bent.

The chef’s vision required more space, more investment money and more meetings with the Frederick County Historic Preservation Commission to ensure construction didn’t alter the exterior of the building. Staples’s little tavern was suddenly a million-dollar-plus project. Charlie Palmer, for one, had some understandable reservations about the place. “Will people come from Washington, D.C., to support this restaurant?” he remembers thinking.

Volt — an abbreviated version of Bryan’s surname, a concession to his modesty — finally opened on North Market Street in July 2008, just ahead of the economic recession. Bryan hired Graeme Ritchie, sous-chef at Charlie Palmer Steak, to be his executive sous at Volt. The restaurant struggled from the start. The bills piled up, even though Bryan did not take a paycheck for months, Staples recalls.

Then Tom Sietsema dropped his 21 / 2-star review in The Post, under the headline “Volt: Frederick’s Electric Addition.” Staples expected to arrive the next morning and discover a slew of reservation requests on Volt’s answering machine. There wasn’t a single one. “How could you not get one phone call after you get a great Sunday review?” Staples recalls thinking. Easy: The phone had been cut off. They hadn’t paid the bill.

****

Seven months into Volt’s existence, Bryan would take another gamble: He would remove himself from the restaurant to participate in Season 6 of “Top Chef,” which was filming in Las Vegas, where the contestants would have little contact with the outside world. Bryan says that Volt had started to turn the corner by the time he left, but Staples remembers otherwise. “I was nervous,” she recalls. “But I figured it couldn’t get any worse.”

“Top Chef” was a chance for the Voltaggio brothers to revert to childhood and compete with each other again, just the kind of made-for-TV drama that producers crave. But head judge Tom Colicchio says Bravo producers had nothing to do with Bryan and Michael’s steady march to the finale, in which they went up against Kevin Gillespie. “In fact, I got to tell you something,” Colicchio says about the show’s producers. “They thought both of them were too serious . . . and they were not enough on the ‘reality TV’ side.”

Talent, Colicchio says, is what got the brothers to the top. That, and the fact that Bryan and Michael all but helped each other reach the finale: They sometimes compared ideas. They pushed each other to plan, go to bed early and avoid the late-night merriment of their fellow contestants. Bryan even memorized recipe ratios during the flight to Las Vegas, so he could quickly jot them down in the blank notebook that each chef was given.

“When I worked next to them,” remembers Mike Isabella, the D.C. chef and restaurateur who also competed that season, “they were faster than me. They were cleaner than me. They were just better than me. . . . It was a life-changing experience.”

The final Judges’ Table boiled down to the Voltaggio brothers. Michael thought Bryan had won. So did Isabella. So did a whole patio full of guests, who gathered at Volt to watch the finale under Bryan’s tight-lipped gaze on Dec. 9, 2009. Then Padma Lakshmi announced Michael’s name, and the patio erupted in cheers, before realizing its mistake, Bryan recalls.

“They went silent,” Bryan continues, “then everybody in the room turned and looked at me, and I just started clapping. And everybody started clapping. It was crazy.”

“I think it came down to a couple grains of salt. Literally,” Michael says. “When they were splitting hairs, it came down to, ‘Well, Michael may have taken a couple more risks, and his one dish was more seasoned.’”

Says Colicchio: “Michael won. There was no question.”

The show, of course, changed the brothers’ lives. Michael would go on to open restaurants in Los Angeles with Ink and its sister sandwich shop, Inksack. Bryan would launch his own sandwich shop (Lunchbox in Frederick), a modern diner (Family Meal in Frederick) and the appropriately named Range in the Chevy Chase Pavilion, which is essentially Bryan’s attempt to meld Volt with Charlie Palmer Steak.

“When I opened Range, I thought back about what I wanted to do more [at Charlie Palmer Steak] that I couldn’t do when I was there,” Bryan says. “I never asked to do it, though. Maybe I didn’t give Charlie the benefit of the doubt.”

Bryan and Staples, who has become the chef’s business partner in all of his ventures, have even invested in the future of other chefs. They, for example, supported Isabella when he decided to leave the comfortable confines of José Andrés’s Zaytinya. “Without him,” Isabella says of Bryan, “I wouldn’t have Graffiato.”

****

Perhaps most important, the brothers started to work together after “Top Chef.” They collaborated on the massive modernist cookbook “Volt Ink” (Olive Press, 2011), which probably graced more coffee tables than kitchens. That same year, they went on the road together for the brief Fire, Smoke & Flavor barbecue tour for Williams-Sonoma. They even consulted on a restaurant that few, if any, knew about: the Ellipsis in Mumbai, India. They were supposed to be partners in the project, designing the menu from halfway around the world, but the logistics proved too difficult. The brothers walked away from the deal.

Reality TV “brought us closer together,” Bryan says. “That in itself was probably one of the greatest things we got out of it. We’re now our own barometers, our own support.”

“They have a very strong bond,” notes Jennifer Voltaggio about her husband and brother-in-law. “It’s competitive but not in a spiteful way. I think it’s more to make each other proud of their accomplishments.”

The brothers aren’t joined at the hip, of course. Bryan has signed a deal to write his own cookbook, a collection that will emphasize his home-cooking recipes. He is also scheduled to appear sans Michael in Season 5 of “Top Chef Masters,” which debuts Wednesday on Bravo. Bryan will be the first “Top Chef” contestant to make the jump to the senior circuit, an opportunity that Bryan says will allow him “to go back and show that I’ve grown a little bit as a chef.”

All of these commitments complicate not only an already hectic schedule but also Bryan’s goal of a balanced home life.

“I’ve gone home in between service sometimes, and I see a dad playing with his son out in the front yard. I still want to be that guy,” Bryan says. “It kills me that I miss a part of my family’s life that I should be there for. But that’s the hospitality business. . . . There are sacrifices made.”

Still, he has no plans to repeat a pattern that troubled him as a teenager. He hopes his hard work now will free him later for his children: Thacher, 6; Piper, 2; and newborn Ever. “I want to make sure my kids don’t have a chance to run amok when they’re teenagers. I want to be a part of their lives.”

One family dynamic, however, might be so embedded in the Voltaggio DNA that it never goes dormant. Bryan explains:

“I got to throw a pitch at Keys stadium here,” Bryan says about the ballpark where the Frederick Keys play. “So [Michael] called his publicist and said, ‘I want to throw a pitch at Dodger Stadium.’ ”

Thinking that might be an apocryphal tale designed to embellish the Voltaggio competition story line, I checked with Michael. He confirmed the anecdote.

“He did the minor league,” the chef texted, “so naturally I had to do the majors.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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