Top Chef Season 6 Finalist Bryan Voltaggio Dishes on His Restaurant, the D.C. Food Scene and the Top Chef Experience

Your name is Bryan Voltaggio. You have a great wife and son, you are a finalist on a popular reality show and you’re the chef/owner of a sensationally popular restaurant right in your hometown. Life is good. But for Chef Voltaggio, all these newfound successes don’t outshine the things that are most important. Working with the local community, enjoying what you do, producing excellent food and staying true to yourself.

At Volt in Frederick, Maryland, Bryan Voltaggio is doing much more than delivering tasty meals to an enthused crowd. He is helping to enliven the entire town and is helping support and promote the three factors that he believes in most for the food he cooks, using products that are local, sustainable and organic.

Talking with Bryan Voltaggio, you get the sense that this is only just the beginning. The insta-celebrity status that comes from being a Top Chef contestant? That’s great. The restaurant exceeding everyone’s expectations? Amazing. But there is more to be done. I spoke with Bryan about Volt, about his experience on Top Chef, the D.C. and Frederick food scenes and much more. Take a look at the full transcript below.

I was recently lucky enough to pay a visit to Volt and was treated to a wonderful meal and great service… What would you say you’re the most proud of with your restaurant?

Bryan Voltaggio: Obviously it’s every chef’s dream and aspiration, or most chefs’, to open up their own restaurant. We opened up in the worst economy… and to sustain through the first year, and actually do as well as we have done and have brought new people to downtown Frederick I think is a great accomplishment. Everything we have set out to do here I feel like I have been able to accomplish and not have to shortchange the experience I wanted to offer. Especially with the economy and everything else, I’ve stayed very true to my initial plans of opening my first place. Being able to do that and get through that year has probably been the biggest accomplishment.

You mentioned the bad economy when you first opened up around July of last year… were there any major hiccups along the way or did you ever think it wouldn’t work out?

BV: Yea… we got to the point where we had to borrow some money here and there for credit in order to get through. We kind of really took a gamble… and then we started to get some notoriety about what we were doing here and the Washington Post gave us some favorable reviews as well as the Baltimore Sun and all of those things just coming together and the business really started to take a turn. Even before the airing of the show which brought a whole new dynamic to the restaurant.

Being able to make that turn before [the show] just made us feel really good about the business. Furthermore, as the show started to air, more and more people became aware of Volt and started booking reservations on a whim. But when they get here, they were booking future reservations on their way out the door, which I’ve seen happen more in this restaurant than any restaurant I’ve ever worked in.

That’s a testament to my cooks, my chefs, my staff and everything we’ve done everyday when we come to the restaurant. That’s been the most exciting part, they come in with expectations and we exceed those. Hopefully we did for you too (laughs).

Absolutely, I was there with my family and we had a great time, it was excellent…You mentioned being a part of the evolving Frederick food scene, what do you think about all of the new restaurants that have been popping up and how does it feel being at the forefront of that movement?

BV: Well I grew up here so for me opening a restaurant like this was very different from what has been in Frederick for a long time. Some people ask “well why did you open in Frederick?” Well I grew up here and I understand the clientele and I understand people were looking for something a bit different, or something that normally they would have to travel outside of Frederick in order to experience.

I worked in New York for seven years and I worked in D.C. for five, but I worked for a restaurateur who is very well known and very successful, Charlie Palmer. So all of those experiences I had along the way that made me the chef that I am were simply what I wanted to express when I opened my first place. Had I not left and gone and had these experiences opening a restaurant in Frederick would have been very different. It wouldn’t have been the level that I believe we were able to create here.

The main thing is growing up as someone who was from here who actually understands it. A chef or restaurateur outside of Frederick probably wouldn’t look for an opportunity or look here for a place to showcase their cuisine. I also knew there was a huge agricultural area and that’s very much a part of my philosophy food. Reaching out to your local farmers and trying to give back to the local economy and also support them and what they’re trying to do. Now I have farmers who are growing for me specifically…

Having said all of that, after the seven years in New York and the five in D.C were you lured into that big city vibe at all?

