Bryan, any lessons from Charlie?
Bryan: My biggest break was Charlie basically giving me the keys to the door at Charlie Palmer Steak in DC. He had me there day in and day out during the construction process. That really gave me the confidence to go and open my own restaurant. Basically, I took somebody else’s money, learned from the mistakes I made there, and that made it much easier to pitch to investors in order to open Volt.
What was the hardest part of starting out?
Michael: Humbling yourself enough to take whatever crap you were going to take, accept it, and learn from it. I remember going to the Greenbrier—the cooks there wouldn’t say my name correctly. They’d always mess it up—like Voltaglio, Voltagliaglio—and they’d always make jokes about it. One night I was like, “Dude, why won’t you just say my name? It’s Voltaggio.” And he was like, “Because you’re a little punk.”
So I think it’s deciding that, no matter what, you’re going to be a warrior and fight through it. When I was ready to leave, that same guy came up to me and was like, “Hey, Chef Voltaggio—good job.”
What are some of the things you teach a cook who is just starting out?
Bryan: I believe in culinary school, obviously, but I tell kids just coming out, “Look, you need to work in this industry for years before you become a sous chef. I know you have loans. I know your parents want to see a return on their money. But for you to get to where I am, you need to work for a lot of different people, keep your head down, and soak everything in. Knowledge is everything, and experience is a lot more.”
How do you handle the kitchen lifestyle? Are the 12-hour days tough?
Bryan: What inspires me the most is that it’s ever-changing. For me, how I built this restaurant was inspired by Michael. He would call me up and say, “This guy just dropped off a basket of chanterelles that he foraged.” That inspired me. I want farmers coming to my back door.
Michael: She wants the dirty-dirty.
Bryan: I understand.
Michael: So don’t dance around the question.
Bryan: All right—yes, I love talking about sex, drugs, and politics in the kitchen. It’s a family environment, but it’s a family environment that has a lot of extracurricular activities.
Michael: Being in a kitchen is a culture, and that’s where you decide this person’s going to make it and this person’s not. And when you hire people, you know this guy is going to be one of those guys, this is gonna be the guy where I can say, “Shut the f--- up,” and he’s not going to go to human resources.
What keeps you going all day? Do you pound coffee?
Michael: I had to give all that stuff up when I went on Top Chef—I didn’t want to be shaky on camera. When I was at the Bazaar, I was having Red Bull after Red Bull and coffee after coffee. Now I try to do it free of poison—that’s how I’ll say it.
Bryan: Because the day never ends, I have to make a stopping point. If you don’t end your day and go home and get five or six hours’ sleep, you’re pretty much worthless the next day.
Michael, you used to work with José Andrés. What was that like?
Michael: José is very, very, very involved. People wouldn’t know that about José, with all the other stuff he’s got. The cool thing about José is this: In José’s mind, anything is possible. And I mean that in the most literal sense. He doesn’t understand why something can’t happen. Meaning let’s take Minibar—which serves 12 people a night—and recreate the concept and do it for 400 people a night in Los Angeles, which is essentially what my task was moving out there. He’s insane.
He’s all about collaboration. You wouldn’t know that because it’s José, José, José. When I opened the Bazaar, everybody from DC came out to help me open it, as opposed to “Let’s just throw the new guy out there to do a million-dollar-a-month business by himself.”
So . . . Top Chef.Did TV come naturally to you?
Bryan: No, it was weird. Being in the kitchen is natural. When the cameras are there, you just try to ignore them as much as possible.
How isolated were you?
Michael: We all lived together in a house. What you saw on TV is the way it was.
What was in the fridge?
Michael: It was stocked with Whole Foods stuff. So when we came home, there was always a refrigerator full of groceries. You’re living in a house, there are your groceries, there’s your dishwasher, clean up your own mess. It was real. We all would take turns cooking for each other.
What did you do the night the finale was shot and you found out you’d won?
Michael: That was actually at 6 in the morning.
Bryan: We went back to sleep.
How have things changed since the show?
Michael: You get the people who come into the restaurant because they want to see the guy who was on TV. The cool thing is that you can convert those people. All of a sudden, you’ve created a new foodie. Then you get the people who come in and want to play Gail or Tom or Padma. They’ll say, “Well, I think that this was a little bit too . . . . If I was on the show, I’d . . . .” And you’re just like, “Really? Enjoy your dinner.”
Bryan: It’s overnight. An actor is someone who aspires to do that, and there are steppingstones—a commercial, a motion picture—but with TV it’s like all of a sudden all of America knows you. I go to the gas station and somebody runs up and says, “Hey, can you sign my gas receipt?” I’m like, “Dude, I’m not paying for your gas. Oh—you want an autograph.”
What’s the most exciting food city now?
Michael: New York is the most mature, developed culinary city. But I think LA finally is becoming a serious food town, and that in itself makes it one of the most exciting. In LA, fine-dining restaurants are a lot more casual but the food is allowed to be serious.