(Originally published June 3, 2016 on Examiner.com).
Not too long ago, LA Chefs’ column had a chance to sit down and talk with Chef Michael Voltaggio of Ink Restaurant. What follows is some of the Q & A that transpired revolving around Voltaggio’s past culinary training and how those experiences are shaping the building and development of his own staff and company as it expands with more locations in both the fast causal and fast fine sectors opening up soon.
LAC: Looking at your early training, you had the capacity to teach yourself to do it your way and then get training. Do you think working in reverse allowed you to be more creative?
LAC: You quit one job at the Ritz, prior to going to Jose Andres, and you played around with a lot of different techniques.
MV: Yes I did all that stuff, we were given an opportunity to build a new restaurant at the Greenbrier which closed when basically the hotel changed ownership. We were looking at that time at things that were …information wasn’t as readily available. And I mean information about using a lot of the different technologies in cooking or applying new technology to cooking or using old technology and applying old technology to cooking. Whatever it is. So we just used trial and error. We basically go to work early in the morning and work until late at night and just tried things and tried things and eventually when Jose called and had an opportunity for me in DC, I drove to DC and cooked lunch for Jose Andres, and I’ll never forget what Jose said to me. He said, “It is great you are practicing and using these techniques, but you can come work for us and learn how to perfect these techniques.” And I was like he’s absolutely right, a lot of the information was doing was trial and error and now here’s an opportunity to go and practice it with other people that have been practicing it for a long time…and all the sudden…It was about perfecting it and understanding as opposed to just doing it.
LAC: So you were doing it to a degree correctly but you didn’t understand the theory or rational behind it…or you were doing it a little bit incorrectly and they helped you to…
MV: No I was doing it alone. I was doing it alone or doing it with Cole who has been with me a decade but that’s the thing about Think Food Group, Jose’s company it’s a group. It’s not just a chef, an accountant and a human resources person. It’s a group of chefs whether at the time it was Reuben and Katsuya and Jose…There’s always a team of chefs there with Jose so…and Jose curates talent. So to go be a part of a team. One good idea can become six good ideas. So I think getting an opportunity to work with a group of chefs that’s what that decision was all about. Let alone Jose’s ability to mentor you into restaurant ownership. The guy has put together an amazing career for himself. I think it’s because, and I think it a philosophy we’re practicing here, he surrounded himself with good people. That’s the number one thing I learned from Jose aside from the food creative process, the business creative process, and importantly putting as much into your people as you’re putting into yourself.
LAC: Andres built an army that allowed him to expand…Are you at the same point now? You built an army and are ready to open up your second location?
MV: I think I’m at the point now where if we don’t create new opportunities for the people working in this company, we’re going to lose them to other companies.
LAC: Has that not already occurred to a certain degree though? Like with Mei Lin?
MV: Mei was different, it was like when I came back from doing Top Chef. You come back and you bring any kind of television exposure to your work place I find it be …a little of a distraction….but it’s not fair for the person bringing in the exposure because I think that person is deserving …but not fair for the restaurant you’re bringing exposure to. Mei Lin had every opportunity to come back. She had been here for years. Top Chef for here was a platform for her to build her own platform. That was her next step. If it wasn’t that, it would have been one of our next restaurants.
LAC: But that’s what I’m getting at promoting your line cook to sous and your sous to CDC at a new restaurant, etc.
MV: And if you don’t have the restaurants, then eventually they’re going to do it someplace else…or do what I did go work for another company where you can learn more. No one should be in a hurry, and a lot of these cooks are like what do I have to do to do this, and how do I get to be there…and my answer is the same, just keep learning how to cook. That’s going to be the only difference between you and somebody else. All the other information is out there and it’s available.
LAC: So you’re saying that Jose help to instill these values, but before that you had an experience with a chef name Arnaud Berthelier, who was more of the cook in the European kitchen who had no business sense about food or labor costs?
