New 'Top Chef' Michael Voltaggio on his big win
Last night’s sixth season finale of Top Chef culminated with Pasadena chef Michael Voltaggio taking home the gold, beating out older brother Bryan and nice-guy Kevin. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, Michael chatted with EW.com about his win, the sibling rivalry, and those swipes at Kevin’s cooking style.
How does it feel to finally let the secret out?
It’s finally nice to be able to talk about it. It’s probably the hardest part of this whole process. One thing I might do is start playing poker because I have the best poker face now.
Did you tell anyone? Obviously your mom knew.
No. It’s funny, I was so nervous to even talk about it. Even after the show finished airing, I’m like, “It’s over right? It’s over everybody. You watched it. It’s over. Yeah, I won. We can talk about it.”
So you watched the episode live last night?
Yeah, but I was surrounded by, like, 125 people. It was pretty loud. I haven’t really had a chance to sit there and watch it. We closed the restaurant [The Dining Room, where Michael works] for the night and invited the VIP guests of the restaurant and some local friends, but nothing too crazy.
Was Bryan there?
Bryan was having a similar party on the east coast at his restaurant. My mom decided to stay in Vegas; she lives in Las Vegas. Her and my sister went to a local restaurant and hung out with their friends. She couldn’t choose, “Oh, I’m going to hang out with Bryan” or “I’m going to hang out with Michael.” She stayed on neutral ground.
You aren’t shy about confidence in your talent. Did you think you had the win all along?
Throughout the competition, I wasn’t thinking I had the win but that I was certainly a contender to win the competition. At the last moment, when we were standing at the judges’ table, I was 100 percent sold on the fact that Bryan had won. I would’ve dropped a million dollars on Bryan at that moment. Throughout the competition, we get to see each other’s food. That’s it. When we’re in that kitchen, I’m not running over to Bryan’s saucepot, like “Hey, let me taste that.” We’re carrying the food out and standing side by side. I’m standing there with Kevin and Bryan, and Bryan’s food consistently throughout that evening looked far better than Kevin’s and my food as well. What’s funny is, I felt that about my food throughout the competition. I always thought, My food looks so good. But then what it came down to was the taste of it. We don’t get to eat each other’s food. That’s the one piece of information the judges have that we don’t, and I was convinced that Bryan’s food, just by looking at it, was going to be the winning food.
You seemed to have a pretty strong vision for every dish you made. What was it like to hear the judges pick it apart with a fine-tooth comb? For example, Donatella thought the mushroom puree in your final dish was a gimmick.
That’s what they’re there to do. Food is like art. It’s all about preference and perception, and one person could really love it and the person sitting next to them could hate it. Sure it’s more entertaining to see the negative critiques than it is the positive critiques. For every negative thing that people have to say about our food, there are a few positive things being said as well. You can’t take that as a final thought, like “Oh, this dish didn’t work.” Their critiques are fair. They wouldn’t be who they are today if nobody cared what they had to say. I do things on a plate that might be a little different than most people. But that’s really what I’m about. I’m going to take that risk. I’m going to put it on my plate. Sometimes it’s going to hurt me and sometimes it’s going to help.
How much did Eli and Jesse add to your final dish?
They didn’t add anything. They added the fact that I was able to get all that work done. I really cut it close throughout the competition. A lot of times it came down to the last minute. I remember the challenge when we had to cook breakfast in bed for Padma. I was so far in the s— that day that there was no way I was going to get the food on the plate. I’m running, running, running. Then I’m thinking to myself, “They only gave you 30 minutes; why are you doing this? why are you doing that?” Jesse was amazing in helping me prep the night before. Eli knows my style of food. He’s worked for a chef that has a similar style to me. He’s sort of developing his own style that’s similar to what I do, so he understands the language that I speak in the kitchen. So for me, it was two perfect partners.
The judges said the caliber of talent this season is the best they’ve seen. Have you seen past seasons? Did it feel that way?
