Chef Michael Voltaggio grew up cooking. His brother was a chef and with parents who worked a lot, he says he constantly found himself in the family pantry looking for inspiration, a new ingredient to add to his packs of instant noodles or developing a precise method for perfecting grilled cheese sandwiches. From Frederick, Maryland, his passion for cooking is what has driven his career. He did not receive a formal education from a culinary school, instead learning a mix of skills from an apprenticeship and work experience at restaurants all over the world - including a stint at Jose Andres’s The Bazaar.
In 2009, Voltaggio won the Bravo’s Top Chef TV cooking competition, beating his own brother Bryan in the final episode. In 2011, he opened his first solo restaurant, ink., a place to cook what he calls “modern Los Angeles cuisine.” The chef is a 35-year-old tattooed man who is busy launching new projects almost every day. However last week he stepped away from his restaurant’s kitchen in West Hollywood to prepare a special culinary experience at the Bathhouse Studios in Manhattan's East Village.
The multi-sensory S.Pellegrino Off the Menu event involved Voltaggio, his chef de cuisine Cole Dickinson and a team of specialists creating a meal and space where every room offered a unique culinary discovery. From an Italian inspired café bar for guests to discover their love for the perfect cocktail to the garden market - a space packed with fragrant herbs, fruit carts and appetizers specifically created to excite guests and let them sample the beauty of nature and wonderful fragrance of fresh herbs. As Voltaggio said: “I think fresh herbs elevate a dish in a few different ways. And it’s funny: when you finish a dish with herbs, a lot of guests assume they’re a garnish and take them off, moving them off to the side before eating the dish.”
During the Off the Menu experience, each space revealed a new scene to excited diners. One to be smelled, touched and tasted. “It’s about going deeper”, Voltaggio stated. “It’s about digging into the senses a little bit further than the ones that are right on the surface. It’s how you can evoke a memory, and how this memory might be different for me than it is for you.” The final room centered on bringing everyone together to sit down for a family-style dinner synonymous with the Italian lifestyle. We took the chance to speak with Chef Voltaggio to find out more about his cooking philosophy and this special occasion.
“It’s not so much about the relationship that you have with that person. It’s about the relationship that you, as people or as a group, have with the experience that you are sharing in that moment, in that restaurant, in that place.” “People associate memories with food.”
“I realized that I had a passion for cooking when I realized I had a need to eat. I wanted to taste something more than what I was eating everyday.” “It was about taking the same ingredients that were always there and just putting them together a little differently so that I could change the experience that I was having with the food that I was eating.”
“To become a true craftsman in anything requires you to apprentice or study or work under other craftsmen, you need to learn your craft and cooking is definitely a craft. I think there are two roles for a chef: there’s the craftsman and there’s the artist. And I think that you need to learn how to do things properly before you can manipulate or do those things differently. Because, how do you know if it’s better or worse if you haven’t done it the way it was supposed to be done in the first place?”
“I think authenticity in food begs the simple question: does it taste good or not? If it tastes good, then who cares if it’s authentic or not? People put labels on food: Is this an Indian restaurant? Is this an Italian restaurant? Is it a French restaurant? Instead of just asking: Does the food taste good? And for me that’s the most important thing”. “What should matter is how we sourced our ingredients and whether or not the dish tastes good."
“Natural style isn’t something that you learn so much as it is something that you adapt to. I didn’t find Los Angeles until I was 30 years old. But, once I moved to LA I felt like I’d lived there my whole life and so that’s where I really started to become more creative. I was surrounded by creative people. Whether it’s musicians or in theatre or movies, films, things like that. Or in restaurants. I was a creative person put into a creative environment and that pushed me to be more creative. Then I think I found my own style. The style I had up until that point was definitely influenced by where I was.”