Q&A: 'Top Chef' finalists Michael and Bryan Voltaggio
Wednesday, December 9, 2009; 1:00 PM
In advance of Wednesday night's finale, Top Chef contestants Bryan and Michael Voltaggio were online Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the sixth season of the show.
Read the transcript of our Oct. 29th discussion with Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella.
Hailing from Frederick, Md., the Voltaggio brothers are Washington area natives. Bryan, 33, is chef and partner at VOLT, a three-star restaurant in Frederick. Michael, 30, serves as Chef de Cuisine at The Dining Room at The Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, Calif.
Washington, D.C.: Michael, do you have any desire to move back to the east coast?
Michael Voltaggio: No immediate plans as of right now, plus Brian is there already, so there's plenty of competition right now.
Baltimore, Md.: Great work this season, guys! On which challenge did you most disagree with the judges?
Michael Voltaggio: I don't think we ever disagreed with the judges. I think looking at the food, some of us might have thought that our dish was the winning dish, but a lot of times we didn't get to taste the competition's food, and the competition does come down to taste. So at the end of the day if the judges preferred someone else's dish, I don't think there's anything to disagree with.
Washington, D.C.: Are your parents into cooking as well?
Bryan Voltaggio: My mother cooked for all of us. She wasn't a professional cook by any means, but was a really great home cook. She made sure that we always sat down and had dinner, regardless of our busy schedules as kids.
Early memories I have of my grandfather, he was the home gourmet. He cooked a lot for holidays. At a young age it sparked my interest in cooking and turned into more of a job when I was in high school. I started as a busboy at a local hotel and asked the chef if I took a vocational program at my high school would you let me cook and he said yes. That's how Michael and I both started cooking. He also started as a busboy and started working in the kitchen shortly after. That was the only professional kitchen we worked in together.
Falls Church, Va.: If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, would you still be a Top Chef contestant? What would you do different?
Michael Voltaggio: Absolutely. The competition is a lot of fun. Do differently? I don't know that you can really do anything differently, unless you're just not being yourself. Perhaps cook a little more simple and focus more on execution. And maybe keep my mouth shut a little bit more.
Bryan Voltaggio: I would do it again. It was a great experience for me. I too probably could have done a few things a little bit simpler, especially looking back at some of my quickfire challenges. I tried to do a lot of the food I do in my restaurant and sometimes the competition doesn't allow for that. In retrospect I'm still proud of all the dishes I put forward.
Arlington, Va.: Hi! Huge fan of both the show and the two of you!!! Just a short question: Would the two of you ever consider opening a restaurant together? Or is there too much sibling rivalry to allow for a successful business?
Michael Voltaggio: I think the one thing that Bryan and I both learned from this process was that we can work together in the same kitchen. And we'll leave it at that.
Bryan Voltaggio: Yeah, looking back at our careers and where we started. We started working in a kitchen together. I have to think on Top Chef we both realized we can ultimately work together again. We look forward to doing so. No firm plans on restaurants, but there are some things we're planning on. Find out more at voltaggiobrothers.com, launching tonight.
Baltimore, MD: Hi guys, congratulations on making it to the finals. I was wondering what cheftestants the two of you formed the closest friendships with during the competition.
Michael Voltaggio: Absolutely Kevin. Kevin is a huge talent, and a gentleman. At the end, we all formed an alliance with each other and acted like we were working together in a professional kitchen rather than competing.
Really, everybody. We were all living in a house together, and anyone who made it past the fourth or fifth week, you really got to know.
Bryan Voltaggio: I'd have to agree with Michael. Kevin has truly become a great friend, as has Eli, Jen, Mike Isabella, more of a close knit group. As it narrowed down you got to know the cheftestants that were with you the longest, but following the experience I'd have to say that I would remain friends with everybody that was a part of the competition.
Personalities: Are you guys as different in real life as you seem on the show? Or is that just editing?
Michael Voltaggio: We definitely have our individual personalities. I can say that we spent 24-hours a day together, and everyone only gets to see about an hour of it every week. Certainly the most entertaining parts were portrayed. We have similar personalities in the sense that we are both passionate about what we do. Bryan has a tendency to be more level-headed, and I tend to just do what I want. And his process is probably a little wiser than mine.
Bryan Voltaggio: Michael beat me to the punch. He describes our personalities pretty clearly. I too believe I'm more level-headed than Michael. Obviously knowing him the longest, easy for me to say. I believe passion is what drives us. A lot of that was portrayed with Michael as being a little bit more fiery in some aspects. I tend to process things a little more than he does before I react. I think there's a pretty good view into both our personalities as portrayed on the show. There is only a small window of time the viewer gets to know us, but I think it was an accurate picture.
