Pack Your Knives

08.09.11

A Top Chef’s Next Act

The swaggering winner of ‘Top Chef’ prepares to open two Los Angeles eateries, including ink. in West Hollywood. Jace Lacob sits down at the restaurant with the chef to discuss sandwiches, his future, his personal regrets, and how The New York Times insulted him.

Michael Voltaggio doesn’t ever take a day off.

The 32-year-old Top Chef winner doesn’t sleep, either. He’s preparing to launch his first solo restaurant, ink., designing his own dinnerware collection (fittingly called Voltage), writing a cookbook with his brother and fellow Top Chef finalist Bryan, dreaming of a designer T-shirt line, and overseeing the design and construction on ink.sack, a top-secret conceptual restaurant that will open Thursday in Los Angeles.

“I don’t live in my apartment,” Voltaggio said, sitting in the dining room of his restaurant, ink., slated to open next month, on Los Angeles’ fashionable Melrose Avenue. “I’m barely there. My apartment has four pieces of furniture and a plate and maybe a fork in it, and that’s it.”

Voltaggio—dressed simply in a white V-neck T-shirt, jeans, and a black baseball cap—is not being modest. These days, nearly all of his time is spent at ink., located in the restaurant space that formerly housed Hamasaku and Citrine. The location, the lease of which is held by the fiery former mogul Michael Ovitz, has sat empty for two years, and ink.’s opening has been delayed for months by a battle with a neighbor over permits.

As the victor of the Emmy Award-winning Season 6 of Bravo’s cutthroat culinary competition, pressure has been mounting on Voltaggio, a deeply inventive and precise chef, to deliver. But the $125,000 prize from the reality show, intended as seed money for a restaurant venture, has served a different purpose: survival.

“I really haven’t had a job for a year,” said Voltaggio. “I left The Dining Room [at the Langham Hotel] in July and, had I not won that show, I wouldn’t have been able to just go and look for a restaurant and travel, write a book, and do all of the things that I’ve done for the past year… I’ve got the same bills that everybody else has… I was a bit irresponsible in the first few months [but] I lived off that money so I could do this project.”

For the heavily tattooed Voltaggio, ink. represents several things. “It means incorporated, that’s why it’s got a period on the end of it,” he said. “It means permanence in our new company… It was a play on the whole tattoo thing… and it’s like the Rorschach test; the food we cook here is kind of like that: what do you see when you look at it, or what do you taste… or what does this dish mean to you?”

Inside, ink. is stark and industrial but still inviting, despite the pervasive gray palette: inkblots mar the floor while a painting of chef’s knives and cleavers stands next to the open kitchen; gray plantation shutters create the sense that the diner could be anywhere other than West Hollywood, while wood beams inject some warmth and solidity. A swirling ceiling construct, once part of Hamasaku’s white décor, is juxtaposed with the angular nature of the bar. While that swirl suggests ink as a medium, there are no stylistic gimmicks here.

“It opens us up for a lot more criticism because there’s not much else to focus on except the food service,” said Voltaggio. “There are no waterfall walls… It’s just comfortable.”

It’s a far cry from Voltaggio’s last haunt at the Langham Hotel’s posh, expensive The Dining Room in Pasadena, where the modernity of his food was at odds with the stuffy formality of the space. The sense of comfort, overseen by interior designer Cliff Fong, will trickle down to the menu itself, which will be served family-style and won’t be broken down into categories like appetizers or entrees, allowing diners to devise their own tasting menu, but not at haute cuisine prices. Voltaggio describes the food as “modern Los Angeles cuisine,” that will borrow techniques from the various cultures—Korean, Persian, Thai, Mexican—that populate the city.

“After the show… I didn’t want it to turn into a circus of taking photographs and not focusing on food,” said Voltaggio.

Those influences will be far-flung, incorporating classical techniques and cutting-edge molecular gastronomy, though the emphasis will always start with flavor rather than shock value. “We use technology to make our food better or to make the experience unique,” Voltaggio said. “Will [diners] find little surprises in dishes? Yeah, for sure.”

A sushi bar, another remnant from Hamasaku’s days, has been transformed into an eight-seat omakase area, from which Voltaggio will prepare a multiple-course tasting menu each night the restaurant is open. Omakase, Voltaggio explained, means “trust” in Japanese, trusting in the chef to prepare an experience that will take the diner through multiple courses.

“It will take a couple of hours of eating and we’ll create the menu,” he said. “You’ll sit down and see all of the ingredients in the glass cases, and then, by the end of the meal, the cases are empty and your meal is finished.”

At The Dining Room, it was rare to see Voltaggio out of the kitchen, despite his newfound fame as the winner of Top Chef. His decision to flee to Pasadena, he said, was a reaction to his sudden visibility at The Bazaar, Jose Andres’ flashy restaurant at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he had served as chef de cuisine.