BV: Well, yea obviously there is that big city vibe… but remember I grew up in Frederick so the first time I drove into New York City I drove across the Queensboro Bridge by accident and was scared out of my mind (laughs). I come from Frederick County man! I had no idea what I was getting into. But that all changed with experience and living there and it is a much bigger city, and there dining is a part of life. It isn’t just entertainment because there is no choice, people can’t really cook at home.

Just trying to bring more creative aspects of food is what I wanted to do here and just showcase all of my experiences and how those shaped me as a chef. That’s what was important to me and what I thought I would still be able to deliver no matter where I was. The food is mine, that’s what I am…

You talked a little bit about the importance of working with the local economy and the local farmers… can you expand on that and what it means to you personally and as a chef in terms of choosing the correct ingredients, working with local farmers and so on?

BV: There are a lot of different points to that topic. One is simply looking into your backyard first. Help support the local economy and it’s a give and take situation. If we’re all here supporting each other it’s better for our city and our town. It’s also making sure the land is used and not just used for future housing which is happening quite a bit around here. There are a lot of farmers who are excited to have a restaurant like mine because they were producing cash crops and not necessarily specialty items. Now some of them are actually beginning to get excited about what they do, and that’s really cool.

Then there’s the freshness and that’s the obvious part of it… to go to a market or have a farmer drop off product at my backdoor, it’s gong to be at the peak of its ripeness and doesn’t have to be picked early and shipped. Then there’s also the impact on the environment on shipping and so forth.

Granted, there are a lot of products that I can’t get here. That’s why my food falls into one of three criteria: local, sustainable or organic. I try to purchase all of my ingredients under that criteria and that way, even if I can’t change the world in my little restaurant at least I’m bringing through a talented staff of cooks who will move on to be chefs themselves and if I can instill some of those values in them, in the long term hopefully it will change the way we think about food.

That’s a great mission and it’s clear how much passion you have for that… Besides the obvious of attracting more people, how has the Top Chef experience changed Volt?

BV: One great thing that it is has done for us here, is that we have a lot of transient business on weekends from Baltimore and D.C. and they recognize me from when I was at Charlie Palmer Steak. So I had a lot of former clientele who would come up on the weekends. But the local support I don’t think was as strong as it could have or should have been until the show aired. Now we have a community that’s behind us from the show and what we’ve done and that’s exciting. Being able to go down the street and walk downtown and have people coming up is great…

…But are there ever times when it’s a busy night in the kitchen, everyone wants a picture or an autograph and you…

BV: …It’s a lot (laughs).

Right, so do you ever feel like, boy wouldn’t it be nice just to be a normal chef tonight?

BV: (Laughs) Well there is that overnight phenomenon that happens with Top Chef, which is a lot of fun. But when you think back, like wow, I used to be able to go to the gas station and fill my car up without being stopped! But I enjoy it because it means that people are supportive in a very positive way, and they are excited about it. I’m trying to do the best I can to make sure that they can be proud of what I’ve done. That’s what it’s about. It’s about the people having fun with it as well, not just myself.

And knowing that from firsthand experience, I think you walked out to shave some truffles and the whole dining room stopped and stared for a few minutes, I’m sure that can be tough on some nights…

BV: For me, it’s when I’m out with my wife and we’re shopping and people are coming up and saying hi and so forth, and I look to my wife and say, “I’m just a chef!” I’m just a cook and that’s what I’m about, it’s about the food.

Can’t fight the popularity of the show…

BV: Yea, I’m very excited. It’s been great for my business, great for the restaurant, great for the city and the city has been really, really excited about everything that has transpired. It’s been really cool.

I started watching Top Chef the season before yours… at first I was watching with my girlfriend and then I became addicted… did you watch the show before you were on it?