Arlington, Va.: You guys made the season! I assume you really like each other and were just being competitive on the show. How come Bryan has a Maryland accent but not Michael? Did you grow up in different places?
Michael Voltaggio: I left Maryland when I was 19. I guess I don't really know what a Maryland accent is. I think accents are more about attitude than geography. Bryan is a hometown guy and he has the hometown accent. But I will work on getting my accent back. I don't want to forget where I came from, that's for sure.
Bryan Voltaggio: I grew up in Maryland so I don't realize I have a Maryland accent. I left when I was young too, to go to school in NY. I lived there for 7 years. Maybe I regained my Maryland accent since I've been back. I didn't even know it existed, but I'll take it.
Washington, DC: Are you taking any recipes that you made up on the fly into your restaurants?
Michael Voltaggio: Yeah, I definitely surprised myself on a couple of occasions. There are things that absolutely worked that I will use in the future, and things that did not work that I will not use.
One thing I did learn is that in a competition like that, maybe experimentation is not the smartest route. Especially when you are using Gail, Tom and Padma as your guinea pigs.
Bryan Voltaggio: When I'm creating dishes it takes me a lot of time. I do a lot of trial and error. We're constantly reworking dishes prior to them going on the menu. I might use small bits and pieces of dishes I created on the show. I'm not saying I'm not proud of what I put forth, but the way I go about creating a dish involves more time. I might use ideas and flavor profiles that I did on the show but you might see them presented in a very different way.
Top Chef: Who are your parents rooting for tonight? (Bonus points if you say Kevin!)
Michael Voltaggio: I'm going to say Kevin.
I think they are just proud that both of us made it as far as we have. I think my mother would probably feel a lot better to see Kevin win. I think it would be easier anyway.
Bryan Voltaggio: I too agree that it would be easier on my mother if Kevin was to win, but it's hard to say. I think in all honesty that even though it would be easier on her, she would much rather see one of her sons win.
Washington, D.C.: Michael, why were you so critical of Kevin's "simple" food? You must have noticed that the judges and guest judges preferred his simplicity.
Michael Voltaggio: We could only really judge our competitor's food by the way it looked. So my opinions and reactions were based on first glance, always.
Now having tasted Kevin's food, I've said an equal number of positive things about his food as I've said negative from a visual. And when he won, he won just because his food tasted better.
Elizabethton Tenn.: To both brothers...What is one thing you think your brother could learn from you in the kitchen?
Michael Voltaggio: I think what I could learn from Bryan is more the leadership aspect of running the business side of a kitchen. He's a great cook, but more so a great chef, and a chef is the person who is running everything. Bryan is really good at a lot of different things. When you put it all together, he's a force, that's for sure.
From me, I think he could learn to let himself go a little bit. Don't hold back so much, don't be afraid to express yourself on the plate.
Bryan Voltaggio: Michael has had very different experiences than I've had so I know that he's a wealth of knowledge. I think over time we'll start to share ideas more. I know that in Michael's basket of tools there are things I've never even experienced, but that's the great thing about food and what we do. Each chef goes out there and learns from many different chefs, their travels and experiences. You take all of that and that creates you as a chef. I was told that at 19 by the first chef I worked for, Michael Aleprete. I'll never forget that.
Michael is right that being a little more outgoing on the plate is something I'm starting to open up towards. There's a lot of times I feel I cook for my guests more so than I cook for myself. Sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad. People do want to experience what you want to share on the plate.
Arlington, Va.: Apart from the three remaining finalists, which other chefs do you think could have won the Top Chef prize? And who stayed way longer then you thought they would?
Michael Voltaggio: I think there were a few people who went home a little prematurely. One being Hector. His food was actually really, really good. He has a successful restaurant in Atlanta.
I think Mike I. could have stayed in a little longer.
The unique thing about this competition is that each judge's table comes down to how you perform that day. So you could fly under the radar and put out a great dish when you need to. But if you make one mistake, you're going home.
But I think the three finalists certainly deserved to be there -- I say that at least on behalf of Kevin and Bryan's food.
