For Michael Voltaggio, the past few weeks can only be described as "surreal."
Since beating out 16 chefs — including his runner-up brother, Bryan — to win Top Chef: Las Vegas, the executive chef of The Dining Room at LA's Langham Huntington Hotel has gone from the guy in the kitchen to the guy cooking with Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show.
A few weeks after surprising even himself by taking home the Top Chef title and hefty cash prize, the younger Voltaggio spoke with the Weekly about cooking for Joël Robuchon, burning Cheetos and why opening a restaurant in Vegas is a chef's dream come true.
Your mom has referred to you as the Top Chef contestant that viewers "loved to hate." Have you felt any backlash from fans since your win?
Definitely online I think people will write what they feel. The Internet is a good place for people to hide, since they're using different names and no one will ever know it's them. On the street and in person, people are very cool. I find myself explaining myself a lot to a lot of people. They're like, "After meeting you and talking to you, you don't really seem like this abrasive, mean, in-your-face person." I love the fact that I can say, "Yeah, I'm not. You just got three minutes of a 24-hour tape every Wednesday night."
On the show, you're cut off from the outside world. How did you de-stress during the competition?
I think you just focus on the food. You're right, you don't have contact with the outside world; you don't have all the means of entertainment that we usually have, so ultimately what that means is there are no distractions. So when people are like, "You and your brother, you showed no emotion on the show. You guys weren't entertaining. You guys were like robots," we were there to win a cooking competition. ... I think it showed in the end, 'cause the last two people standing were the guys that everyone was like, "Oh these guys are boring to watch and they're not funny." We were there to compete and cook, and I think a lot of people forget about that.
Was there a challenge during the show that stands out in your mind as impacting your cooking?
I think the Bocuse D'Or challenge was really the truest one to home; that was a true cooking competition. One of the highlights of the whole show was cooking for Joël Robuchon. He's like God to us. To have a chance not only to cook for him but to have him say positive things about my food, Top Chef or no Top Chef, that's definitely a highlight in my career.
Has any of the food that you cooked during the show made it onto the menu at your restaurant?
I have a tendency to get bored with composed dishes. If I send something out enough, I tend to get over it. With that being said, there are a lot of techniques that I'll keep and reuse and use in and out of different dishes. Right now I have on the menu the turnip soup with the foie gras and pear that I did in Napa. I've inspired myself to put some of those dishes on my menu based on the feedback that I got during the show.
On Bravotv.com's behind-the-scenes video series, one episode was about Bryan trying to burn a bag of cheese puffs. What happened there?
I'll tell you about that. Bryan has got a cheese-puff phobia. Like he hates them. Like if there's one food that he hates, he doesn't want to be near a Cheeto. And I know that, and obviously, I like pushing his buttons. I was chasing him around the house with Cheetos and trying to put them in his face one night. Everyone's laughing and he's getting pissed. We were about to fight! So he took every bag of cheese puffs that was in the house and literally burned it.
I wish that stuff made it on TV. It's so fun to watch.
Yea, we saved it all for the end of the night. You don't want to be that guy on TV burning Cheetos. You want to be the guy on Top Chef.
You and Bryan have started the Web site Voltaggiobrothers.com. Did you realize that you two could be a package deal before doing Top Chef?
I think doing Top Chef is what made us realize, "Wait a second, we could maybe brand and do something together." We can work together in the kitchen, and all that bickering back and forth, it was fun. That's part of what makes us good. Bryan being a little more introverted and level-headed and me being a little more out there and a little more extroverted, it's great balance. We can help each other as opposed to just constantly being at each other's throats.
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As a new member of the celebrity-chef crowd, how do you feel about the chef as celebrity trend?
I think it helps. I definitely think there's a huge movement that food and fashion and entertainment are finally coming together. Once you reach a certain level you need to keep yourself in the kitchen. ... There's developing a crew around you that can execute your vision as good if not better in your absence, and then there's guys out there who they're never in their kitchen, and their product is suffering and they're always worrying about the next appearance. At the end of the day you have to remember what got you there, and what got you there was hopefully your cooking. My goal through this process is to stay as close to the stove as long as possible.
So we're not going to see Voltaggio Brothers dishware?
I'm not going to say you'll never see that, because if somebody comes and says, "You want to do this product line?" all that money helps move everything else forward. We're not rich. At the end of the day, people might know who we are and I might be kind of a celebrity or whatever, but I'm not independently wealthy. I can't retire now that I did Top Chef.
Before doing the show, had you spent a lot of time in Las Vegas?
I love Vegas. I think it's a phenomenal city, especially for a chef. Look past all the casinos and all the things that people naturally go to Vegas for and think about the fact that there are just great restaurants there. Chefs go to Vegas because they know that the resources are there to do the restaurants the way they've always dreamed to do them. So, if you want to experience a chef's restaurant in his fantasy land — like, "If I was ever going to do a restaurant it would be like this" — I think Vegas is the place to go because they actually build them like that. "Joël Robuchon, what do you need to come to Las Vegas and have a restaurant?" And all of a sudden there's this masterpiece of a restaurant.
Would you ever consider coming out here and setting up shop?
Maybe. Yeah. If somebody was like, "We've got this great space, what do you want to do?" It's hard to pass that up. There are not too many places in the country that support that.
For Las Vegas diners thinking of making the trip to LA to eat at your restaurant, what's a dish that you're working on right now?
I can tell you what the most popular dish on the menu is. It's a dish of Australian Wagyu short rib that we cook for 48 hours, but the description under it says "flavors of pot roast." We take really, really good carrots and we juice them. We basically take that juice and mix it with red wine and we don't reduce it. I have something that I use to thicken it and turn it into a glaze. We take the pot roast that we've cooked for 48 hours — the short rib — and we dip it into this vat. This carrot and red wine just coats the outside of the meat, so it's this bright, orangey red, shiny piece of perfectly cooked meat. We garnish it with what I call "liquid French fries." We make a puree of La Ratte potatoes, which are the most potato-y tasting potatoes, but we make it really liquid. Then we set it with agar agar, sorbitol, and gelatin. We tempura fry it, so you have a liquid-center French fry.
Did you realize when you went into being a chef that you were going to become somewhat of a scientist at the same time?
No, not at all. I did terrible in school; I never got good grades. Science was probably my worst class. By no means are we scientists, but we definitely take advantage of technology that's available and try to apply it to what we do. [To not use it] would be like a musician saying, "I'm not using any digital at all. I'm going only acoustic." There's a lot more out there that can enhance what you do.