I think they definitely raised the bar. My congratulations go out to Bravo for making a cooking competition again. Sitting back and watching it, that’s what it was this season. I have to be honest, though. When I showed up, having watched past seasons, I thought, I’m going to go on Top Chef and win. It’s not going to be difficult. And then I show up and see the people that are there, and I’m like, Wait a second. This isn’t the same show I watched last year or the year before. I think every season had great chefs and I think the chefs that won each season probably deserved to win, but I think those seasons, most of them had one or two great chefs and the rest were great for TV. And now all of sudden, we had 17 people and 75 percent of them were really good chefs.
Who were the 25 percent?
I’m not going to answer that.
The sibling rivalry between you and Bryan was one of this season’s big “story lines.” Is your relationship as competitive as the editing would have us believe?
Do I pick on Bryan like that? Yeah, absolutely. I’ve done that my entire life. I think the place it all sparks from is the fact that we had the same friends growing up. I hung out with his friends so I was always, always the younger brother. I always felt like I had something to prove with Bryan. So when we’re around a group of people, particularly our friends, I would always take jabs at him and pick on him, and that kind of unfortunately and in a sort of immature way found itself in adulthood. But it’s the same thing; it just happens to be in the kitchen in front of three million people on a television screen. We made each other better, so if that means we had a sibling rivalry or we were that competitive with each other, then definitely. It was evident that [the rivalry] was there, but it was there to push the other one to get stronger as a cook.
Kevin was pretty upfront in wanting to prove to everyone — and specifically to you — that simple isn’t a bad thing. Did he change your point of view at all?
Kevin’s food is phenomenal. I’ve had a chance to eat a couple of his dishes. Obviously in the things I said on the show about Kevin and Kevin’s food, it’s a little more entertaining to focus more on the fact that it’s a competition and I’m saying things to the opposite of that. His food is great and there’s a place for his food. His food is different than mine. If I’m cooking for you and Kevin’s cooking for you, you might love my food and not like his food. And somebody else might love Kevin’s food and not like my food. That’s what food is. Art is the same way, movies are the same way, music is the same way. Not everybody listens to hip-hop. Kevin has good, classic music, country food — whatever you want to say. That genre describes his food, which is phenomenal. There are some great country singers out there. There’s some great classical music out there. There’s some great classic food. My food is a little more alternative, a little more hip-hop, a little more rock ‘n’ roll, a little more out-there. It’s not really that one’s better than the other; they’re just different.
Do you still believe that the food Kevin cooks is the food you cook on your day off, as you said?
There’s a lot more to that, though. I even went on to say it’s always wholesome and people appreciate it. Do I cook the style of food that he cooks on my day off? Yeah, maybe. I might sauté some kale, but he smoked it and got great flavor out of it and made something innovative in its flavor. That’s the one thing I didn’t get to experience dish after dish, as the judges did. Had I had a chance to go back and taste all of his dishes, I probably would’ve said the same thing.
The season had some pretty heavy hitters in terms of guest judges what was it like cooking for them?
I don’t even think heavy hitters is the word. Some of the best chefs in the word, literally. They’ve been called that. “You are the best chef in the world.” It’s nerve-wrecking. It’s like singing in front of The Beatles or playing baseball in front of the Yankees. These are the guys that we’re all trying to be like and here they are, eating our food and their job today is to critique it. I thank you again, Bravo, for making us all throw up before every episode.
Who were you most nervous cooking for?
I’d have to say Joel Robuchon and Thomas Keller. Thomas wasn’t the judge, but just the fact that he’s in a room and you’re responsible for cooking the food that he’s going to eat is enough to make anyone nervous.
What dish were you most proud of?
Probably the vegetarian dish that I did for Natalie Portman. I really listened to what they were asking us to do and brought something out that was unique and distinctive to my style but at the same time it tasted really good.
Are you still working at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa?
Have you done anything with any of the prize money or the high stakes winnings?
Not yet. The first thing I’m going to do is open some bank accounts for my children and make sure they have a better start than maybe what Bryan and I had. And then use it for what it’s meant to be used for. Padma says in the promos, “$125,00 to kick start your culinary career!” and I think really that’s what I’m going to use that for: Invest it back in myself and grow this into something bigger and better.
What are your plans for the near future?
Bryan and I have a web site that we just started together – VoltaggioBrothers.com. That’s just going to be a building block for projects that he and I will work on together moving on. It could be restaurants or books. We’re in the planning stages of trying to brand ourselves together.