Villain or hero? Science geek or artist? Top Chef Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio may be complicated, but the recipes he shares with F&W are delightfully simple.
Split personality: Michael Voltaggio as gadget nerd (left, with hand smoker) and home cook. Photo © Peden + Munk.
If every reality show needs a villain, then Michael Voltaggio picked up a second title on Season 6 of Bravo's Top Chef. The 31-year-old winner earned a reputation for being arrogant with comments like "Kevin's food is what I cook on my day off," his now-infamous knock against finalist Kevin Gillespie. It didn't help that viewers learned so little about his personal life (he has two little daughters, ages five and 10) and that he never asked for sympathy (he woke up with a 103.5° fever the morning of the Bocuse d'Or elimination challenge but refused to go to the hospital, signing a medical waiver—and ultimately lost to Kevin).
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All of which left us at F&W wondering: Could an intense and somewhat intimidating chef like Michael Voltaggio—a technical master with a penchant for futuristic ingredients, like liquid nitrogen and agar—create simple recipes for the home cook? Would he even agree to?
Little about his impressive bio suggests he'd be open to the suggestion. Voltaggio, who grew up in Maryland with his brother Bryan (also a finalist on the show), completed the Greenbrier Hotel's Culinary Apprenticeship Program at 21—one of its youngest graduates ever. He trained under exalted chefs José Andrés and Charlie Palmer. Now chef de cuisine at the Dining Room at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, he's created a menu with such avant-garde ironies as "flavors of pot roast"—Australian wagyu short rib cooked sous vide for 48 hours, then served with gnocchi he flavors with a device called a Smoking Gun that shoots cool smoke directly into foods.
Video: What is Sous Vide?
Yet Michael was game to take the F&W challenge, and he submitted an eminently doable but still super-creative version of those short ribs. He flavors the meat with the Indian spice rub garam masala, braising them in the oven for two hours until tender—no sous vide necessary. He pairs the ribs with gnocchi that he fries until crispy, a kind of haute Tater Tot. Completing the dish: carrots cooked in carrot juice and a hoppy beer to emphasize their savory depth, not their sweetness. Says Michael, "This is who I am, without all the bells and whistles. I'd even make this at home."
© Peden + Munk
Not that he's home much. When he's not cooking at the Langham, he's riding his motorcycle or checking out new restaurants with his kids; he's excited that his older daughter is "starting to respect food." As for his love life, he may be the first contestant in the history of reality TV who won't discuss it.
Professionally, he's showing a slightly less serious side. He is collaborating on the website voltaggiobrothers.com with Bryan, filming cooking videos that show how to make brioche in the microwave, for instance, or that debunk the myth that consuming Pop Rocks and soda at the same time makes your head explode. The Voltaggios are also working on a cookbook together.
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When asked whether he plans to open his own restaurant with his $125,000 Top Chef prize, Michael says, "I'm not going to be irresponsible. But if things come up, like if I have the idea 'Oh, I want to buy one of those food trucks,' there could be a spur-of-the-moment purchase." He takes the long view of his career and admires the way that superstar chefs like Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse have built their empires slowly, carefully training staff in their style and philosophies.
Food truck or not, Voltaggio can't imagine not working in a professional kitchen. "Cooking is the only thing I know how to do," he explains. But he knows he still has a lot to learn, and not just about cooking. When he worked for Charlie Palmer, the restaurant's ice maker broke and Palmer grabbed a screwdriver. Ten minutes later, the machine was fixed. "At that moment, you're like, 'That's why he makes millions a year, or whatever it is,' " Voltaggio says. That doesn't sound so arrogant.