Chef Bryan Voltaggio is giving back to the land that raised him. And he’s not just doing it with support of local farmers and purveyors, although he does that, too, with increasing passion and scrupulosity. Voltaggio is bringing all the benefits of his years of experience in some of the country—and the world’s—best kitchens back to the town, people, and the very soil that cultivated him.
And it’s apt, especially for a kid who grew up eating meals that included hand-picked produce from the family garden in his native Frederick, Maryland. Voltaggio followed his nascent passion for cuisine from its roots in a simple garden plot to the kitchens of hotels where he worked as a sous chef and eventually executive chef—all by the age of 20. When he attended the CIA, Voltaggio got the kind of disciplined training that enabled him to harness this passion into a highly creative approach to cuisine.
When a stage in Manhattan finally introduced him to his future mentor, Voltaggio was on his way to becoming a great chef. And Charlie Palmer was there to help guide Voltaggio along the way. After hiring him as a sous chef at Aureole, Palmer sent the young chef to hone his skills in the kitchen of the three Michelin-star Pic in Valence, France.
Voltaggio continued working for Palmer for several years as executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak before finally opening his own restaurant, VOLT, in his hometown. Voltaggio presents a menu that celebrates locality and seasonality through meticulous, innovative techniques. The result is both a culinary homecoming and a step forward in the advancement of Modern American cuisine.
Interview with Chef Bryan Voltaggio of VOLT - Frederick, Maryland
Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Bryan Voltaggio: I started cooking at a very young age. I cooked with my grandfather when I was four or five. I had my first cookbook when I was very young. Growing up, there was always fresh food around. As I got older, I needed an after-school job and I fell into working for a hotel near where [my brother] Michael and I grew up, in Frederick. I wanted to work in the kitchen, so I said to the chef, ‘Well, if I take this culinary program, will you let me cook in the kitchen?’ And he said yes. So I started cooking when I was about 15.
I think I realized when I was about 20 that I needed to get more formal training. I continued working for this hotel, and then I enrolled in the CIA. I had to wait, and it felt like it took a long time, because my parents couldn’t afford to pay tuition. I saved up money while working in order to pay for school. I did my internship working for Charlie [Palmer] at Aureole and was offered a job to stay in New York after graduation. So after the internship, I would go down on the weekends and then started working there in ‘99 full-time. But I started in ’97, if you include the internship.
Working for Charlie helped me finish school, as I couldn’t afford my last semester. I needed another $7,000. The Bursar said, “Here’s your bill,” and I said, “I don’t have this money and I can’t get it.” I said, “Charlie Palmer offered me a job; I did my internship there; I work 40 hours a week; and I’m still top of my class.” And my last semester she sent me a bill for $77.
FV: What did you learn from working with Charlie Palmer?
BV: I worked with Charlie and when he started to expand, I also worked with Gerry Hayden and Dante Boccuzzi (who is also a [StarChefs.com] Rising Star by the way). So working under all three of them gave me an opportunity to see three styles of food, but still under Charlie. I feel like I was able to gain from the minds of three different chefs under one roof. I think I’m more progressive now because I’m a cook of a younger generation and more techniques are available now, but the foundation I learned from those three gave me a pretty big repertoire to begin with.
FV: How would you describe your culinary style?
BV: One of the greatest pieces of advice I got when I first started cooking, from the chef at the little hotel in Frederick, was, “You're going to work under all these different chefs, but your repertoire at the end will be you: Bryan Voltaggio’s cuisine.” There’s no such thing as being self-taught. All the knowledge you learn as a cook you take that and develop your own style, but you are influenced by so many different things—techniques, ingredients, chefs—you always learn from someone else. This is an industry that shares and gives and helps push everyone along.
When I look at my style, it was influenced by my time with Charlie; [your mentors] come with you. My style is modern American, meaning…well, there are many different ways of taking that. I take ingredients that are local, sustainable, and organic—that philosophy is important to me—I use both modern and classic techniques, using familiar flavors and presenting them in a playful way. The technique doesn’t take precedence over the ingredient. If I look at a bulb of fennel I think, ‘What can I do to enhance the fennel or present it in a proud way as a chef, (where I’m not bastardizing the ingredient), so that I can showcase this ingredient?’
FV: What’s it like working in Frederick after working in DC? Are they really different? Which do you prefer?