Bryan Voltaggio: I feel that there were a few chefs that went home prematurely, Hector was definitely one of them. I wish I could have seen more of his food. Michael Isabella also has a wealth of knowledge of Mediterranean cuisine that he really started to show towards the end. I wish I could have seen him a little longer. When it came down to it, leading up to the top 6, anyone could have taken this title. We're surrounded by great talent this year. I thought when I first showed up that I had a long resume and lots of experience and that it would be easier than it was, and I'm glad that it wasn't. Getting to this point was tough. For that I thank everybody that was there. Everybody showed up each day and put forth their best effort. It made it a hell of a lot more fun.
Patrice DC: You both are freakishly intense. What are your parents like?
Bryan Voltaggio: I think our intensity was driven from our passion for food and in the kitchen. The kitchen is an intense place. Since we started so young these are behaviors we developed on our own. I wouldn't say our parents are as intense as we are in what we do. They are both very focused and driven people, however it's just a different working environment in the kitchen than in their career paths.
Michael Voltaggio: I agree with what Bryan said. But to take it even a step further, a kitchen operates like the military. It's not a place to play games. Plus it's dangerous -- you're surrounded by fire and liquid nitrogen and knives. If you're not focused, you could hurt yourself or someone else.
Laurel, Md.: Did you both plan to enter Top Chef together? Or did it just happen that way? Or did the producers recruit you because they wanted a family competition angle to the season?
Michael Voltaggio: Bryan and I both went through the same application process as everyone else. We both decided that we wanted to apply.
Bryan Voltaggio: Yeah, that's what happened. Obviously we both found out we had the opportunity. We both decided that if we both got on, we would both do it.
Washington, D.C.: Did you get to know the judges at all beyond when the cameras were rolling? Is Gail as grating and melodramatic in real life as she comes off on TV?
Bryan Voltaggio: All the judges were very cordial, but keeping in mind that it was a competition, they didn't step outside of the competition at all, which I felt was really great, because I know it could be difficult. Everybody naturally has a favorite or someone they take a liking to and they did a really good job of separating that. I'm sure as time goes on, I really admire Tom for all he's done. I'd like to get to know him more. Gail was very gracious and very great person to have critique your food. Hopefully I'll get to know her more. Padma was really nice as well. I think they did a good job at separating it, and I think that's what they should have done.
Michael Voltaggio: Bryan's answer is pretty much spot-on. If Gail got to know me off-camera, it could have seemed like bias when it came down to critiquing the food, and that takes the competitive spirit out of the competition. If I'm cooking and I see Tom with his arm around another contestant, I'm going to say "no wonder he likes their food better."
It was frustrating because we would wonder "do they just not like us." But at the end of the day, it was just about the competition.
And Gail is awesome.
Studio City, Calif.: Bryan, Are you at all inspired to try out "molecular gastronomy" like your brother?
Bryan Voltaggio: I use a lot of the techniques in my cuisine at Volt. I probably didn't show it as much on the show as I do in my restaurant, but I have very specific menus where I use more modern techniques, for example Table 21, where we're a little more experimental in cooking. I have a pretty broad repertoire. I love to cook very true and fundamentally, however if I think a modern technique can be introduced to a dish without compromising the ingredients, I'll do so. I don't let the technique take precedence over the finished product. Not that I'm saying Michael does.
Biloxi, Miss.: Are you both fans of the show and did you watch many past seasons? Would you have preferred doing a season in which you did not have to compete against one another?
Michael Voltaggio: I've watched the show in the past. I think a serious chef will always be interested in anything that's directly related to what they do. Before we didn't have anything but magazines, so we read those publications to see what was going on.
And when there's a show that's about chefs, naturally you want to watch it and see what it's all about.
I enjoyed going through the experience with my brother, but I'm sure both of us are curious about what it could have been like if we competed on separate shows. And it certainly would have made it easier at the end.
Bryan Voltaggio: I got interested in the show in Season 2, when Ilan Hall was on the show. He worked at Charlie Palmer's Aureole when I was a sous chef there. That sparked my interest and got me to take notice of the show.
I definitely try to keep myself up to date, watch shows that surround our career. Every great chef or passionate chef would watch something that has to do with their craft. I would see mechanics watch a lot of shows that involve working on old cars. Whatever you're passionate about you tend to tune in to.
It is great that there is that much out there surrounding our craft. If you think about 50 years ago, cooks were not looked at as interesting, but more of a necessity, not a very glamorous job. Now the chef has been elevated to a respectable career and that's something all of us are very proud of and good for our profession.