MV: Um, he definitely had business sense, but he was and is one of the most talented chefs I’ve ever seen. So I worked with him at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Florida when I was at the steakhouse and his line was right next door. And that was back when the Ritz Carlton still had a dining room brand, so that was basically their finest restaurant in their hotels. And I saw food out of the corner of my eye that I couldn’t recognize or didn’t know what the items were on the plate, and it looked like art. I would be working in the steakhouse part of the hotel, cooking the steakhouse menu looking at his food and saying myself I want to learn how to do that. Like I was looking at that, that’s not beautiful food, that’s just beautiful. I want to know what that is because I was distracted by it.
LAC: Did it open you up to a whole new world of techniques?
MV: It made me realize that I had a whole lot to learn. He did teach me how to cook sous vide. That was back when you just didn’t tell people about it. Then it became a marketing thing for people to put on their menus which then got the health department reading about it which then sparked up all these other laws and regulations around it, but um …I started cooking sous vide with Arnaud back in 2001 and 2001. He had worked for Ducasse. And so, obviously Ducasse is the modern day Escoffier for us. He’s the living version of that in my and a lot of cooks’ minds. Escoffier determined what the next century of cooking was going to look like. Seeing that in Arnaud’s food and Arnaud being one of the most creative people I’ve ever been exposed to in my life. He used to build furniture on his days off. I remember one time when he wanted to learn how to fly a remote controlled helicopter, so he bought a helicopter and built the whole thing from scratch. Then he bought a simulator and hooked it up to his computer, got the remote control for his actual helicopter, and taught himself to fly it on his computer before he went outside and flew it for real. This is how the guy’s brain worked. I was determined to get as much of that from him as I possibly could.
LAC: Going to the Charlie Palmer’s and the Jose Andres…now that they built these empires was Jose actually in the kitchen at the time you were there or was he a hands on chef?
MV: I’d say he was very much around. Bazaar was under construction and Bazaar was his first …basically his first…restaurant outside of the Washington DC market. So Jose was very much involved. I remember the salty potatoes there…we have a version of it here…where we add squid ink and smoke and all stuff to it… I remember the day he taught us that technique…he, I think he said to myself and Cole or both of us go get me some potatoes, go get me some water …like he made the potatoes with the salt, and I remember my mouth dropping, and being like oh my gosh … I love when a chef is like we’re putting this on the menu and just make it and it ends up on the menu that day. It’s just such a kool feeling as an employee as an subordinate to someone to see them do that …but even more importantly…I love that it is important to them to do that too. It’s like Jose knew he wasn’t going to be here managing the day to day but Jose’s presence was very much there in the sense that it was his restaurant and it was his food. We were there to execute it for him.
LAC: But in terms of the menu planning and the process, it was a collaborative process?
MV: His whole company I like that. I think that’s what’s amazing about Jose. It’s Think Food Group. Jose has a dim sum restaurant attached to a restaurant in Vegas…called China Poplano where he has Chinese and Mexican food which are his versions of both. Jose is not a dim sum chef. He went to China. He did research. I’m sure he probably hired a couple people and then the collaboration …like who is to say you can’t cook Italian food because you never worked for an Italian chef…or you’re not Italian, why are you cooking Italian food. My last name is Voltaggio and I don’t have an Italian restaurant. So none of that stuff matters. It’s about getting to do what you’re passionate about doing and just doing despite what people think.
LAC: How has that affected your process? Are you the same way …I don’t have a history of what you had when you opened…Did you have the gnocchi on the menu when you opened?
MV: The only dish we had when we opened….There are two dishes that have been on the menu since we opened. It’s the beef tartar and the apple dessert. The beef tartar has evolved and changed a little bit. The only dish that’s completely the same is the day we open and put it on the menu is the apple dessert…four years
LAC: How frequently do you change menu items?
