As you likely know by now, Pasadena chef Michael Voltaggio was crowned Top Chef’s winner last night. We caught up with Voltaggio after he wrapped this evening’s episode of The Tonight Show to see how he plans to spend the dough, whether that rivalry with his big bro was played up, and what we can expect in the coming years from the Picasso of quick-fires.
So how was your first day being the new Top Chef?
It has been really crazy, I’ve been on the phone a lot. It’s funny, yesterday I was behind the stove, today I’m backstage at The Tonight Show waiting to hang out with Conan.
Do you have any plans for the money?
First thing I’m doing is putting aside savings for my daughters, so it will be there for them later. You know, the “when-you-get-old-enough-you’ll-have-a-little-money” fund. Otherwise, just like Padma said, I’m going to use the rest to jump-start my culinary career.
Watching the show yourself, were there any cringe-inducing moments you were involved in? There were definitely times I was surprised at things I had said. Sometimes it was because the quote was cut just a little shorter or was taken out of context. And there were times I was shocked like, “Did that really just come out of my mouth.” A good example is when I said I could make a ballotine as good as the one Gavin Kaysen made for the Bocuse d’Or. The man was elected to represent the U.S.A. in Bocuse d’Or, and by some of the best chefs in the U.S.A.! I called him and explained that the comment wasn’t really in the context it was meant in. I do regret the perception I might have given with a comment like that.
Did editing on the show help play up the sibling rivalry or are you and your brother really that intense about competing with each other?
I don’t think editing played that big a part in it. They are shooting us for 24 hours-a-day, it’s reality and that was all real. But what you saw is what happened for maybe three minutes out of an hour, so there’s 23 hours and 57 minutes left in the day. Naturally you see a few minutes of friction. That’s entertainment, I understand.
Can you share a good memory you had with Bryan just so we know you guys love each other?
Oh yeah, definitely, you should have seen our bedroom where we acted like a bunch of twelve-year-olds. Here you had 30-plus year-old chefs sleeping in children-sized Ikea beds. It was a great time acting like kids and laughing, —whether it was Mike I’s bodily functions or taking an entire Monopoly set and dumping it on someone’s head. We’re all people with real responsibilities. I was running a million dollar restaurant for Jose Andres before this, so to be able to leave some of those pressures behind and have fun and just focus on cooking was great.
Did having to partner with other chefs ever feel like a handicap for you?
In this business we have to hire different people every day. A favorite kitchen phrase of mine is “doors open at six,” and you’d be better be ready. Whoever is there, you have to make it happen. People get sick, people cut themselves. In the end, it’s how you adapt. There were maybe people I didn’t want to be partnered with so much, but I was happy to cook with other people and you know, if I wasn’t, I’d just make them watch.
To what degree are you worried that being Top Chef could take attention away from your cooking and make your personality the focus?
I am responsible for what I do. I’m a chef, that’s my priority, and I love cooking. Today might have been crazy, but in reality, I’ll be back at work tomorrow and accountable for what I do there. If I choose to do anything that jeopardizes my career or I put out something bad, that’s only on me. I make my choices in life. I’m happy to work for the show and be an ambassador for Top Chef, and they are very cool about letting us schedule things so that we can continue doing what we do.
What can we expect from the coming renovation of your restaurant, The Dining Room at The Langham?
The renovation has actually been pushed back, closer to April. There’s a few Bowls coming up and different events in town, and we really want to be a part of Pasadena, especially during all of this. In terms of the renovation, Bill Johnson is signed on to do the work and he’s a real artist. He’ll take a warehouse and turn it into a modern restaurant and people will come in and be impressed, then you tell them what it used to be and they are amazed at the transition. It’s exciting, this has been such a great restaurant for so many years and we’re going to bring it into 2010.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
First thing is that my brother and I have launched a website. This will be a platform to work with each other on different projects and to brand ourselves. We might start with a book. But my plan is to stay in L.A. for the long-haul. I love this city.