Bryan Voltaggio talks ‘Top Chef,’ running restaurants amid coronavrius closures

Chef Bryan Voltaggio stands his ground in the kitchen. (Courtesy MGM)
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Bryan Voltaggio of 'Top Chef'

He’s arguably the most famous homegrown chef in the state of Maryland, from Volt in Frederick to Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill.

This week, Bryan Voltaggio is busy running his restaurant business amid coronavirus closures, while competing on “Top Chef: All-Stars L.A.” this Thursday night on Bravo.

“This season is everyone who has made it really far in a competition [over] the majority of the last 16 seasons,” Voltaggio told WTOP. “They’re a runner up in their season or made it to the finale, some of them at least passed Restaurant Wars.”

It’s Voltaggio’s third time on the program after losing to his brother, Michael, in the finals of Season Six of “Top Chef: Las Vegas” in 2009.

“Everybody likes to remind me of that,” Voltaggio joked. “It’s fantastic.”

He then placed as a runner-up again in “Top Chef: Masters” in 2013.

“I’ve been in second place roughly twice, so it was time to go back for a third time and see if I can get a win this time,” Voltaggio said.

This season, he competes against two of his former rivals from Season Six, Kevin Gillespie and Jennifer Carroll, who has D.C. ties along with contestant Eric Adjepong.

“Kevin’s a great cook and also a good friend,” Voltaggio said. “We’re all colleagues and friends now. … Those friendships are set aside for the moment while we’re all competing during the challenges, and yet high fives afterwards, so it’s a very unique situation going back and competing with people you know.”

This season, Voltaggio survived Episode 1 after a “mise en place” quick-fire challenge, which he calls a classic favorite of judge Tom Colicchio.

“There’s three different challenges … turning artichokes, segmenting oranges, and the last one was cracking almonds,” Voltaggio said. “I made it through the artichokes, so I was a part of the first group to head back to the ‘Top Chef’ kitchen. … We did a roasted artichoke dish with a curated yogurt and sumac, then we also did an artichoke tortellini with a brodo.”

His team won the quick-fire challenge before competing in the elimination challenge with open-pit barbecue cooking and a seafood spread.

“We did that by the ocean on the beach and served an amazing table of chefs, including Nancy Silverton, Jeremiah Tower and obviously Gail [Simmons], Padma [Lakshmi], Tom Colicchio and Marcus Samuelsson,” Voltaggio said. “We did not win the challenge, but I did not go home, so here I am.”

Episode 2 saw Voltaggio travel around Los Angeles to sample the “101 Best Restaurants” by Pulitzer Prize food critic Jonathan Gold, who died in 2018. The chefs then created dishes to serve to 200 guests at Union Station, including “Chef” director Jon Favreau.

“That’s what I really love about ‘Top Chef’ is competition,” Voltaggio said.

He’s come a long way from growing up in Frederick, where he was born in 1976.

“We always had dinner at 5:30 no matter what,” Voltaggio said. “Sports, crazy schedules, a family of three children, [my mother] always made sure that we had from-scratch meals. … We had a garden out back, so the exposure to food meaning a lot to us got me interested.”

While attending Thomas Johnson High School, he got his first taste of the restaurant business as a busboy at the Francis Scott Key Holiday Inn.

“I didn’t really like clearing plates,” Voltaggio said. “I saw fire and knives and craziness in the kitchen, so I asked a chef, ‘Look, if I take this vocational program in high school, would you let me cook?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and that’s how I got my shot. I started at 15.”

After studying at the Culinary Institute of America, he lived in New York City for seven years; working for famous chef Charlie Palmer. He came back to D.C. to open Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill, before ultimately returning to Frederick to open Volt.

“I always knew I was going to come home and open this restaurant,” Voltaggio said. “I actually did a project at the Culinary Institute of America where you built a restaurant on paper and it was all about a restaurant in an old brownstone in Downtown Frederick.”

A decade later in 2008, Volt led a restaurant renaissance in Downtown Frederick.

“When I set out 12 years ago to open this restaurant, there was some fine dining in Frederick, but the experience that we brought to Volt was like something we haven’t seen in this region,” he said. “It’s the first restaurant I ever opened. It’s my flagship, my baby.”

He expanded his reach across the wider D.C. area by opening Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse at MGM National Harbor and Estuary at the Conrad Hotel in CityCenterDC.

“Those two projects are collaborations between both my brother and I,” Voltaggio said. “Even though there are times where there’s some rivalry, we’ve set that aside and now we’re working together on new projects, which has been extremely exciting.”

Both of those projects are currently closed due to coronavirus, as is Volt in Frederick.

“Life has definitely changed,” Voltaggio said. “Volt is temporary closed right now. … That’s more of an in-the-restaurant experience for our diners, so we just decided it would make more sense to do that and channel our efforts to our other restaurant, which is Family Meal. There we’re doing a to-go operation 4-8 [p.m.] daily with even now cocktails to go.”

He says the Frederick-based Family Meal is still seeing decent takeout business.

“You’re seeing 20 percent of your typical revenue,” Voltaggio said. “It’s just what we need to do to try to keep some people employed and also for the community. … We’re trying to keep some normalcy in their lives, even though we’re respecting obviously the dangers of what’s around us, respecting the virus and making sure that everybody is staying safe.”

Also helpful at this time is his charity work with the non-profit group No Kid Hungry.

“There’s a lot of people that are out of school,” Voltaggio said. “No Kid Hungry connects kids to meals and bridges gaps, especially during the summertime. I’ve been fortunate to work with them for years and raise money that impacts people right here in Frederick County, but also in the surrounding D.C. metro area.”

At the end of the day, if Voltaggio had only one meal to eat, what would it be?

“I love cooking outside,” Voltaggio said. “Barbecue in the spring is great. I’m also a big fan of Japanese cuisines and sushi. … But I think just a good home-cooked meal with my family is what I really enjoy. I’m in restaurants on a daily basis and sometimes what I cook at home is very different than what I cook in restaurants. It’s a little bit more comforting.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Bryan Voltaggio (Full Interview)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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