Bryan Voltaggio may have been runner-up during Season 6 of “Top Chef,” losing out to his younger brother, Michael, but the man behind Volt in Frederick and Range in Friendship Heights will be the first contestant from Bravo’s long-running reality show to make the jump to “Top Chef Masters.”
Today, Bravo will announce the lineup for Season 5 of the senior circuit of cooking shows, and Voltaggio will be among the 13 competitors, who also include David Burke (David Burke Townhouse, Primehouse ), Douglas Keane (most recently at Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif.), Sue Zemanick (Gautreau’s in New Orleans) and Richard Sandoval (who also has a foothold in Washington with Zengo and Ambar). Both Burke and Zemanick have previously appeared on “Top Chef Masters.”
The remaining contestants are Franklin Becker, Lynn Crawford, Odette Fada, Neal Fraser, Jennifer Jasinski, Jenn Louis, Herbert Wilson and Sang Yoon. Each chef will be competing to win $100,000 for a charity of his or her choosing.
A new wrinkle this season will be the “Battle of the Sous Chefs,” hosted by Hugh Acheson, an online competition that will confer advantages or disadvantages to the master chefs competing on Bravo’s televised program. The winning sous, for example, will earn his or her boss immunity on the next episode of “Top Chef Masters,” while the losing sous will earn the mentor nothing but extra work.
Voltaggio brought his Volt chef de cuisine, Graeme Ritchie. “At first, my impression was that the new format would allow for us to cook side by side during the challenges, but in typical ‘Top Chef’ style, I soon learned that was not going to be the case,” he noted in a statement provided by Bravo. The new feature, he said, “truly shows the relationship between a chef and his/her sous-chef.”
In a telephone interview, I had the chance to ask Voltaggio more about his appearance on “Top Chef Masters,” which premieres July 24 on Bravo. An edited transcript is below.
What was the process for your being selected for the show?
I don’t really know. It was something that I’ve always been interested in, you know. Certainly, I’ve asked a few times if I could be a part of the cast over the last couple of years. But then they reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of it, and I said, ‘Well, yeah, of course.’ I thought it would be a good opportunity to go back and show that I’ve grown a little bit as a chef and what we’ve accomplished over the last few years.
I was hoping this would be Bryan vs. Michael Voltaggio, the revenge grudge match, so you could redeem yourself.
Yeah, I know. I do that every day, sir. [He laughs.]
Did you take a different approach to “Top Chef Masters,” given your level of competition, vs. regular “Top Chef”?
Yeah, I was nervous to have all these great people around me that are established chefs and some who have been through the format before! [Laughs.] It was kind of nerve-wracking, because when I did Season 6, I walked in the door and Mike Isabella was there and my brother and everybody else. I mean, I knew there was stiff competition. I also knew I could play their game. And I knew I could cook as well as, if not better than, them. To go against people like David Burke and Douglas Keane, it’s a different level. These are chefs who are very well established, who have multiple restaurants, who are really great at what they do. It was different. I was definitely more nervous.
Psychologically, is it difficult to compete, let alone beat, someone whom you consider an elder statesman in your business?
Yeah. What I kept focusing on was actually the charity. [Note: Voltaggio competed for Share Our Strength.] I used that as a driving force. Just like the last time I was using [the chance] to beat my brother as a driving force. You know what I mean? There was something there that fueled the fire beyond what the competition was, beyond the nuances of what was going on during competition. It was more about the goal.
Did you feel you had any competitive advantage by having been on ‘Top Chef’ before?
I tried to convince them that I did [laughs]. That was part of my tactic going into it, to ruffle some feathers. All in all, there are some really great people, and I think the competition level was difficult. Plus, the maturity is different. Not that I thought the people on Season 6 were immature, but these guys, they were there to do a job. They were there to fight for their charity and do the best they could. At the end of the day, everybody was friends. There was no drama.
It seems as if there isn’t as much to gain personally with “Top Chef Masters,” as opposed to “Top Chef,” where as a winner or finalist you can get a lot of exposure, which can translate into helping you with your career. It seems like there’s less pressure to perform well on “Top Chef Masters.”
Yes and no. Because when I walked back into the [“Top Chef”] kitchen, something kind of clicked. Like, “Okay, I’m back in this. I’m back in competition mode. I’m back and trying to win something.” Obviously, the focus was different. The focus was for my charity, but then it was also a constant reminder of what “Top Chef” did for me, that it helped me do better things for the cause that I’m working for. I’m able to reach out to more people because I had that exposure. So I felt like I owed them more.
How much do you think you’ve changed as a chef since Season 6?
I don’t know how to put the words together. . . . I want to say it the right way, but I cook a lot more for my guests now than for myself. Not that it’s not exciting, but I’m trying to create really great, delicious food for my guests to make sure they have a really great experience. Now I’m more in tune to the overall experience and what happens in our restaurants, understanding that every aspect of the restaurant is important, and it’s something that I’m responsible for.
Is that a function of being a businessman these days as much as a chef?
Yeah, I have hundreds of employees now who look to me to make sure that we have an operating business so that they can earn a paycheck. Still, we understand that if we let the passion drive us, then we will succeed. I’ve said the way to go about making money is to make sure we’re providing the best service and the best food that we can possibly achieve. In that way, our restaurants will remain full. Not a lot of people think like that. You’d be surprised. A lot people put the business first. For us, it’s the craft first, then a business second.
It makes me wonder if appearing on cooking shows is almost a business decision. These shows keep you and your restaurants in the public’s mind. And they keep you in the celebrity spotlight. Is that part of what drives your desire to keep doing these shows?
I understand that that can be a really big factor. However, I’m trying to do good things with the celebrity [status] that I’ve gained from “Top Chef.” All that I’ve been able to do and all the things we’ve been able to accomplish over the last five years are due to some of the notoriety that I got from “Top Chef.” I’ve obviously used that and cooked my heart out to make sure that people come to my restaurants, but we benefited from the show. For me to have an opportunity to go back and sort of pay it back, if I could win money for my charity, that is the reason why I went.
Do they keep you as isolated on “Top Chef Masters” as you were on “Top Chef”? Or are you allowed to stay in communication with your team at the restaurants to keep things going?
That was one of the deciding factors. It was something that I was really concerned with, because I remember when I did “Top Chef,” I had an 18-month-old son. My wife [Jennifer] was at home by herself with him, and I had no way to communicate back. I also had no way to communicate back to my business, Volt, which had only been open for seven months. But obviously it paid off because we worked hard. We got what we intended to get out of it. So that was exciting. But, you know, had I not, it would have been a difficult six weeks. But this was different. I could communicate back daily, if I needed to. I certainly had access to e-mail. I was in touch with my chefs de cuisine on a regular basis and my business partner to make sure things are moving fine.
I guess you can’t say whether you won or not?
No, sir, I cannot. You’ll have to wait and see, as they say.