I downloaded the application a few times, but never sent it in. Who knows, had I sent it in, maybe I could have already been though this. I am curious about what that would have been like. I wouldn't have had it any different though. It was a lot of fun. Michael and I will probably start working together again and that's the biggest thing that came out of this whole competition.
Maryland: Do you have people approaching you because of the show and if so do you feel like a rock star or is it a little odd?
Michael Voltaggio: There are a couple of different people that approach us. There are the people I really appreciate, who walk up and say "great job" and are very supportive.
Then there are the people who are just like "hey that guy is on TV."
The people who are supportive about the competition, I appreciate meeting and hearing what they have to say. The people who just know you are on TV, that's a little weird. But it certainly doesn't hurt when you're in the airport and trying to get a better seat.
The coolest thing is when people come into the restaurant because they've seen you on the show, and they have an expectation based on what they've seen. But then they come back to the kitchen and appreciate you based on what they've just had for dinner. And the ability to bring in new clients and reach out like that is something I couldn't have done without going on the show.
Some of the people are surprised to see you at work. They think you're floating in some entertainment universe out there because they see you on TV. But we all have jobs and we all cook, and our homes are behind the stove.
Bryan Voltaggio: I welcome the attention. It's been great and a lot of fun. Sometimes when I'm walking with my wife I think it shocks her a little bit that people want to say hi or get an autograph. She's like 'that's just my husband.' Ha ha ha.
It's definitely shed new light on my restaurant and sparked reservations, which is really cool. It's a great thing.
Did Bryan pick on you growing up? You don't seem to like him very much on the show.
Michael Voltaggio: I think I picked on Bryan growing up. There's actually a story my mom likes to tell, where my favorite TV show -- "Alf" (hey, I was like 5 years old) was coming on, and I was picking on Bryan and sent to my room. Then she felt bad and she called me downstairs to watch my show.
She said "Michael if you can behave and stop picking on your brother, you can watch your show."
And my response was to turn around and go back up the stairs.
She asked what I was doing and I said "I can't stop picking on Bryan."
Bryan Voltaggio: That's a true story. I think it went back and forth, but I think because of his personality he actually had the guts to pick on his older brother which came through on the show. You know, you have to remember I'm the older brother so it definitely rolled downhill a little bit too.
Falls Church, Va.: Who has the cooler tattoos?
Michael Voltaggio: I would say me, up until recently. And then I took Bryan to a shop where I get tattooed, and he had a really good idea. He got like a pencil sketch of fish on his arm, and it doesn't really look like a tattoo at all.
I almost got mad at Bryan and this artist. I go to him all the time; Bryan comes out for two days, and has a way sicker tattoo than I have.
Bryan Voltaggio: That's a true story. He was actually pretty upset when we left the shop. It's taken me a year to decide and find an artist that can do this tattoo. It took an hour for him to sketch it out. He did it and it was perfect and I knew it was time to get it. Just goes to show if you look at our personalities and food, I need to process things and plan and make sure it's exactly what I want before I execute it. Michael on the other hand has a quicker reaction that can result in something great or something he's not happy with. That's why my tattoo is sicker.
Washington, D.C.: I haven't eaten lunch yet and I need inspiration. What's your favorite type of sandwich?
Bryan Voltaggio: Hot pastrami from Katz's Deli in New York. Sorry if you have to get on the train to travel to New York right now.
Sterling, Va.: I just wanted to say thanks to the two of you (with some credit to the rest of the chefs) I have never enjoyed a season of Top Chef more. Has there been a downside yet to your newfound fame?
Michael Voltaggio: The only downside is that people have a perception of you, based on what they see, you know, for a few minutes every week. I think the downside is not being able to show people who you really are as a person.
Not that the show is about that because it is a cooking competition, but sometimes people take offense at comments because you can't explain where those comments are coming from.
So my last message would be -- get to know all of us before you feel like you do.
Thanks for your questions today -- all of us were surprised at the level of talent on this season, and no matter what the outcome, it was a pleasure to work in the kitchen with my brother, Kevin and Jen. In my opinion, this year, there were at least 4 top chefs.
Bryan Voltaggio: There hasn't been any downsides to it. I appreciate everybody that got into the show and the support I've been getting. It's been a lot of fun. I hope that we inspired more people to cook and more people to get interested in food. I know personally I have a lot of friends who don't quite understand the dynamic of a fine dining restaurant, so a little window into our world has sparked new interest among people I know personally. For that I think it was a great opportunity.
Bryan Voltaggio: Thank you for all of the questions and taking the time to write in. Enjoy watching the finale tonight. Thank you very much!
