FOCUSED, PASSIONATE, INTENSE: MY INTERVIEW WITH TOP CHEF WINNER MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO

In January 2012, I had the honor of sitting down with the owner of ink. Restaurant, ink.sack and Top Chef champ (and fellow Frederick-tonian) Michael Voltaggio. I really wanted to re-post this piece – let’s all get our inner chef’s inspired, shall we? It’s the HOLIDAYS!!!

PS – I have the Voltaggio Brothers (yep, Michael AND Bryan!) homemade applesauce recipe..it’s SO easy to make! I’ll post it in time for Thanksgiving 🙂

 Focused, Passionate, Intense: Meet Top Chef Winner Michael Voltaggio

When entering celebrated Chef Michael Voltaggio’s new restaurant, ink., one cannot help the feeling as if interrupting a conductor who is privately guiding his orchestra through its greatest concerto. With movements that are quick and decisive it’s no wonder three words come to mind to describe Voltaggio: focused, passionate and intense.

It’s this focus, this passion and this intensity that seeps its way out of the kitchen and onto the main floor here in the home of his newest passion project. Tucked away in the corner of a non-descript brick building on famed Melrose Avenue, ink., opened in September in the heart of West Hollywood. LA’s newest eatery boasts an industrial interior with a minimalist vibe and has quickly become a must-stop for foodies and Top Chef enthusiasts alike.

When comparing ink.’s menus from one week to the next, it can be noted that a limited amount of items are part of his regular repertoire. Voltaggio prefers mixing things up weekly. Served on small plates and meant for sharing, his menu is peppered with interesting options that ring of familiar fare, yet with a culinary twist.

A dish such as the jidori chicken and waffles with hot sauce served with whipped maple syrup is his creative spin on the traditional dish of Southern fried chicken and waffles. Voltaggio also expands diner’s minds and palates by offering a kale salad tossed lightly with burrata, Asian pear, pumpkin seeds and a yuzu sauce.

Other menu items that are tempting taste buds to come out of their humdrum shells are the beef tartare that is served with horseradish snow, hearts of palm, and a sea bean chimichurri. There’s also a dish of brussels sprouts, much like a side dish served for a family dinner. Except Votaggio finishes his version with thinly sliced pig ears, house-cured lardo and apple.

As if one restaurant wasn’t enough, Voltaggio also opened a culinary sandwich shop, ink.sack, in August. In his own way, he has made the ordinary sandwich quite the opposite. The menu at ink.sack offers sandwiches such as a beef tongue Reuben and the “CLT”, his take on the traditional BLT. Voltaggio’s version has the lettuce and tomato but the similarity ends there. The “C’ is a chicken liver mousse topped with crispy chicken skin as the bacon substitute.

Voltaggio also makes sure to tip his hat to his Maryland roots, by including Maryland Crab Chips on ink.sack’s daily menu. Homemade deep-fried potato crisps dusted with Old Bay seasoning adds a new spin on the BBQ potato chip for resident Angelinos. This is definitely not your run-of-the mill sandwich shop.

Sitting down with Michael Voltaggio, you begin to understand his rise to stardom amongst other culinary favorites such as Thomas Keller or James Beard. Food enthusiasts think nothing of including his name among lists of the best. The reason?

He’s becoming one of the greats himself.

“I work the line, I cook the food, I order it, I wash the dishes if I have to. I want to be in my restaurant cooking, not be the guy that is never (there),” said Voltaggio.  “I want to focus, right now, my time in LA.”

How does he spend his time when he owns and operates not one, but two restaurants? Well, there’s a consulting gig for a to be announced project in India on the agenda and don’t forget about the cookbook, VOLTink, which he’s been on the road promoting with his brother Brian. One thing is for certain; Voltaggio’s schedule is not for the faint of heart.

In fact balance is something he finds himself struggling with on a daily basis.

“Lately, it’s been all traveling, so I really haven’t had much time to have a lot of  “fun” at all. I used to go hiking a lot. When I had time, I did things like normal people do: I’d exercise and surf, I went outside. I’d like to be able to go outside again,” he said with a grin.

In the midst of his hectic schedule, there is some light though. “I do go out to eat, I ride my Harley and I like to go to shows and concerts when I can.”

Voltaggio’s talent and passion became properly introduced when he was as a teenager, living in Frederick, Maryland, attending Thomas Johnson High School, playing football and working part-time at the Holiday Inn.

“I was in school full time, going to football practice then going to work. I think out of the whole course of my day, the part I looked forward to the most was going to work, and it wasn’t just because I was getting paid. It was fun. I was working on the line cooking food. I couldn’t wait to get there everyday.”

This education helped as he began planning his restaurant after his Top Chef win in 2009.

“I think Los Angeles is a city that has never been taken seriously as a food town. Within the past five years, (we’ve seen) this small food community start to get bigger and bigger, and grow and grow because there is a need for it. People are interested in going out to eat in LA. Food is big, but it hasn’t been as chef-driven or chef-branded.”

When asked what restaurants or nightlife he likes to imbibe in when traveling home to Frederick, Voltaggio’s grin widened as he shared, “Olde Towne Tavern and of course, I’m going to always go check out Volt.”

And where will Chef Voltaggio be in the next few years?

“Hopefully, still in LA, still running ink, maybe with a couple smaller restaurants around,” he said thoughtfully. “I missed my twenties and most likely am going to miss my thirties, so I’d really like to enjoy my forties.”

Photo credit: Alex Horner (for LA Times Magazine)

Photo credit: Alex Horner
(for LA Times Magazine)

 

 

 

Breads and Desserts: A Gluten-Free Gal’s Guide to Keeping the Faith!

