Voltaggios ditch competition for collaboration

RestaurantsDining and DrinkingTop Chef (tv program)EntertainmentMusicVoltMichael Voltaggio

When the doctor's office receptionist summons her, when she flashes her credit card at the grocery store, when she leaves a phone message — the reaction to her last name these days is always the same.

Voltaggio?

"They say, 'Are you …?' And we say yes," says Bobbie Voltaggio, aunt of chefs Bryan and Michael, whose 2009 appearance on "Top Chef" made the Italian word for "voltage" a household name far beyond the close-knit Frederick area where she lives and her nephews grew up. "As soon as they see the last name, we know what they want to know."

Even two years after the show's season finale that pitted brother against brother, with Michael ultimately taking home the $125,000 prize, the Voltaggio name is only growing, teetering on the verge of becoming a full-blown brand. With new restaurants opening, holiday television specials on tap, national commercials to tape and the release this week of their cookbook, it doesn't look like Bobbie Voltaggio's anonymity will be returning any time soon.

Or most aspects of life as the Voltaggios once knew it.

When Bryan and Michael Voltaggio unveiled their book last week at Frederick's minor-league baseball stadium, people waited in lines hundreds deep to pay $40 for the heavy, coffee-table style tome. No one cared that the likelihood of anyone in the crowd actually reproducing any of these dishes at home was about the same as a Voltaggio showing up in their kitchen to cook them. Some hauled away six and eight copies, planning to make them Christmas presents.

Those who weren't in line for books, or tasting the brothers' take on ballpark chow — Banh mi sandwiches, lobster rolls, caramelized banana sundaes — stalked them with charged cellphone cameras. More than a few were women giddy to meet the handsome young men they'd entertained crushes on during all those quick-fire challenges.

Yet even as their stars rise and ever more cameras point their way, Bryan and Michael Voltaggio are doubling down their effort to be known as serious cooks, not merely reality-show attractions. Both will say they sweat every night in their kitchens to prove it. They hope the book will prove it for those who can't get to Michael's restaurants in Los Angeles or Bryan's in Frederick. They want to impress people, right there in black and white, across 328 slick pages.

Inside "Volt ink." — the title splices the names of each brother's restaurant — the chefs flaunt their creations, each one more complex than the next. Spot Prawns Roasted over Hot Coals with Caramelized and Kimchi Bok Choy and Japanese Pumpkin Preserves? Peektoe Crab Summer Rolls with Avocado, Cilantro Leaf and Soy Air? The illustrations come off like pieces one could see in a modern art gallery, the delicate dollops of sauce or foam as paint, framing abstract arrangements of vegetables and meat.

"We're true professionals in the kitchen," Bryan says. "We want this to be a testament to that."

Growing up

When asked if she saw signs of greatness in her nephews as young boys, Bobbie Voltaggio almost snorts. "Good heavens, no," she says.

Just two years apart, the Voltaggio boys could have been twins — and could be still. Slouching in their chairs, fielding reporters' questions at the book-release party, it was hard for those who didn't know them to tell them apart. They share the same sandy hair, pale eyes and serious gaze. They roll the bottoms of their jeans, sip Gatorade, turn their baseball caps backward and — clearly — are on intimate terms with their tattoo artists.

Both, too, acknowledge that they lie in bed at night, their minds churning — what to cook? And both are fiercely competitive — for a long time, mainly with each other.

The sibling rivalry storyline that hooked "Top Chef" viewers was not only very real — it was long-simmering and damaging.

Who knows where it started? In the school yard. On the soccer field. It had settled into a constant game of one-upmanship by the time the Voltaggios were teenagers and busing tables at the local Holiday Inn. Bryan, who'd enrolled in a high school culinary arts program, persuaded the head chef to let him cook. It wasn't long before Michael wanted in on that, too.

Michael still remembers the first night he showed up for a shift in chef whites — Bryan and the sous chef were both off. It was his chance. The executive chef took one look at him and said, "What is this, [expletive] Halloween?"

Bryan never intended pursuing a career in food. When he broke his left ankle in a four-wheeler accident, it dashed his hopes for a soccer scholarship to the University of Maryland, where he thought he'd launch a career as a marine biologist. All that's left of that are the fish tattoo that swirls across his forearm and his interest in serving sustainable seafood.

