Voltaggio Brothers share journey from Frederick, Md., to ‘Top Chef’ fame

Chefs Michael and Bryan Voltaggio of Frederick, Maryland, with WTOP's Jason Fraley

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the Voltaggio Brothers (Part 1)

Brotherhood is a dish best served locally. The Voltaggio Brothers have come a long way from growing up in Frederick, Maryland, to gaining fame competing on TV’s “Top Chef.”

This month, the duo is launching a Whiskey-Wagyu Wednesday special at Voltaggio Brothers Steak House at MGM National Harbor, featuring an eight-ounce local Wagyu tenderloin filet paired with Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Whiskey for $95.

“Both Michael and I love working with ingredients and people in our region,” Bryan told WTOP. “They’re an incredible producer of some amazing whiskey [in Purcellville, Virginia], so we hand-selected a barrel that’s now going to be bottled exclusively for us … pairing cocktails and even just the straight spirit with a cut of Wagyu beef out of Pennsylvania.”

Bryan last joined WTOP in March 2020 as the pandemic rocked the restaurant industry.

“The biggest thing that came out of those two years was having time to push the reset button and take a look at everything we were doing globally,” Michael told WTOP. “We’re all going to be held accountable for that time. We got to spend a lot of physical time together to hammer down and figure out which projects make sense and which don’t.”

Thus, they rebranded Volt as Thatcher & Rye, on Market Street in Frederick, Maryland.

“We realized during the pandemic that people at the time weren’t looking for a lengthy, three-hour dining experience anymore with multi-course menus,” Bryan said. “What we’re doing now is creating more of an everyday experience across the board.”

They also rebranded The Family Meal to Born & Raised, which is now Showroom.

“We’re consulting on a menu and that’s went through some new ownership and some new changes, Bryan said. “But yeah — it’s still a great little restaurant over on East Street.”

The biggest pandemic lesson they learned is that the customer is always right.

“For the first time in our industry … we’re taking direction from our guests,” Michael said. “The template that dictated how everyone did business was coming from guides, reviews or people coming to eat there once. Now as an industry … places are shifting gears and focusing on the guests. That’s making this the most exciting time in food and beverage.”

They’ve made it a point to be more hands-on in their restaurants.

“We’re not only brothers, we’re also business partners able to accomplish more and be more present in the restaurants … whereas there was a time when we both felt stretched thin,” Bryan said. “It’s just the right amount of presence, being involved in the day-to-day.”

Growing up in Frederick, Michael said that dinner was a special time for their working-class family. “That was a time for us to gather around the table and have a casserole.”

They grew up like regular kids, bouncing around between sports activities.

“We weren’t model students at Thomas Johnson High,” Michael said. “Bryan used to show up to my lunchroom after he graduated [saying], ‘We’re going snowboarding.’ I’m like, ‘I have three more classes.’ He’s like, ‘No you don’t,’ and we would head up to Ski Liberty.”

Michael said football was the only thing that kept up his GPA. He played for coach Ben Wright, who went 172-119 coaching the Patriots for 27 years from 1984-2000 and from 2003-2011 with 11 trips to the playoffs and two state title games in 1997 and 2011.

Michael was the placekicker, which meant “not as demanding of a practice schedule as everyone else.” Still, he added, “Coach Wright used to make me … wear a weight vest to run up and down the stairs the entire class. I was like, ‘Man, this is tough,’ but the life lessons and work ethic came out of it. Our team every year at T.J. went to the playoffs.”

Coach Wright sadly passed away from prostate cancer at age 66 in 2015.

“He was incredible,” Michael said. “The work ethic that he instilled in not just the athletes but the students in the school. Everyone loved Coach Wright because he was almost just a symbol of pride within the school, work ethic and just hard work. He was demanding, but he was just cool. He had this swagger about him that everyone sort of gravitated towards.”

(Yours Truly played for Coach Wright when Rick Conner asked him to be his assistant during his first season as head coach at Linganore High School in 2002.)

The Voltaggios worked their very first restaurant jobs at the Holiday Inn at Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, Michael as a busboy, Bryan in the kitchen.

“I remember on a Saturday, Bryan and the other sous-chef said, ‘Hey, come dressed as a chef tomorrow and you can work in the kitchen,'” Michael said. “I showed up, but him and the other sous-chef were off! The only other person there was the executive chef, who they had not informed I’d be in the kitchen that day. They set me up for failure!”

They started taking it more seriously as a potential career when Michael got accepted to “a pretty amazing apprenticeship program” at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, while Bryan went to The Culinary Institute of America in New York City. “That’s where we kind of separated and spent two or so years apart,” Bryan said.

The brothers briefly reunited in New York City, as Bryan worked at Aureole and Michael worked for Larry Forgione at Coach House, before Michael moved to the West Coast.

“We went our separate ways and ended up on different coasts for a while just cooking, creating restaurants and working for amazing people,” Bryan said. “Michael worked for José Andrés and I worked for Charlie Palmer for a long time. After that, we started working together and opening restaurants together. … Then Michael kicked my ass on ‘Top Chef.'”

Indeed, that’s when the Voltaggio Brothers became household names on television, as Michael defeated Bryan in the finals of Season Six of “Top Chef: Las Vegas” in 2009.

“It came down to the two of us at the end, so one Voltaggio at least got to take it home,” Bryan said as Michael replied, “Bryan’s being humble. What he’s not saying is that he has the most wins in the history of that show. He’s done three seasons and has never been sent home. Bryan is the winningest ‘Top Chef’ contestant in the history of that franchise.”

“Who’s never won,” Bryan quipped back.

Back home in Maryland, the duo reunited to create the restaurant Volt in Frederick in 2008 and the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill in 2016.

“If you think about the restaurant scene in D.C., it’s one of the most exciting food cities in the entire country now,” Michael said. “If somebody had predicted 15 years ago that D.C. would be a food hub and a destination dining city. … It’s such an exciting time in the DMV.”

Michael now lives in California, while Bryan lives in Urbana, Maryland. They stay in close contact and are planning a special reunion dining event at MGM National Harbor soon.

“Michael is a creative genius when it comes to putting together flavor profiles in food and a visionary in creating a dish,” Bryan said. “I’m fortunate to work along somebody who has an inspiring way of thinking about food and where it comes from. … He immerses himself in an almost unhealthy-ass way of ‘will continue to work on something until it’s perfect.'”

“[Bryan] cooks with this professorial approach,” Michael said. “Bryan could teach cooking — that’s how good he is. Bryan has that brain where you can read instructions and figure out how to do something instantly, but Bryan doesn’t even read the instructions. He’s now becoming a pilot. … That’s a metaphor for Bryan’s entire life. Bryan is a machine.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the Voltaggio Brothers (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

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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