“After the show… I didn’t want it to turn into a circus of taking photographs and not focusing on food,” said Voltaggio. “[Fellow Top Chef competitor] Marcel [Vigneron] was my sous chef at The Bazaar and Jose and I would be in the kitchen cooking food and Marcel would be standing at the pass getting his picture taken. It was a distraction.”

But, ultimately, Voltaggio chose to exit The Dining Room last July, amid desires to create a neighborhood restaurant for locals, rather than commuters. “For most of the reservations, the area codes were 310 and 323 and very few were [Pasadena’s] 626,” he said. “I realized that it wasn’t the community that was coming in to eat, it was people from L.A. who were driving to Pasadena to eat my food.”

One year later, ink. is still vacant, awaiting an audience. But two doors down sits Voltaggio’s super-secret sandwich shop, which he has been quietly designing and building for the last few months (he demolished the space with crowbars and sledgehammers, designed it, and contracted it himself), testing recipes with his sous chef, Cole Dickinson (possibly the only chef in Los Angeles with more tattoos than Voltaggio), and engineering a plan to generate some revenue while the ink. gang awaits the go-ahead to open.

ink.sack, which opens Thursday, is meant to suggest both squid ink and brown-bag lunches. It’s intended as a casual but upscale takeout sandwich shop, serving six different kinds of small sandwiches, “so you can get at least two, if not three,” according to Voltaggio.

Voltaggio’s enthusiasm for ink.sack is infectious, as he describes the process for making a “ranch cheese,” which he’ll pair with sous-vide fried chicken and hot sauce, or the other offerings at the eatery. “We’re doing fun sandwiches,” he said. “We’re going to do a CLT, which is going be chicken skin, lettuce, and tomato, instead of a BLT.”

“We’re making our own potato chips,” he added, gleefully. “We’re going to do vacuum-packed fruits that are infused with stuff like when you get the Mexican fruit salad on the street where they give you a bag and it’s got chile-limon on it. We might take a plank of watermelon and vacuum-pack it with Sriracha.”

If that hasn’t kept him busy, Voltaggio has written a cookbook, VOLT ink., with his brother Bryan, with whom he competed on Top Chef. “We’re closer brothers now after the show,” said Voltaggio of his relationship with Bryan, his toughest competition. The two often sniped at each other, arguing over plastic wrap in one instance, and engaging in the typically aggressive posturing and competitiveness brothers sometimes do. Despite the fierce competition, both Voltaggios made it all the way to the final three contestants, with Michael emerging the ultimate winner after a culinary battle royale.

Their book, due out October 25, will find the two chefs breaking down families of food—from the mustard family (broccoli, cauliflower) to nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes)—with each contributing two recipes to each section. “There is a lot of modern technique woven throughout the book,” said Voltaggio. “It’s going to be beautiful, too… like an art book.”

Voltaggio courted a bit of controversy earlier this year when New York Times contributor Julia Chaplin wrote a profile of Top Chef Season 2 contestant Sam Talbot, seemingly focusing more on his looks and designer jeans than on his abilities. (“He is among a new breed of celebrity chefs who have coasted into culinary fame, less by grueling dues-paying, and more on their telegenic brand,” Chaplin wrote in March. “The group includes the brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, Ludo Lefebvre, Spike Mendelsohn, Sam Mason, Fabio Viviani and Marcel Vigneron.”) Lefebvre and Voltaggio lashed back at Chaplin via the Los Angeles Times, with Voltaggio indicating that he was “deeply insulted” by Chaplin for the assertion that he hadn’t paid his dues within the culinary world. Voltaggio has 17 years of experience, beginning work when he was 15 through apprenticeships, working for free, and sleeping in hostels in Spain, so he could experience the culture and cuisine of that country.

“I wrote a letter directly to her,” he said. “She didn’t even have the decency to write me back… She should have said, ‘Isn’t it great today that a chef can afford to buy a pair of designer jeans,’ because that used to be a profession where people thought, ‘Oh, you work in the restaurant industry, like you must not be smart enough to do anything else.’ Now that we’re being taken seriously, somebody like [Chaplin] at The New York Times is criticizing us for it. I thought she was full of shit.”

(When reached for comment, Chaplin indicated that a New York Times editor had responded to Voltaggio’s letter, offering him the opportunity to write a public letter to the editor, but the newspaper never received a reply.)

Voltaggio isn’t all masculine bluster. Divorced from Kerri Adams, the mother of his two children, the chef said he’d support his two daughters—Olivia and Sophia—if they wanted to follow in his footsteps and enter the culinary world. There is no sense of the swagger he typically displayed on Top Chef when he spoke about his children, who live in Florida, or the regrets he said he has.

“When I get into my 40s, because I’ve given up so much of my life to work, I would like to step back a little bit and try and put back together the relationship with my daughters and try and spend time with my parents and do the things that are supposed to be important to you,” Voltaggio said, “the things that I’ve neglected for the past five, six, seven years.”

“I don’t want to be 60 years old and still standing behind the line, trying to figure out how I’m going to keep the power on for the restaurant.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that ink.sack would open on Wednesday. Voltaggio pushed the opening to Thursday.