BV: I like it because I’m surrounded by local farms and ingredients here, at my fingertips. Those relationships [with farmers] over the past two years have become solid. I know what’s available locally. I have a client base in DC and local community support, new clients in Baltimore, and we’re only 45 minutes from each city, which makes it easy to travel. It’s a great location. It’s good to be home in a familiar place. Another great thing is the cost of living is a bit cheaper here, which is good for students. I’ve developed great relationships with the local culinary school L’Academie de Cuisine and Art Institute of Washington, so if you’re doing food that’s interesting, if you’re a student…I was able to finish school, so the way I can give back is to create a great environment for culinary schools coming through here.
FV: How food savvy are the diners in Frederick?
BV: I think everyone has done a great job of making everyone aware of food. There are different cultures and many different cities; if you take Louisiana it has a different food culture than New York, because of the influences of ingredients and traditions. In Frederick, the thing I remember is that my wife’s grandmother would cook very simple stuff, like jams and pies and creams, with produce she got from a farm she would go to. To get blackberries to make pie—that is deep-rooted in Frederick. People here are proud of using produce seasonally. In a city that has transient residents, like New York, that might not be so typical.
Even though it’s diverse in culture, even though it’s got a good understanding of the seasons and great restaurants, a small town surrounded by agriculture is just naturally going to pay more attention to the seasons. I’m trying to attract a lot of people, but to do so I just need to let them know that I’m excited to use what is around us. The reason I felt comfortable moving home and opening this restaurant is because there was a large group of clientele coming from Frederick to DC, especially on the weekends. And now the people who want to get out of the city for the weekend can come up to see me here!
FV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
BV: I want there to be a fine-dining atmosphere but without the stiffness. Service is important. It should be warm and hospitable—not the robotic service of the past. You should feel comfortable in the dining room in no-matter-what attire. Modern ways of thinking suggest that the stuffiness of the jacket is gone. Another important thing has to do with product education. People want to be educated but not have information thrown in their face. There can be subtle hints about product without it turning into something overbearing and letting your education take precedence over what you do with the food.
FV: What goes into creating a dish?
BV: First it’s your ingredients and what’s available. I look around first for ingredients within 100 miles of the restaurant, and I build dishes from there. For example, I’m using lamb from Border Springs Farm in Virginia. I know it’s animal welfare approved, grown on hundreds of acres of pastured land, and it’s really flavorful, pasture-raised lamb. When I get a product like that I don’t need to mask the flavor. I get in whole animals—we can handle that. I like to layer different techniques with one ingredient in one dish, so I’ll present this four or five different ways on the plate.
FV: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
BV: Not a lot of chefs get the opportunity to open your own restaurant and when you do that, the last thing you want to do seven months after opening is leave for six weeks [to go on Top Chef]. I’ve worked 18 years to get to the point at which I had VOLT. To walk away from it was hard. I also had to do that with my son. He was only a year and a half at the time—[the] six weeks that I wasn’t able to communicate with him—that was difficult, too. That kind of inspires me to do well and that’s why I won. I could kick Michael’s ass—but I don’t like to talk about the show too much. I had VOLT before the show and I was proud of what I did as a chef before the show, I’ve always been a good cook. But the show gave me a chance to share that and develop a larger client base. I respect that show very much.
FV: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
BV: I like to work with my hands; it’s why I'm a chef. I like to be doing something different every day and I want to create something where I can leave my mark and an expression of who I am. I’d want to be outside—it’s the one thing I miss as a chef. But, I get to do something I’m very passionate about every day and I’m outside right now! Something like landscaping or farming might be good, somewhere working outside.
FV: Where will we find you in five years?
BV: A lot of people say that with the success of both the show and the restaurant, I should pack up and leave. But I’ve worked my whole life for this restaurant. This is where my family is. I am looking at other spaces in Frederick. I hope to open something more casual, to offer things that are done properly, simple and yet with great technique—that is what I want to do. I love the fact that we get whole product in. I get in whole pigs and cows and have a proper walk-in for hanging and butchering and pre-portion meats. And we use those cuts of meat, some less-common cuts of meat, to show that there are uses for a shoulder and a leg—they aren’t just for ground beef. It takes more skill to deal with cuts of beef that are less tender and take longer to cook. I had five years of experience working for a steakhouse restaurant. The presentation there was great—I want to be able to expand on that by presenting a friend’s homegrown eggplant or some rustic carrots, again, done with great technique.