Michael Voltaggio

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: ink and ink.sack, Los Angeles

Education: The Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship Program, White Sulphur Springs, WV

What is the recipe you are most famous for?
Our egg yolk gnocchi. In this age of modernist cuisine, it’s got no additives, just three ingredients: egg yolks, salt and olive oil. We discovered it by accident, when we were washing a sauce of egg yolk puree off a spatula and it came off in chunks, “cooked” by the hot water. We pushed the puree through a pastry bag into hot water to made gnocchi. We overcook them slightly on the outside, undercooking them on the inside, leaving a gooey center.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
The French Laundry Cookbook changed everything in America. My mom bought it for me when I was an apprentice at The Greenbrier hotel, my first important job. It was unlike any other book by an American chef. You opened it and it made you start dreaming immediately about what you could do. It wasn’t just a book, it was a new standard, a new goal line for everyone else to aim for. The scary part is that now people cook out of it regularly at home. The other day I gave a regular customer a vacuum-sealed bag of our short ribs, with instructions on how to simmer them in a pot of hot water on his stove. He replied, “Can’t I just put it in my immersion circulator?”

What is one technique everyone should know?
How to season with sugar as well as salt. Don’t be afraid to use sugar in your savory cooking and salt in your sweet cooking. Particularly fruits and vegetables sometimes need a little more sugar as well as salt to taste more like themselves.

What is your one secret-weapon ingredient?
Black rice vinegar. We put a bunch of different kinds of vinegars in spray bottles and spritz a few dishes right before they go out; the vinegar adds that one more layer of craveable, taste bud-waking flavor. Roast chicken is a good one to spritz with cider or sherry vinegar. But Chinese black rice vinegar, the kind they use for dim sum, we’ve been using that a lot lately, it’s got some interesting qualities—chocolatey, sour, earthy.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Right now, I would say hands down Mexico. Mexico City for sure, but also the Valle de Guadalupe south of Tijuana. It’s Mexico’s wine country, and has some of the best food ever, often for next to nothing. Just south of Rosarito Beach, you’ll find a bunch of fisherman down there bringing seafood out of the water. You can literally sit there and spend $20 to $30 on sea urchin, giant spider crabs, it’s crazy. They cook it right there. You have to deal with the fact that there are random dogs running around, but it’s some of the best seafood I’ve ever had.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain and Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
Totoraku, here in Los Angeles. First and foremost because it’s a meat-centric guy’s hangout, but less refined than a steak house. But also because the Japanese chef, Kaz Oyama, cooks every cut of meat like sushi, with extreme care. You bring your own wine, sit around for hours, get drunk and eat amazing food, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get some of the best stories.

What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
I for ice cream. It’s my guilty pleasure, my favorite thing in the world to eat. I think it’s because I cook so much savory food all day long, I crave sweet. I love ice cream that has contrasting textures to it, too, like Heath Bar crunch. Now that our dessert culture is evolving, too, some of the grocery brands have chocolate-covered pretzels or chocolate-covered potato chips swirled in, like in the Jimmy Fallon’s Ben & Jerry’s flavor, Late Night Snack. It’s an adventure in a pint.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Fish—not to celebrate it, to figure out a way to protect it.

What is your current food obsession?
Charcoal—cooking with smoke and wood. We recently took one of our stoves out of service, a $5,000 range that we turn off during service, to set down a pair of $100 cast-iron charcoal grills on top of it. Because we cook all of our meat under vacuum, or sous vide, I started to miss that smoky, charred flavor.

What are the dishes that define who you are?

  1. To be honest, the dish that got me into cooking was instant ramen. When I was about 12 or 13, I just started playing around to see what I could do with a package of dried ramen noodles: Let’s add an egg to it. Let’s add some hot sauce. Let’s sprinkle dried seaweed into it and see what happens. All that stuff got me messing around.
  2. As for right now, I think my beef tartare is a good example. We use hanger steak so it has more chew, and make a chimichurri out of seabeans to give it more natural salinity. Then we crush thin slices of rye bread toast on top, and give it this snow of horseradish. All the flavors are familiar, just not in their usual forms. Nothing’s reinvented, it’s just put together in a new way.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I shouldn’t admit this, but I’m still a lunch meat and cheese addict, and I’m always eating on the run. I’ll get this cheese sampler platter at the supermarket with a jalepeño-laced cheese, a cheddar and something else that looks marbled. I’ll also pick up some good lunch meats like turkey, salami and pepperoni. Then I keep a box of Triscuits on top of the fridge. I’ll grab the Triscuits, stand there and snack on the cheeses and lunch meats like it’s a buffet.

2013 Best New Chef Bio

Won Best New Chef At ink., Los Angeles, CA

Why He’s Amazing Because his modernist cuisine pushes boundaries—he’ll serve octopus over buttered-popcorn puree—but it is still delicious.

Born 1978; Frederick, MD

Culinary School The Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship Program, White Sulphur Springs, WV

Background Dry Creek Kitchen (Healdsburg, CA); The Bazaar by José Andrés (Los Angeles); The Dining Room at the Langham Huntington (Pasadena, CA)

Quintessential Dish Baby turnips and radishes in a coffee-cardamom “soil”

How He Got Into The Food Business “My first job was bussing tables at the local Holiday Inn where my brother (chef Bryan Voltaggio) was a sous-chef. I spent some time chopping vegetables, and one day my brother told me to come in the next day in a chef uniform. When I came in the executive chef started yelling at me, ‘What is this, Halloween?’ But in the end I got to cook.”

On The Aftermath Of Winning Top Chef in 2009 “I wanted to go back to work at The Bazaar but I’d be a distraction in the open kitchen, with people taking pictures of me. I wanted to say to guests, ‘What do you want, to hang out with me or to have me make your food? You can’t have both.’”

Insider Tip If you can’t get into ink., down the street in a former churro bakery is Voltaggio’s ink.sack, serving playful sandwiches like a corned beef tongue Reuben and a CLT: chicken liver mousse, curried chicken skin, lettuce and tomato.

Story of Discovery

“The night I ate at Ink, the dining room was packed with fans of Top Chef Season 6 winner Michael Voltaggio. I wondered if all the customers’ cameras pointed at him would distract Voltaggio from his cooking. In fact, I loved everything on the hyper-creative menu. The dish I particularly obsessed over was the charcoal potatoes—cooked in salty water spiked with squid ink and black vinegar, they look like lumps of charcoal, with crystallized salt on the skin and a tangy, fluffy interior. Before he serves them, Voltaggio roasts the black potatoes quickly over real charcoal, then garnishes them with spring onions and house-made sour cream. ‘We didn’t invent a new flavor—it’s potatoes, sour cream and chives,’ he says. Maybe so, but as with many of his dishes, like corn cooked with miso and topped with house-made Doritos, it’s a fantastic combination.”—Kate Krader