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Michael Voltaggio: Top Chef

Michael Voltaggio explains why his win is kind of bittersweet, and reveals what's next for him. You had time off and you came back — what were your assumptions about what any of the twists might be in the finale based on what's happened in previous seasons, or how did you prepare for the finale while you were at home?
Obviously once we found out where the finale was, I did research on Napa Valley. And then my preparation for the finale was to change my strategy a little bit, in the sense that I wasn't going to "dumb down" my food, but make it a little more simple, and let the ingredients speak for themselves based on the region of the cuisine we were doing. As far as twists, obviously you always expect to see former contestants in some capacity. Usually maybe another course, did you think that would happen?
Yeah, I was definitely expecting another course. I made sure that I brought extra ingredients that I could tie into an extra course no matter what, so I wouldn't have too much thought into making an extra course at the last moment, almost have an idea of what I would want to do, and then use whatever we were given to put everything together. What was going through your mind when you saw what the ingredients were in the mystery box?
None of this stuff goes together! So what did you do to make it work?
I think first you had to look at the quality of the ingredients — some of it was OK, some of it wasn't so great. So my idea first and foremost take the stuff that wasn't good and try and make it taste better. I really just concentrated on flavor, because the ingredients, if they don't go together, obviously you need to make them mesh, so come up with an overall theme for the whole dish, then make all the ingredients work with that theme. Did Padma's pregnancy affect your menu at all?
I think all of us, out of respect for Padma, we weren't going to serve raw fish. We asked her if her pregnancy meant no raw seafood. She then said to us, "I'll taste it, I'll judge it, but I would appreciate it if you guys didn't." What was your immediate reaction when your mom came to the door of the hotel room?
I can't remember what we were expecting; I think we thought Tom or Padma was coming to the door. We can always tell when something's about to happen. So we were waiting for that twist, and then when saw it was just our parents, we were happy and surprised. You had to draw knives for your sous-chefs. If you could have chosen sous-chefs, whom would you have wanted?
Mike Isabella and Eli. And what was your reaction when you selected sous-chefs?
Well I got Eli, so I was happy, because Eli was like my little son on the show. He has a very similar style of food. He likes the kind of food that I cook, so it'd be easy to dial him into my whole situation. And as far as Jesse is  concerned, I was actually excited to be able to work with her. What was the inspiration for each dish?
The inspiration was to just cook simple. Not overdo or overanalyze everything, and just put tasty food out. If you look back at the season and what people were most successful with, at the end of the day it wasn't the tricks and the presentation and all the things I did; it came down to flavor and in some cases it came down to salt, so I just made sure the food was seasoned properly, cooked properly, and tasted good. When you saw who was going to judge, and these are all people who have money to invest in restaurants, and you want to open your restaurant at some point, what was your reaction?
I was like, "Shit." The first person I saw at the table was Sam, and Sam actually owned the last restaurant where I worked. That made me a little bit nervous. Sam's a great guy. I didn't think he had any ill will towards me but at the same time you have some of the most successful restaurateurs sitting at one table, and they pick chefs based on meals like that, so I think we were all nervous. How do you think you sous-chefs worked out?
I think my sous-chefs worked out great. Jesse was my prep horse the night before, so she got all the little stuff done that I needed to get done. Eli was there to make sure I crossed my Ts and dotted my Is. He helped me finish my sentences and get my food on the plate. Do you blame Eli at all for the cake, or was that your fault?
The cake was totally my fault. I stuck it in the oven, and obviously nerves got the best of me, and I just totally forgot about it. What was your immediate reaction to Padma announcing you won? You probably had the most stoic reaction of any winner we've ever had.
Well, I was standing there knowing that my brother won. I was standing there thinking, "Bryan won, Bryan won." So I was ready to turn and hug Bryan and say, "Hey man congratulations, you deserve it." And then when she said my name, emotions just took over. I was like, REALLY? I was shocked. I was in shock. I had no control of anything. I wasn't standing there thinking, "Oh I have this one in the bag," like I have in the past. Honestly if Bryan had won, I wouldn't have said, 'Well I don't think he should have won; my food was better." Because honestly, at that moment, I thought Bryan had put up a better showing than I did. Kevin even says he thinks Bryan won. Did that change your mind at all?
I mean I think even Bryan thought Bryan won! We all thought Bryan won. When it came down to the critiques, it really came down to the seasoning. It just shows how important it is to make sure you don't forget seasoning — you don't forget to put salt on your food. I think a lot of times that separates a good restaurant from a great restaurant. You think well this food tastes a little better, and sometimes it's just salt. Well you cried, and you weren't very emotional this season — are you a big crier?
No, I never do. I never do. I think it was everything added up. I think my mind, my body knew how to react to the whole situation and I think my head exploded at that moment. But I mean honestly, we had been standing in that spot for hours, so my legs were sort of hurting. I'm like, "Aww, I get to relax now." What are you going to do with the prize money?
The first thing I'm going to do is open accounts for my daughters so that they have money, but money they can't touch until they're 18. Bryan and I have great parents, but we are sort of self-made. We went after our own careers, Bryan put himself through college, and I didn't go to college. I want my daughters to have some piece of this, something to start with. And the rest of it? I don't know. I'm a car guy. I'll probably get myself another new car. But it's $125,000 dollars to help jumpstart your career, so obviously that money is going to go towards that as well. I'll invest it in myself, in the sense that I want to grow a brand. Did you feel as the younger brother that you had something to prove when competing against Bryan?
I don't think I had something to prove. Honestly, when it came down to that moment, I didn't want to win. I didn't want either one of us — I was hoping they'd say, "You both won! Congratulations it's the first time in Top Chef history!" Because you can't celebrate when you know your bother is standing next to you, and he doesn't have the same thing to celebrate about. I worked for a chef one time and he went to take the Certified Master Chef test, and it's one of the hardest tests you can take. There were ten people in his class, and he was the only one who passed. At the end of the whole grueling process, he didn't have anybody to celebrate with, because no one else had passed. So it just kind of sucked, at that moment.

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