While his friends left for college, Bryan stayed behind to save money to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Michael, meanwhile, nipping at Bryan's heels, skipped cooking school but snagged an apprenticeship meant for Bryan at West Virginia's Greenbrier resort.

For brothers ever-concerned with who was winning, who was on top, it seemed — to Bryan, at least — that his younger brother had scored.

"He got paid, and I had to pay," is how Bryan dryly puts it. "You can look at it as he sort of won."

Showtime

By the time the Voltaggios faced off on "Top Chef" in 2009, years later, they had earned culinary cred at some of the most famous kitchens in the country, working for the likes of Charlie Palmer and Jose Andres. And they were living with a country between them, speaking seldom, seeing each other rarely.

When they were forced to share a bedroom together in the show's quarters, it was the first time they'd lived that closely, Bryan figures, since they were 7 or 8 years old. During that time, their attempts to outshine each other were never fiercer, but they there were bonding, too, as they outcooked every other contestant, one by one.

In the days after Michael's victory, he would tell reporters that he expected Bryan to win. But now it's increasingly clear that both of them did.

The "Top Chef" money gave Michael a year to strategize. That's when he met Michael Ovitz, the famed talent agent and former head of the Walt Disney Co. Ovitz offered to be his backer. Michael would cook, Ovitz would take care of the rest.

"He looks at me as an artist," Michael says.

Michael just opened ink., where he attempts to offer haute cuisine at casual prices. To keep costs down, he stripped the frippery from the fancy restaurant experience, leaving diners with just his best food on a plate, to be eaten in an austere yet hip industrial setting, with concrete floors and naked beams.

The concept is an early hit — with reservations all but impossible to score. His sandwich joint around the corner, called ink.sack, is also getting a lot of buzz, with its chalkboard menu and $5 corned beef-tongue Reubens.

Folks mistakenly guess that by calling both restaurants "ink." Michael is winking at his body art. That's not it. It's his way of telling people he's not a flash in the pan. "It's a corporation," he says. "It's something that's going to last."

Meanwhile, Bryan brought the "Top Chef" afterglow back to Frederick. Devotees of the show flocked to his restaurant, Volt, a pricey, ambitious eatery that before "Top Chef" had seen so little traffic it nearly closed.

In his hometown, there are plenty of people who credit Bryan with being Frederick's one-man economic redevelopment package.

Scott Reefe, who bought an armful of the cookbooks, is one of them. When the information technology specialist moved to Frederick from Rockville 15 years ago, he couldn't get his hands on a Starbucks Frappuccino without getting in the car. Now he can stroll through the historic district, stop at Volt and order chicken served with buttermilk casarecce, pearl onions, honey cap mushrooms and bacon lardon. He can end his meal with a pear toasted meringue, topped with pear sorbet and walnut soil.

Voltaggio brought Frederick walnut soil. And an excuse for Reefe to brag about his town.

"For Frederick's young, up-and-coming population, Bryan and Michael are our stars," he says. "They're taking an old industry and turning it on its head."

Working together

Now, Bryan Voltaggio is working to turn a former department store in Chevy Chase into his riff on a steakhouse — a place he's calling Indigma, where he wants to showcase offbeat cuts of meat. His plans to open a market/restaurant hybrid in Frederick are on ice, however, as he protests sewer connection fees he considers exorbitant for someone trying to revive a long-vacant property.

This year he also worked with his hometown's Flying Dog Brewery to create Backyard Ale. And Maryland Public Television hired him to host a program called "Obsessed with Everything Food."

Together, the Voltaggios just filmed a commercial pitching Samsung's new high-tech appliance line. They hit the late-night circuit to make Jimmy Fallon tricked-out ice cream with liquid nitrogen. They'll appear together next month in a Thanksgiving special for the Cooking Channel.

And as 2011 draws to a close, the brothers will be on the road as often as not, signing books shoulder-to-shoulder at Williams-Sonoma stores across the country. It's a lot of together time for men who not long ago were hardly speaking. Now, Bryan says, they talk on the phone every day.

They still fight. Regularly. But it's different. "Now," Michael says, "it's easier for us to take a step back and say, 'Come on, dude. We're brothers.'"

Adds Bryan: "I feel like if we didn't do this show, we'd be in opposite directions."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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