Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Michael Voltaggio: My brother Bryan started before me. He’s two years older. He had a job as a line cook and I needed a job because I wanted to get a car. I was in high school. I did it as an after school job and I never got out of it. And I’ve never been paid to do anything else.
KM: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
MV: I did my apprenticeship at the Greenbriar when I was 19 years old. So right after I graduating high school I worked at a country club and I was like “This isn’t going to do it for me” because I wanted to work in real restaurants and cook real food. But I didn’t go to culinary school because Bryan was at the CIA and I didn’t want to go to same school as him. So he went one way and I went another way.
KM: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MV: The one thing I always say is learn the basics. Understand the fundamentals of cooking, especially today when there’s so much trend involved in food. Don’t get caught up in trends, and learn basic, classic discipline.
KM: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
MV: Probably the one that showed me the most about fine dining, food-as-art, and what food can be is a guy named Arnaud Berthelier. You guys did one of those on the plates on him—he did the hearts of palm. I worked for him for a year and a half. He grew up in kitchen of Ducasse. We were cooking sous vide back in 2000. We were already doing all these techniques and not really telling people about it because we didn’t know if it was okay, or if people would think we were weird. We were getting into that early. We bought the first immersion circulator from Julabo that was used for food. They were like “Why do you need that at a hotel?” And now they have this whole culinary line.
KM: Where do you get inspiration?
MV: I think now it’s anything. You could be driving into work and you could see a garden, or you might drive by the ocean, or eat a dish somewhere else and think “That’s a flavor combination I could apply.” Or you could open up a book and you see something somebody else has done. A lot of times I’ll look at reference like Pierre Gagnaire and I’ll see a flavor combination he does, like lobster and passion fruit, and if you think about it on an intellectual level, it makes sense. Then you take it back to the kitchen. It forces you to study. I’m the type of person where I’ll work on it and work on it until it tastes good. You can get inspiration anywhere, [even a] peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
KM: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
MV: I like to play with the whole Heston Blumenthal idea of chocolate and caviar. I think that’s a brilliant combination. I like acid. I know a lot of people say that, but the difference between good food [and bad] is literally salt and acid. A lot of people forget to put that into it. I’ll make a sauce or something and I’ll taste it with a spoon and it’s not there, and I’ll season at the end and put one grain of salt on the spoon and taste it with the sauce and it’s good. One grain of salt and its like wow, okay now there it is, and all of a sudden you taste the ocean, the tomato, the brandy in the langoustine sauce, just by putting a grain of salt on a spoon.
KM: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized? Why?
MV: Salt would be first. I also love secondary cuts of meat. So many people think you have to put that center cut piece of something on a plate, but I love the challenge of taking a short rib, belly, shoulder, shank, or sweetbread, and making it better than that center cut NY strip or whatever people are using. I think it’s much more impressive to put it on a plate and have them not miss it. I think the only center cut piece of meat I have on the menu is the Japanese meat. Everything else is shoulder, cheek, whatever, and we’re still getting the food prices we need to get.
KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MV: I like classic discipline, but I recognize modern trends. I think food and entertainment and fashion and all that stuff is starting to come together. So I think you have to have good solid fundamentals, but at the same time you have to realize that there is an evolution and people’s tastes and trends change, and it’s important to recognize that change and understand what the diner’s needs are.
KM: What is it like working in a restaurant that’s in a hotel? How are expectations different?
MV: There’s a different type of diner. There’s a type of diner who has no idea who’s in the kitchen. They have business there or they happen to be there for the night. There are other people who come because they know. When I first got there it was a lot of people who just had business at the hotel, but now word is getting out and people are coming specifically for that reason. The demographic is certainly different, but it’s like that anywhere you go. Chefs in hotels will struggle, but as long the hotel stands behind you and has an outlet that is more casual and not so much about food, then the guests will be happy. In a hotel like that you have to have a restaurant where you can go get your soup, salad, and steak. But it’s also an amenity, and it’s smart to have something like that. More hotels should continue to be aggressive with their food and beverage opportunities.
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community? Are you involved nationally? Globally?
MV: I think you have to be involved in all of that. We have a program with the local culinary school and I try to have two externs in the restaurant. As far as charities are concerned, I try to say yes as much as I can without interfering with the day to day of the restaurant. At the end of the day guests want to know I’m in the kitchen. If a guest wants to meet me they come into the kitchen, they should see me where I belong, not just walking around the restaurant going from table to table. If you’ve got 70 seats in your restaurant and they’re all full and you have a one minute conversation with every guest, it’s over an hour you’re out of the kitchen. March of Dimes and Meals on Wheels are important. And at the end, somebody gave me a chance and said come learn, so it’s nice to return the favor and give that back because I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career so far.
KM: Have you taken any steps to become a sustainable restaurant? What are those steps?
MV: Sustainable fish should be a part of every kitchen. Obviously there are still certain things out there that are 100% sustainable and things that aren’t. But it’s education; we’re educating ourselves in understanding what sustainable fish means. One thing we’re doing is cutting back on the amount of plastic goods being used. When we use the plastic deli containers that are in every kitchen, we wash them and reuse them like Tupperware. We’re very conscious about how much plastic wrap we use. We bought containers for the walk-in that have lids so we don’t have to wrap any of our storage containers. That saves tons of plastic. Obviously we’re recycling as much as we can, starting with glass. Everything that is glass goes into its own bin.
KM: What is your proudest accomplishment as a chef?
MV: There have been so many. I think the proudest accomplishment for me involves a guy named Cole. He was a line cook for me when I was a chef at Charlie Palmers in Healdsburg and he was a disaster. And now he’s a solid cook. He’s a chef now—he runs fine dining catering for Wolfgang Puck. He went from this guy who didn’t have a shot at anything to someone who has a great career. Of course we all want the accolades and awards, but the one thing that is timeless, that you can leave behind, is that. You’re continuing to pass the torch and for me that’s the most rewarding thing. I see cooks who worked for me for three or four years and call them chef, and I can remember the day I met them.
KM: What do you think you’ll be doing in five years?
MV: My brother and I are starting to work on some projects together. We’re going to use Voltagiobrothers.com as a platform to grow a brand. If we do it, we want to do it in a way where, let’s say we have restaurants together, you’ll actually find us in our restaurants. There are so many chefs who have spread themselves so thin, they have 20 restaurants, but aren’t in any. Bryan and I can actually do it and cover space and still be in the kitchens. Five years down the road I can see Bryan and I having some restaurants together.