“Out of all the cooks that have come through the show, Michael is the most talented—both from a sensibility and technical standpoint. He has the chops to pull off what he’s trying to do.”
When Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio says that about you, it can really go to your head. But arrogance is not what got Michael Voltaggio—the mastermind behind L.A.'s modernist temple, ink.—to where he is today. The Top Chef Season 6 winner is the poster child for how far the time-tested combination of talent, humility, and grueling work can get you.
This may come as a surprise to those who dismiss reality TV competition winners as celebrity-chef wannabes eyeing the shortest path to fame. “I looked at going on Top Chef as an opportunity to bring credit to that type of television so that there could be more opportunities for chefs outside of their kitchens,” says Voltaggio, who put a chef-de-cuisine gig with José Andrés at The Bazaar on hold to go on the show.
“I thought maybe I could bridge the gap,” he says. “If you look back at people like Emeril and Julia Child, they were cooking on TV, and that was acceptable because they were as passionate about television as they were about cooking. For me, that’s what I wanted to do on Top Chef.”
It's definitely a departure from the “I just want my own line of cookware” school of reality TV intentions. But Voltaggio is a serious guy who earned his stripes the long, hard way. His culinary education is the American equivalent of an old-school French apprenticeship, where you’re sent away as a young teen to learn the trade, and come back a hardened professional. Except in Voltaggio’s case, he chose that path for himself.
“If you look back at people like Emeril and Julia Child, they were cooking on TV, and that was acceptable because they were as passionate about television as they were about cooking. That’s what I wanted to do on Top Chef.”
His journey took him from carving mice out of radishes for the poached salmon brunch platter at the Holiday Inn in Fredericksburg, Maryland to an apprenticeship at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where he underwent an intensive, European-style culinary education that would prepare him for the rigors of chefdom.
“That’s where shit got real,” says Voltaggio. “That’s where I was like, wow, I want the uniform, the neckerchief, the toque, the brigade."
He went on to rise through the ranks, working impressive gigs that won him recognition and even a Michelin star. But, in the words of Bjork, Voltaggio suspected there was more to life than this. “Somebody said they didn’t start learning until they got out of the kitchen—I think it was Jean Louis Palladin,” says Voltaggio. “It’s so true. Chefs are the back of the house, and people automatically associate that with the kids who get in trouble like I did. But what’s funny is people rely on the back of the house to drive the restaurant, [and] you’re putting all the punks in the back. There was a sense of leadership coming from the kitchen that needed to have some intelligence to back it up. I think there was an opportunity for chefs to say, ‘Hey, wait, we’re smart too! We’re not just weird and creative.’”
Whatever entails being a chef, Voltaggio is all in. “What else would I do?” he asks with a snicker. “The only other thing I started really enjoying—which is funny to say given the conversation we’ve had—[is] doing television. It’s something else I feel like I could be good at. When I’m outside of the kitchen, but talking about food.”
Here, Voltaggio pauses from kitchen life to talk Tortilla Espanola mishaps with NBA all-star Pau Gasol, as well as the life-changing experience of working at The French Laundry.