Meet Michael Voltaggio — Top Chef star, cookbook author and chef/owner of ink., his acclaimed first signature restaurant. He’s built his reputation on adventurous, unconventional cooking with just the right amount of playful flair. We chatted with the chef to learn all about the kitchen at ink., his road to success and his ever-evolving cooking style.
Who or what inspired you to start cooking? What led you to culinary school?
I wanted to save money to get a car. I was able to get a job right away because my brother was a chef at the restaurant I wanted to work in, and my father ran security there. We got jobs there out of favors, and I really enjoyed it.
Describe your cooking style.
I just don’t have one. My cooking style is to continue to change my style and make it better, evolve it. It’s hard to put a label on it because in the restaurant we pull from so many ethnicities and adapt different methods, old and new. My cooking style is evolution and history.
You’re known for using unconventional, avant garde techniques in your cooking. What attracts you to an experimental approach?
Everybody gets inquisitive when it comes to why I cook with modern or out-of-the-box techniques. Technology is improving and enhancing our abilities to cook in new ways, just like it improves anything else, like art and music. I don’t think it’s any different when you’re taking about food and cooking.
What was the most important thing you learned from competing on Top Chef?
To listen to your audience and understand who you’re cooking for. That part of me got humbled the most on that show. To play the game, you really had to understand who you were cooking for and make sure you’re cooking for them, not yourself.
Tell me about the experience of opening your first own restaurant, ink. What inspires the dishes you serve there?
A lot of it is ongoing research. The idea of sharing food is definitely inspired by ethnic restaurants that make L.A. a great food city. Also, I love having a place where we can create something in an open kitchen, inviting people into our loft to have dinner with us and let us cook some food for them. I want it to be comfortable and fine dining, but more accessible for people.
As for the process, everyone says opening a restaurant is the hardest thing you’ll ever do — and it is. Now my job is to worry about a company, not just about the food, from construction to accounting — it’s everything. I had to learn all of that. I never went to college or business school; my only job has ever been cooking. It’s really difficult to learn the business side of it. Even though we were sold out for the first few months, I was running it at a loss and had to figure it out. Now it’s doing well!
You’ve worked often with your brother Bryan, both on TV and on your cookbook, VOLT ink. What is it like collaborating with family?
It’s easy because there’s no judging. You’re not worrying about what the other person is thinking about what you’re doing. You’re not hesitant to share ideas and say what you think, because you want the other person to be successful. We’re lucky to have each other in same industry in healthy, competitive way, because we’re constantly raising the bar on each other.
What’s your favorite food city and why?
Definitely Los Angeles. It’s the newest food city. What I love is that in between the east coast and west coast, little food cities are popping up all over country now. That’s obviously because the entertainment industry is helping restaurants reach a larger demographic — every town is becoming a great food town.
If your kitchen had an anthem, what would it be?
When im in the weeds I used to sing in my head. I would always sing “Let It Be.” It’s kind of like, let it go – that’s a song that relaxed me when I was in the weeds.
What’s your go-to family meal in your work kitchen?
Every day there is rice in the restaurant. We have several cooks on staff who are Chinese, and that’s something that is a part of their food culture, and the Hispanic community as well. I like the idea of sitting down and having meal together with something like rice, which is so common between different culture. We eat it with protein, cooked into a sauce and a salad, almost every day.
Sometimes they’ll make pizzas from scratch or they want to study and make something. We want people to be able to express themselves, too. But seeing a pan of rice makes me feel good; it’s crazy that one ingredient can connect so many different cultures.
What is the most important kitchen habit for cooks to develop?
Obviously working clean. Hands-down, that’s the most important thing. We’re working with food that people are going to eat, so it’s important that you work in sanitized environment. If somebody walks in, we want them to say how clean the kitchen is — it gives a sense of security in the food they’re eating. Working clean means working organized and efficiently.
What is the most overrated food trend, in your opinion? Underrated?
I think trends are overrated. I don’t think food should ever have a label like that, because I don’t see how food can go in and out of style. It doesn’t make any sense to me. If you take piece of art from the 1800s, somebody’s not going to say that painting is out of style; people appreciate it even more because it’s a rare, cool thing.
When it comes to food, which I would put on the same arena — art is labeled with an era or stylistic description, while food gets labeled by trend or a specific ethnicity. If we’re calling food “art,” then let it be art. Is it good or bad?
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Salt. It’s the only ingredient that’s in every single recipe, including pastry.
What is one dish you could eat over and over again?
In LA everyone has their go-to cheap sushi places, the one you’ll go to every week. My cheap sushi place makes baked crab hand rolls in soy paper. That would be it. I stumbled in by accident and it’s just really really good.
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving food tradition?
Pumpkin pie. That’s the one thing in that whole meal that you can only eat once a year. You’ll eat turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing — but pumpkin pie is only on Thanksgiving.