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Top Chef's Bryan Voltaggio Reacts to the Critique About His Food Lacking "Love or Passion"
The Season 17 All Star explains how the comment influenced his cooking in the finale.
In order to make it to the Season 17 finale, the final four cheftestants were tasked with making a traditional Italian primi and secondi dish featuring Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. After tasting Bryan's primi course (chitarra with soft egg yolk and aerated parmigiano fonduta), one of the diners, three-star Michelin chef Roberto Cerea remarked, "I find Bryan's plate completely devoid of any love or passion. The dish is flat."
Bryan found himself in the bottom two that challenge, along with Kevin Gillespie. When host and judge Padma Lakshmi relayed that feedback to Bryan during Judges' Table, he was visibly taken aback by the comment. "The idea and the intent of that did come from heart because I wanted to take that dish that I really enjoy, because I like to try to push the envelope with food and try to do something new," he told the judges.
Not only was Bryan surprised by that critique, but he also said he that didn't expect to be in the bottom right before the finale. "It just goes to show the level of chefs that were involved in this season and how everybody is really great competitors and really great cooks and really great chefs," he told The Daily Dish in an interview over the phone prior to the Top Chef Season 17 finale airing. "It was worrisome. I didn’t want to go home. I was so close to the finale. I wanted to get this title. I came back a third time to try to get it, and there was a moment there where I thought that could have been taken away. So yeah, it was hard. The critique was hard."
Bryan said that comment was "like a dagger to any cook and chef." "I mean, that’s like the worst thing you could ever hear, right?" he said. "I feel like my food has a lot of heart and soul. But regardless of that, it made me really want to do a dish in the last cook that I probably would not have done unless I heard that comment."
Bryan survived to cook another day as he moved on to compete in the Season 17 finale, and Kevin was ultimately eliminated. Going into that final challenge of the season, in which he and his fellow finalists, Stephanie Cmar and Melissa King, were tasked with cooking the best four-course progressive meal of their life, Bryan said that he definitely took that comment about his food lacking "love or passion" into consideration.
"It made me think about the food that I was going to cook, just sort of lay back on a modernist technique and form, which I think a lot of people know my food as being. I think Gail [Simmons] even commented a couple of times throughout the season that you can tell what my food is by the way that it’s presented. I think some of my food just looks very avant-garde sometimes. I cook the way that I cook. I think I cook very clean and modernist in some ways. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t heart and soul involved in those dishes," Bryan explained. "So, I want to make sure when I was going into this last cook in a very important challenge that I was gonna be able to show a lot of my personality through my food — and not just cook food that’s expected of me, but to show more of what I can do."
In fact, that critique inspired Bryan's favorite dish of the season, his second course of the finale meal, lasagna with wild boar Bolognese, porcini duxelles, Tuscan kale, and ricotta béchamel. "This lasagna dish meant a lot to me because my mother [Sharon Mangine] is a working mother, made sure that my brother [Michael Voltaggio] and I and my sister [Staci Rosenberger] — who everyone’s met also on this season, thankfully she got to come and cook — she always made sure no matter what that we had dinner on the table, 5:30 we’re gonna sit around as a family and we’re gonna enjoy that. Lasagna was one of their favorites," Bryan said. "So, it’s something that means a lot to us, and it’s a very Italian-American thing the way that we present it in our home, the simple cheese lasagna or maybe with Bolognese. And in this case I did one with wild mushrooms and a wild boar Bolognese. It was delicious. It was, I think, one of the best dishes I’ve put forward, even though it was simplistic in form, just because it had a lot of meaning behind it."
The title of Top Chef for Season 17 ended up going to Melissa. Even though Bryan said this is likely the end of his Top Chef journey, he is going to miss being in the competition. "It’s nice to be able to go in and just compete and just focus on food and sort of be stripped away of all that outside noise for a few minutes and just do this. And that’s why it’s fun. I love it, because it’s fun. Yes, it’s strenuous, yes, the hours are long, yes, we all know it’s hard to to listen to people tear apart your food," Bryan said. "But I love the criticism. I love the camaraderie and meeting and hanging out with new people and making new friends. And so all of that’s been great. It’s been a really incredible experience."
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Check out more from the Top Chef Season 17 finale, below.