As a Top Chef finalist, Charlie Palmer protege and chef/founder of VOLT, Bryan Voltaggio has made an impression on the culinary world. Still, he’s true to his roots, having opened a restaurant in his hometown — and he’s serious about spending time with his family.
We asked the chef all about the inspiration behind his cooking, opening his own restaurant, and the most important lessons he’s learned over the years. Keep reading to hear what he had to say.
Who or what inspired you to start cooking?
My passion for cooking as an important expression of creativity began at an early age. I remember family gatherings surrounding food: the impression my mother made in making sure we shared food at the dinner table, picking produce from the family garden.
Cooking as an occupation started early too, when I was a busboy in a hotel. What the cooks were doing looked much cooler than clearing tables and running room service. So I begged for a shot.
What did you learn working in your family’s garden as a kid?
At a young age, it makes a big impression to pull food straight from the garden. Whether you cook or not, you understand produce is best from the garden and you learn the difference in ripeness. Those things stay with you.
Describe your culinary style or philosophy.
My philosophy behind my cuisine is to use the utmost care in selection of ingredients and to utilize classic influence and bridge it with modern technique. I believe many chefs share this philosophy — it is what I would describe as modern American as it pertains to where I cook– but it’s a global understanding of where cuisine is now.
Tell us about the experience of opening your own restaurant, VOLT.
I worked for Charlie Palmer for almost nine years prior to opening VOLT. He gave me the opportunity to open his D.C. location, so I was confident when I left to open VOLT — but nervous as could be. There were many questions that went through my mind: Was I ready? Will they come? It’s a leap of faith fueled by passion and drive. It was extraordinary to express myself and my experience as a chef on my own plates.
What distinguishes the food you serve at VOLT?
I can’t point out one thing or one example of what my food is against another chef who may cook with similar ingredients or be in the same mid-Atlantic region. I believe in my cuisine. I work hard to preserve my vision for a dish with my team. Most important, I truly believe in my craft and my team. We strive every day to create a memorable and exciting experience.
What was the most important thing you learned from competing on Top Chef?
I learned that I need to take time to work through a dish. I rewrite, recook, rethink myself constantly. So I am unhappy with my first approach sometimes, and at least I don’t stop there. I strive to finish the thought. In a timed competition you don’t get that time to retool or rework a dish, no matter how amazing the second go-round could be. Untrue in my kitchens.
You’ve worked with your brother Michael, both on TV and on your cookbook, VOLT ink. What is it like collaborating with family?
I truly enjoy working with passionate people, those who care about our craft, and most important, people who are authentic. Working with family means there is no smoke to blow. We tell it like it is, bad or good. For that, working with Michael means we each have our own check and balance — a place to bounce ideas. And that is valuable.
What is your favorite food city?
I don’t have one. I must say it’s always my next city to travel. I want to see them all, taste it all. I cannot stop and settle.
What is the best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
A chef that I worked for early in my career said, “You will go out there and experience all these different chefs and restaurants and then one day be able to put it all together in one experience– one menu, one plate– and that will be you as a chef.”
You’ve dabbled in brewing beer. Any takeaways or tips for beginners?
I worked with a very talented brew master, Matt Brophy from Flying Dog. I went to him with an idea for a food-friendly, backyard BBQ beer for the summer. I gave him some insight from the food side of things. We tasted and smelled ingredients, brewed three pilots, and then landed on what we thought was the best work of our collaboration. It was a great learning experience for both of us.
What is your most prized kitchen possession?
My knives: Michel Bras by Shun.
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving food tradition?
Cooking with and for my family. I decided when I was going to open my own restaurant that all my restaurants would have sacred family days, days to share food and company with the ones we love. So no matter what happens in the kitchen, we are always together.
It’s your birthday. What’s for dinner?