The conversation with my doctor the day I was told “No More Gluten” went like this:

Awesome Doc: “We have to stop your body from throwing itself into Celiac’s.”

Me: “Ok…What does that mean? Do I get a pill?”

Awesome Doc: “No, not really. You just have to stop eating gluten.”

Me: “That’s all? Ok. How hard can that be?”

About ten minutes later I found out gluten was in pizza and beer – two “comfort” foods that have made me a happy girl for years.  I’m still positive my cry of “Noooooooo!!!” was heard ‘round the world.

Anyway, you move on and you figure it out, right? I immediately turned to friends, nutritionists, amateur cooks and professional chefs who I know for advice. I rolled up my sleeves and started to do my own research on the internet. There was good news in the midst of my break up with gluten, as there seemed to be a fair amount of “gluten-free” items popping up in grocery stores already and all over online retail stores as well.

Insert sigh of relief here.

At this point, I began to approach shopping with a new excitement, almost an unsettled fervor and with such confidence! I would head to my local grocery stores and farmer’s markets armed with a list of “must have’s” for my pantry. I’d allow myself extra time to peruse the aisles in search of items I could add to my repertoire. I managed to find most things I needed and some I didn’t. Then, the taste-tests began.

And the taste tests sometimes just…sucked.

I can’t to lie to you – I love my carbs. While I do believe watching carbs is good for the waistline, I also believe hell hath no fury like that of a girl who loves bread and sweets and is told it they have to go away.

I’ve taste-tested my fair share of bread options. While some are …well, chewable, I’m still on the hunt for bread that will be soft on the roof of my mouth again or that will not be as thick as a brick. I’m sure they are out there, but this girl is still in search. Bread bowls at dinners out are sadly off my radar now, and one of my favorite items was gone forever. Focaccia bread.

Or, so I thought.

For anyone else out there that loves bread and would like to be able to break off a piece of focaccia and run it through some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, I have the best news ever.

You can! Best part? My taste testers didn’t know this recipe was gluten free when I had them sample it.

Along with the help of my good friend Mimi Germaine, and based on a recipe from the cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, I’ve found a focaccia recipe that will make folks at your Thanksgiving table come back for thirds and fourths!

Ingredients:

2 tsp active dry yeast

½ tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

2 tbsp olive oil

2 ½ -3 cups of Gluten Free Flour  (I used Bob’s Red Mill)

1 ½ tsp coarse sea salt

  1. In ¼ warm water, dissolve yeast and sugar. Set this mixture aside for up to 20 minutes. Some recipes suggest 10, BUT Mimi (aka my “Kitchen Guru”) suggested I let it dissolve longer to “add air” since my issue with most bread was the denseness.
  2. Prep a mixing bowl for the dough by oiling it thoroughly.
  3. Using a separate mixing bowl, mix together 1-cup warm water, salt, oil and flour. Add yeast mixture to this concoction and lightly knead. After flour ingredients are all mixed together, turn out ingredients on to a floured surface to lightly knead, no longer than 2 minutes or 3.
  4. Place the dough inside the oiled bowl, covering top with a damp cloth. Place bowl in a warm spot for dough to rise for the next hour. Again, as with the yeast, some recipes suggest letting the dough rise for 45 minutes. Go longer, add air. It’s the Germaine way!
  5. After the dough has risen, you can put it in a bread pan or shape it into a circle and use a pizza stone for baking or do what I did: I spilt the dough in half, dividing it into two different sized Le Creuset bakeware dishes.  This way I could also make one loaf of plain focaccia loaf and one loaf with some pizzazz!
  6. After the dough has been placed in the bakeware, pinch it or poke small holes in the top with fingertips to make a decorative top to the bread.  Cover again and let rise in a warm place for the next 45 minutes.
  7. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Top with anything from Rosemary to pre-roasted garlic or you can even add some onions (I used fried onions leftover from making the Gluten-Free Green Bean Casserole). Bake for 30 minutes.

While it’s cooling off, get a plate and pour some olive oil and balsamic vinegar on it for your dipping pleasure.

Trust me – this bread is going to be a hit on your Thanksgiving table!

Besides bread, there is always the small issue of ….do I dare say it?

Desserts. Delicious, sweet, gooey, yummy, decadent desserts!

Cookies, cakes, pies…you name it. Most of the baked goods we gluten-free-peeps have loved or indulged in for past holidays are now off limits.

Well, kind of.

Thankfully companies like Betty Crocker have stepped up to the plate. I’ve mentioned my love of Betty’s gluten-free cookies in the past – I make them for almost every dinner party I’m invited to or any BBQ I’m attending. You know what’s funny? No one can ever tell the difference between my cookies and “normal” ones. In fact, at most parties? My cookies – well, Betty’s – are the first to go! Her cakes are just as amazing and can be topped with almost any icing in the Betty Crocker line as well, just read the labels.

Besides Betty, there are so many other options out there. You just have to hit the internet and do some research.

So here you are – thank me later: I’ve found some naturally gluten-free desserts (these I found in the Huffington Post) and a Pumpkin Pie recipe from the Gluten-Free Goddess. If you have time, take a look at the Betty Crocker website. They’ve created a ton of amazing desserts that can be made from their mixes. Trust me, my Christmas baking is going to include some of my own recipes mixed with a few of Betty’s suggestions!

Eat, enjoy and love…and don’t forget to get outside and move to work off your holiday meal! I know I’ll be stealing some time for myself this holiday weekend to fit in a run or some kind of pilates workout.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!