MV: There isn’t a schedule or template for that. We sort of do it when we feel like it. Some dishes we leave on because we’re like we can never take that off like the gnocchi. We’ve agreed we’re not going to touch that dish. Then there are other dishes that are seasonal where ingredients won’t be available so you have to change. There are dishes…I don’t know…it’s just a feeling you get like I’m done with that one. It’s like an album, there are six great songs and maybe there’s another six, and you have twelve songs on an album. It’s not like you don’t like the other six songs, but you know six of those songs are going to be played over and over again and the other six are going to maybe inspire you to write six more.
LAC: So when you’re developing new items, was it a top down process or a collaborative process?
MV: For this restaurant? Format of the menus that the top is lighter and the bottom is heavier. So we kind of put it together as if it is a big giant tasting menu so when we pull a dish out, we try to replace it with a dish that fits into that dish’s place on the menu. Or we look at the menu as a whole, and we can bump the dishes down. For instance, let’s say we take off a hot fish dish. But we want to put on a cold fish dish that is really light, so we’re going to put that new dish on towards the top of the menu and that’s going to push the rest of the dishes down. And so, there is a little bit of thought in the formula as to how we do things or there is somewhat of a template on how we change, but there is no schedule. We change the dishes when we’re inspired to make something new. Then we find a home for it on the menu.
LAC: What struck me from the menu, coming from Bazaar …more of a Spanish el bulli centric menu…the menu here at ink…the cultural references are very eclectic. There were flavors from Asia, from the Middle East, and other places….Do you kind of perceive it as kind of taking …there’s no concern about authenticity, but there’s concern about technique, and there’s re-imagining a dish like a gnocchi?
MV: I think a lot of it is. Well you mention the different ethnicities or influences that has on our restaurant. I eat around LA a lot where you can experience a lot of different ethnicities. On my day off, I get Joe’s falafel which is near my house which is one of my favorite things to eat in town…or I’ll go out and eat sushi. So a lot of the things that happen in this restaurant…or we have a member on our team who is from a different country or grew up with a different ethnicity than what I grew up with so they were culturally exposed to different ingredients and food recipes and things like that so just not being afraid to want to learn that stuff. And not being afraid to ask the questions and not being afraid to understand those flavor profiles for some of those things, it makes you a better chef. I mean we don’t have a pastry chef of the restaurant here number one because in the beginning because in order to have an amazing pastry chef, pastry chefs need good salaries. So I didn’t feel we could hire a pastry chef until we had a better understanding …You can’t hire someone unless you know what you’re hiring them to do. So I think it was important for us to develop our own pastry program first. So if and when we hire someone who is employed as the pastry chef, they are a part of what the restaurant is and it doesn’t feel like you’re eating in a different restaurant when dessert hits the table
LAC: Going back to when you started with Ink and where you are now, with all that you’ve done with tv programs traveling the world, how has your cooking continued to evolve as you’ve continued to learn new things?
MV: I think it has continued to evolve by making the decision that it has to continue to evolve. One of my most influential mentors, he actually just passed away this past year Peter Timmons, he said to me when I left my apprenticeship one day you’re going to wake up and realize you’re not the student any more you’re the teacher. Are you ready for that? And I think the reason he asked me that question was that I’d always ask myself that question because the answer is “no.” No one ever wants to be the only person that is creating I would find that would be the loneliness place in the world. If you can’t involve others in your creative process and you can’t be confident enough to give credit where credit is due. I don’t think I would want to be there. I get anxiety of trying to be….it’s like everyone expects you to be creative so then all of the sudden…like when we first opened this restaurant everyone was like oh, they’re going to use all these techniques and blah, blah, blah…so that stuff became more important than just cooking from our hearts and cooking food that we wanted to cook. So that’s kool but what’s going to be the kool thing on the plate. And in reality, it’s like who gives a shit. You know does it taste good…does it look nice? Are we happy with it? Do we think our guests are going to be happy with it? That’s what’s important, plus by the way do we make people feel good when we give it to them…like what happened to hospitality? Like what happened to being gracious and appreciating every single person comes into your restaurant. Where did that go? That’s the part that’s like
LAC: When you opened people thought that of you or maybe you thought a little bit of yourself in that you’ve learned as you’ve been in business that you have to do these other things?
