A Picky Eater Turned Top Chef

In what has become the Unofficial Voltaggio Week here on Food Republic, we've noted the release of the brother-chefs' cookbook Volt Ink, featured an interview with Bryan, a very insane ramen recipe from Michael, and now an interview with the Top Chef himself.

For a Top Chef with arms full of tattoos, Michael Voltaggio's first restaurant ink. makes a lot of sense. Sitting on trendy Melrose Ave. in the middle of Los Angeles, the dark gray space has a quiet chaos about it, like the opening song of an indie band's first sold-out concert. While Voltaggio whips around his kitchen from station to station — tasting, fixing, tasting some more — the dining room is more casual and relaxed. It's a huge contrast to the sophisticated food he's putting out.

The inventive global cuisine is hard to pin down, with dishes that appear to come from Tokyo, Paris, the International Space Station and all points in between. The beef tartare is layered underneath frozen horseradish powder and a sea bean chimichurri while bay scallops are served on top of a poutine made with fall-apart-tender lamb neck, yogurt curds and fries made from chickpeas instead of potatoes. At ink., you never quite know if you're dining in the very hip laboratory of a mad scientist or getting the first glimpse of the future of food.

One thing's for sure though: in a town full of hot restaurants, this one is scorching. Try snagging a reservation — I dare you. They're fully booked from now until Padma's baby goes to college. Come in and sit at the bar, though, and you won't be sorry. Michael Voltaggio is making his mark on LA and he's making it in permanent ink.

I caught the exceptionally busy chef on his way out of town, where we talked about omakase, cooking gadgets and being hand fed by José Andrés.

This is your first place by yourself. What did you do to really make it your own?

I think what we did here was kind of take all the rules and throw them out the window. Rather than cook for ourselves, we're trying to figure out how to cook for the people that are coming to the restaurant and we're trying to do it in a way that's affordable. The theme of this restaurant is that there's no theme. There's nothing that has to be permanent except the restaurant itself.

How often do you change your menu?

We change something every day. I'm mental. I definitely have a tendency to keep working and working with stuff until I get it the way I want it and then, I think, once we get it to where we want it and we sell a lot of it, then we get tired of looking at it so we change it.

How many people do you serve here a night?

If we can get comfortable at 150 and it's running smoothly, then I think that's a good number for us. But we're a long ways away from being comfortable at that, so that's why the omakase isn't open yet.

Do you have a firm date in mind for the omakase?

I'm not going to open that until I'm ready. Everyone's like "Omakase! Omakase!" but we're going to open it when it's ready. When the restaurant's running smoothly and we're not getting a single complaint in a night and people are leaving the restaurant happy, then I'll try and do something else. I'm trying to eliminate projects, not create more.

You're clearly using a lot of modern cooking techniques. Do you feel like you're part of that movement or are those just tools you use to cook?

I'll be honest. When I first learned how to use a lot of that stuff, I felt like I had to put it on everything. But now I'm finding I'm having more fun with the dishes that I don't have to put it on. As I get more mature as a cook, I try to get away from just doing stuff just to do it.

You worked for José Andrés at The Bazaar in Beverly Hills, and I know he always feeds people with his fingers. What's your favorite thing that José has ever fed you with his bare hands?

Two years ago, at his house in Aspen during Aspen Food & Wine, he was just grilling Iberico pork and there was this crusty skin on part of the outside of it, and he was saying, "the pig of the Lord!" as he was taking it and putting it in people's mouths. And that is one of the single best bites of food I've ever had. Mixed with José's sweat, I don't know, I mean, it was really good.

When you were a kid, were you really into food and cooking?

I was the worst, pickiest eater ever.

What were you eating at 12?

Ramen and grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs and chicken fingers and the stuff that everybody else was eating. My mom actually cooked really great mom food though. With pork chops and all that kind of stuff, she did an amazing job. I was just picky.

Speaking of picky eaters, this is LA: Land of the Special Request. Do you get a lot of vegans in here?

We don't get a lot of vegans. We get vegetarians and at first I was like, I'm going to be one of those restaurants with no substitutions but then I found that, like, who am I to say that? We do it on a case-by-case basis at this point.

If you could cook in any kitchen in the world right now – other than your own — do you have a place where you'd love to work?

Pierre Gagnaire is probably the one person that I'd want to work for the most because he created his own modern food based on what was in his brain and I think that's truly amazing. I really believe that Pierre Gagnaire is probably one of the greatest artists of our time.