BV: Oh yea, well a former contestant who actually won, Ilan (Hall, season 2 winner) he worked for me at Aureole, I was sous-chef and he was one of my cooks so I knew him. So that season is when I really started to pay attention to it and I’ve watched it ever since.

When you first got to the house for your season were you thinking, hey I’m a favorite and I know I’m going to do well, or were you more hesitant or reserved about your own chances?

BV: I’ll tell you one thing, when I walked in I felt really good about my fundamental skills and my career and where I’ve gone. I felt like I had been exposed to a lot of different things and had a pretty good package going into it. Then I started to get to know everybody and was like wow, there are a lot of people who have similar backgrounds.

I knew after the introductions it was going to be a very competitive season. There were a lot of talented chefs that were on that show and as we’re getting down to the end you can just see the professionalism that is there. It was great and it made it that much better though because the better the people are around you, it makes you push more yourself and I believe that.

It was definitely a very strong cast and I think everybody could tell it was a deep field. Was there anybody there though that you thought wasn’t up to snuff?

BV: A lot of people have opinions and it’s because of the type of food I guess that one or another chef is putting forward. I believed in everybody that was there, people who are still currently competing and people who have already been eliminated. The fact that their food might be different than mine doesn’t make it lesser or better than my own.

There are a lot of different styles and if somebody has a little bit of a simpler technique but the flavors are good and it makes you think of something you had as a child, then that chef has done their job. Some of us had more similar cooking styles as we went on, my brother and I share a lot of the same techniques, for example. There wasn’t one chef who didn’t deserve to be there but there were obviously some who I think did deliver a little bit more.

D.C. actually has a pretty strong Top Chef presence… obviously Mike Isabella from Zaytinya and yourself, as well as other past contestants such as Carla Hall and Spike Mendelsohn who has the Good Stuff Eatery. Are there ever any run-ins with any of the other Top Chef alums around town?

BV: Oh yea. Actually Michael and I just did the Capital Food Fight to benefit the D.C. Central Kitchen. It was a little cooking competition, just like 10 minutes long. I went against Michael Mina and that was a lot of fun. Carla was there, she was one of the judges. So you can already see that the Top Chef community in D.C. is getting a little tight (laughs).

So is there any rivalry there?

BV: No, we’re friends with each other, Mike’s been in my restaurant and I’ve been in his. I’ve been a fan of Jose Andres for such a long time. It just makes it that much smaller, the world is already small for food, and it just makes it that much smaller which is really fun.

When you want good food in the D.C. area, where do you go? Do you stick with the upscale places or do you have any fast food type places that you prefer to head to?

BV: Well I’ve been to Spike’s place three times in the last few months, and that’s the kind of food I like to have on a day off. From his all the way to City Zen or Restaurant Eve or obviously Zaytinya, it runs the gamut. I love to experience all new, different things. I’ll even pop into Chinatown and see a few places that are open late night.

Well I also saw you mentioning in a Tweet that you had checked out Bobby’s Crabcakes in Rockville the other day…

BV: Yea! That is a good crabcake man! I was dropping a friend off at the train and I had heard about it. Bobby had been up to the restaurant and so I thought I’d check it out on my way out of town. I was eating it in the car and was lucky I had a few napkins, it was all over the place (laughs).

One meal to cook for yourself or eat before you die, what are you reaching for?

BV: Wow. I have a long list of restaurants that I’d like to experience. Obviously Obelisk is on that list, I’ve actually been trying to get reservations for this year. I don’t want to die at such a young age so I’m very reluctant to actually book it (laughs). I put Obelisk way up there and I’ve never sat down at a restaurant from Joel Robuchon except for L’Atelier in New York and I’d like to experience the dining room at MGM. So there are definitely restaurants that I’d like to experience. As far as meals, as a chef I’ve experienced a lot of different things, so I’d lean more towards somebody else actually cooking for me.

Might as well relax a bit for the last meal…

BV: Exactly.

Thanks again for the time, everyone will be tuning in to see how Top Chef turns out.

This article was first published by Jake Emen on Yahoo Voices on November 24, 2009