Much like Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, Bryan Voltaggio had a significant kitchen career before becoming sort of insanely famous while appearing on the reality cooking show in 2009. For those who didn’t watch what happened, he finished runner-up in a memorable season that placed him against the eventual winner — his baby brother Michael.
At 35, fresh-faced Bryan doesn’t look the part of a C.I.A. grad with nine years of service under Charlie Palmer. As we chat in the garden of his Frederick, Maryland restaurant Volt — during a break in my 12-plus course tasting menu that displays his modernist approach with chanterelle mushrooms and muscovy duck — the talented chef doesn’t let on that he had driven overnight from an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the night before.
But this is the reality when you have a book to promote (Volt Ink is released today) and reservations at your chef’s table that were booked over a year in advance. And yet it’s clear that Voltaggio would much rather cook for the eight lucky guests each night. He’s a homebody, enjoying life in the kitchen of his restaurant that sits equidistant between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, down the road from the farm with 450 head of grass-fed black Angus.
Tell me about Frederick. It’s not quite the world’s greatest restaurant city.
I know, but you would be surprised. I’ve been traveling a lot, but what I’ve found is that there are more people who know people from Frederick. I think it might be because it’s in between D.C. and Baltimore.
But let’s be honest. You’ve made it a dining destination.
Yeah, it’s great. We’re happy that it’s happening. It’s pretty great.
What’s it like being back in your hometown running the city’s most popular restaurant?
It’s kind of surreal. This is the cheesiest story I have for you, but when I was in culinary school in 1997, I did a project where I had to build a restaurant on paper. I based it on a restaurant here in Frederick. It was in an old building just like this.
So basically Volt has been in the works for over a decade?
I never thought it would happen, but the past led me back here. When I was working back in Aureole, Charlie [Palmer] wanted to open in D.C. and he knew I was from here, so it was a natural fit. So once I got back down in the Mid-Atlantic, I wanted to be here in Frederick.
Is Charlie an investor in the restaurant at all?
He’s been up here a couple of times and really supportive and proud of what I’ve done. But not a partner. He is kicking himself in the ass now! I’m kidding.
Well you must grow it out. Man, this has been an incredible meal, on par with anything that I’ve had in New York or Portland or Chicago. Are you going to extend the brand?
Maybe not the brand in full, but some other concepts. I want to be here…
What concept are you working on?
I’m working on reinventing the diner a little bit. We are able to implement some new cooking techniques into diner-style food. It’s going to be interesting to see what we can do with it. And then I want to do a market-style restaurant. It’s been done before—like with Eataly in New York. I use that as a comparison, but it’s going to be really different; it’s going to be food first and retail second.
So what makes a good diner?
Fried chicken, meatloaf, classic American food—all done really well. I can’t find a piece of good fried chicken within 50 miles of here. I’m sure it’s there but I want to make it readily accessible.
How is the cookbook that you are publishing with your brother, Volt Ink, different from all other cookbooks?
It’s not stories about us growing up. It’s not what people would expect. We wanted to showcase me and Michael and our repertoire. We wanted to show that we are professional cooks.
We were very passionate about food growing up and were far along in our career before people got to know us in the public space. In the professional space there are a lot of people that knew us. We worked for some really acclaimed chefs. And I think now that our careers are propelling on their own, we just wanted to say where we are now, reset, recharge.
What about Top Chef? Are you still going to be participating in that anymore?
I haven’t been asked to do anything as of late. I offered during [the D.C. season] to be a venue for a challenge. So if they ever come through here again that would be great. I would love to participate in any way I can. They are all my friends.
Do you feel like there is more TV in your future?
I want stay close to Frederick. This is where I have fun and where my heart is. If I can integrate the two, then that’s great. But that’s not coming first. Every once in a while if something comes along, then great. Michael and I did a Thanksgiving special on the Cooking Channel that will be out in November. That was fun. It was good shooting it.
So you have a tasting menu that’s been sold out for two years?
Table 21 started in 2008, the year we opened. We had four seats and then the show happened and we started gaining momentum. It was a little bit of both—people wanted to see me cooking and it was a new experience in Frederick. So we added four more seats, configured the whole thing and we’re booked a year a half in advance. We’re booked the entire year of 2011. We haven’t released seats yet for 2012; we’re going to start releasing on November 1 I think.