It was the perfect recipe for TV drama: Two brothers—both chefs, both very talented and very competitive—are contestants on a culinary reality show, Bravo’s Top Chef. On one side of the kitchen there’s Bryan Voltaggio—cautious, steady, and unflappable—until Michael, his moody, mussy-haired kid brother, comes around to rag on one of his dishes.
Despite the distraction of sibling rivalry, the brothers stood out as the show’s top talents. In the end, it came down to the two of them: Michael, 31, won the title, and Bryan, 33, was runner-up.
But long before Top Chef, the brothers were big names in the food world. Bryan spent six years running the show at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill. In 2008, he opened Volt, an ambitious restaurant in an unlikely location—a Frederick brownstone.
Michael got his start at the Greenbrier, the grandly appointed resort in West Virginia. He was the youngest person to go through its well-regarded apprentice program and was eventually put in charge of its top dining room. In 2008, he moved to LA and garnered four Los Angeles Times stars for the Bazaar, DC chef José Andrés’s first out-of-town venture. Michael Voltaggio now mans the kitchen at another big-name restaurant, the Michelin-starred Dining Room at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena.
It’s been quite a ride for two former busboys who grew up in Walkersville, just outside Frederick, and attended Governor Thomas Johnson High School. We brought them together to talk about their different paths to culinary success, the hard-knock lessons they’ve learned, and how they deal with all those breathless reality-TV fans.
When did you first start paying attention to food?
Bryan: I have early-childhood memories of cooking with my grandfather. He used to cook at home a lot, especially during the holidays. I got my first cookbook when I was five. It had funny-shaped grilled cheeses and stuff like that—and a little apron.
Michael: Our mom was not a gourmet cook at all, but she always, always, always had dinner on the table every day. You know how families are today—people use their dinner table for storing the mail. She made mom food—pork chops, casseroles, breakfast for dinner.
Is there anything she taught you that you still use in the kitchen?
Bryan: Probably textures in food. She used to make this casserole called Texas straw hats, and it had Fritos over the top and layers of textures. I still try to recreate that in every dish. I was one of those kids who always put potato chips on their sandwiches. But I think maybe that was the start of it.
Michael: I still put Fritos on top of dishes in the restaurant. I do a canapé right now where we make a clear gel that tastes like salsa. Then we crush Fritos and sprinkle them in the bowl, and we put in goat cheese with liquid nitrogen on top. You eat the whole thing with a spoon, and it’s like eating chips and salsa.
What were your first kitchen jobs?
Bryan: Mine was at the Francis Scott Key Holiday Inn in Frederick. I started as a busboy. I went to the chef and asked him, “Look, if I take the vocational program at my school, the culinary program, can I start cooking?” It looked a lot cooler than being a busboy.
Michael: I did the same thing. I was a busboy, but Bryan was in the kitchen at the time. All the cool people were working in the kitchen, and all the nerds were in the front of the house. So I think that’s when it clicked for me.
Did you feel right off that it was what you wanted to do?
Michael: I didn’t like school at all. Right as I was graduating, I got a job offer—this was in 1996—making $30,000 a year to be a sous chef at a country club. So automatically I’m like, somebody’s gonna pay me$30,000 right out of high school? I decided not to go to college. But once I was working at the country club I thought, this is going to end me. That’s when I started looking for an apprenticeship.
Culinary school is trendy now, but were any of your friends doing the same thing back then?
Michael: Back when we did it 15 years ago, people looked at you weird when you said you were going to go to culinary school. It was kind of like, what crimes did you commit?
Bryan, how important was culinary school?
Bryan: For me it was. I worked for this hotel company that moved me around to a few properties, and as a chef I just felt I was creating subpar food. I felt I was hitting a dead end, and that’s when I started to have a lot of interest in going to school. I went to the Culinary Institute of America knowing I at least had the fundamentals—knife skills and so forth. I worked 40 hours a week while I was there, so that was a pretty heavy load.
I remember driving to New York City, and because I’m from Frederick, I was pretty intimidated when I got there. I trailed one Saturday at Aureole, and that’s when I met Charlie Palmer. It took me three weeks of repeatedly going down to the city, and he finally offered me a job for my externship, and that’s where my career started.
Michael, did you have a mentor?
Michael: Yeah, but I’m different than Bryan. Bryan stayed in one place for a long time. He learned how to do everything Charlie’s way. Charlie’s a guy who would fix the ice machine if it broke.
I went from kitchen to kitchen. I get bored with things quickly. It’s not just in cooking. I’m ADD, and I need to move on to the next thing constantly. But I would say Arnaud Berthelier, who I worked with at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida. He’s the one who showed me fine dining. I’d never seen food like that before. He was cooking sous-vide back in 2000, when we had to hide the equipment and not tell anybody we were doing it.
He was really, really ahead of the game. The problem with him is that he was really introverted. He was never out of the kitchen doing interviews because nobody really knew about him. But to this day I haven’t seen food as perfect as his.
What lessons came out of those relationships?
Michael: There was a chef I worked for early on, Lawrence McFadden—he was another guy who was always cooking in the kitchen. I would ask questions: “Tell me about food costs, tell me about this.” He said, “Every time you change a job, you’re going to have to relearn in a week how to manage the operation, but you’ll never be able to go back and learn how to cook. Stay as close to the stove for as long as possible.”
I still tell myself that every day. I don’t first come in, check my e-mails, then go in the kitchen; I come in and I work all day. I hide from the world in the kitchen.