Washington, D.C.: Do you consider the challenges to be realistic tests of a chef's skills, or are they too far removed from real food service work?
Bryan Voltaggio: Part of being a chef is being able to adapt to new challenges and twists even in your own kitchen. Things can change drastically whether it comes from a request from a guest outside of your menu, or an ingredient that isn't up to par. Having to dig deep in your repertoire to change your menu on the fly is something we do on a daily basis. Some people thing the challenges were a little unrealistic, cooking in a desert in a pit for example, but I grill in my back yard and as a chef you should be able to adapt to any situation. The challenges made sure we really dug down deep and put forth our best dish in any situation.
Charlotte, N.C.: How has your being a chef impacted your children's food preferences/palette? What is their favorite food that you make?
Bryan Voltaggio: My son right now is 2 years and four months and he's at that stage where he doesn't want to eat anything. for me that's a bit more frustrating, but I realize I still just keep trying to put new foods i n front of him. Hopefully his palette will develop into new ideas. When he was first born and in the puree stage I tried to make as many things as I could for him: parsnips, butternut squash, but now it's chicken fingers and french fries seems to be his meal of choice. Which is OK. I realize he'll grow out of it. When he comes to my restaurant he wants to know what each fruit and vegetable is and he'll try new things in there, but he won't go home and try an ingredient he's tried in my walk-in. I think he'll open up over time. We have a little chef in the making.
Arlington, Va.: It has been great watching you both on top chef--thank you! Did you both come with various or signature recipes in mind or was everything as last minute as it seemed?
Michael Voltaggio: Anything that we cook is out of memory. So none of us had notebooks to work out of. Most of it absolutely was sort of spontaneous.
That being said, every chef has a mental repertoire of ideas to pull from, and you can insert those ideas when you have the opportunity.
I think one things the competitors went through was having something in their mind they wanted to cook before finding out what the challenge was. And when it came, they sort of psyched themselves out.
In the high-stakes quick fire competition I won, the moment they announced what that challenge was going to be, I started thinking to myself I can make this, I can make that, I can make gazpacho.
There's a 3 1/2 foot of liquid nitrogen in the corner, and that was a way to take that experience more interesting.
Washington, DC: Since Top Chef is TV show, were you ever concerned that the judges picked presentation over taste?
Bryan Voltaggio: No, the viewer only gets bits and pieces of what the judges reactions to the dishes are and the time that they spend inspecting each individual plate. I applaud them for the time they took in determining which dishes were better than others or which dishes had mistakes. It seems like a quick decision on television, but there were times that it took hours for them to determine which dish would prevail. I think we had them working a little harder this season than in the past.
Urbana, Md.: We have loved rooting for you this season. Any plans for a Voltaggio cookbook?
Michael Voltaggio: We are getting together very soon to discuss our plans for doing a book together.
We also have a Web site coming soon, voltaggiobrothers.com.
Washington, D.C.: Hi, Bryan and Michael. Who is your favorite judge?
Michael Voltaggio: For me, I'd have to say Tom. He's very intelligent when it comes to food. I learn something from Tom pretty much every time he opens his mouth, and it was nice to see how serious it was when he was judging the competition, and how he could break a plate down to a grain of salt.
Alexandria, Va.: With all the restrictions and limitations, did you find cooking on the show to be significantly harder than cooking in your own restaurants?
Michael Voltaggio: Chefs are control freaks. On a regular basis, we determine how we're going to cook something, what the equipment is going to be like, what the ingredients will be. If a dish isn't up to snuff, you can throw it out and start over.
In the competition, you're racing against the clock, and you only have a certain number of ingredients. Probably the hardest part about the competition was not having 100-percent control.
Washington, D.C.: Where do you guys like to go out to eat in the area when you have the chance?
Bryan Voltaggio: I've been to City Zen, Restaurant Eve. I like to go to Jose Andres's restaurants: Zaytinya and Mini Bar. I find myself at Centrale a lot and when I'm in the mood for a good steak, I go back to my old place, Charlie Palmer.
Dupont Circle: Hi, Guys. Congrats on making it to the finale. I'm looking forward to tonight's show. Was it difficult for you to be away from your families for so long? Was it worth it in the end?
Michael Voltaggio: It's always difficult to be away from your family and friends. But it was certainly worth it, because it gives everyone a chance to see what it is exactly you do, and that it's more than just showing up at a greasy kitchen 14-hours a day. They get to see the artistic side of what it means to be a chef.
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