MV: I think I learned a lot from my customers, yeah. I think definitely they have influenced me. I’ve heard others say don’t let your guests tell you what to make, but that’s not true. You see trends, this and that and whatever, but at the end of the day you should listen to the people that you’re cooking for as well. I learned that in a big way even on Top Chef. Those challenges were won by listening to the descriptions of what…The challenges were won through cooking and I believe it was the best dish that won, but a lot of times, the challenge itself was just as important as that part of it too. So if they told you to cook using chocolate and you didn’t use chocolate then maybe you couldn’t win the challenge. It doesn’t mean your dish wasn’t good. I think it is important to know who your audience is for sure.
LAC: Well getting to that LA isn’t Copenhagen, so there is a tendency from my perspective to like what you know, but not necessarily know what you like…that is being more towards the familiar, so do you feel that there is a limitation on you or have to make stuff like a beef tartar or branzino that people can look at the menu and have some connection to and then make a rift on it that’s a little bit unexpected?
MV: But I think that…You’ve just made a good point though because what Rene is doing in Copenhagen is exactly that, and that’s what we’re doing here. The dishes in LA are the branzinos, the beef tartars, the fish and chips, the gnocchi. This eclectic mix of restaurants from all different ethnicities …that’s what LA is. Rene is cooking food that indigenous to Copenhagen. That’s the part that’s interesting…or if you look at Favriken, Magnus is saying I’m not reinventing, I’m just cooking the food that has been cooked here for centuries…for decades…and that’s exactly what we’re doing in LA. We’ve had pho on the menu here, and how many great pho restaurants are there in LA? We have a lot of dishes that are influenced by my favorite which is eating sushi. We’ve had everything from chicken and waffles to the apple dessert that’s on the menu now which is like an apple pie. That is what makes up the food scene in this city and I think in a lot of metropolitan cites because metropolitan cities are made up of people from all different ethnicities.
LAC: So that’s appealing to the broadest audience. Now what’s your next step…where do you want your cooking…or whether you want to disclose what you’re going to do at your next place but maybe you could say whether it’s going to be something completely different or a continuation or…
MV: I think it will be like just a more intimate experience. Ink has become more of a neighborhood restaurant in this West Hollywood, West LA location
LAC: How many seats will there be in the new location?
MV: 25 to 30 seats.
LAC: So it’s going to be a lot more detailed?
MV: Yeah, the room is smaller. Regarding turns and service, we haven’t figured it all out yet. I don’t think you can figure all that out until you’re in the space. That’s one thing learned about this restaurant. We thought we had it all figured out, then we opened the doors and we didn’t know what we were doing. So it was like okay…
LAC: I was kind of getting more towards the trend of trois mec or Maude where you have twenty five seats …two turns two seatings…
MV: I don’t think that’s a trend, that’s a style of dining that’s been around for years. Ink, when it opened four years ago, that counter over there …we told everyone that we were going to do that there. We actually said we’re going to do an eight seat omakase menu over there, blah blah blah…said all of that four years ago when we opened this restaurant. But fortunately, when we opened we were so busy that we never got to do it there. Then we realized we need that kitchen space to properly serve the guests eating in the main dining room for the regular experience and also need the space for the cooks to not be crammed into that little kitchen there which was where we were going to put everybody. Yeah I’d love to finish what we started
LAC: This may be that omakase counter in a separate restaurant?
MV: I’m just going to say it’s going to be a more intimate experience
LAC: You don’t want to lock yourself into any definition yet?
MV: We’re opening another restaurant. It’s going to be smaller. It’s going to be built. It’s being built intentionally for what we want to accomplish in space…everything that was there, the bar, was ripped out…so to answer your question what I’m doing there is building a restaurant where every single element in that restaurant has a purpose for being there. So the goal isn’t to fit a square into a circle like we did at Ink. This was a sushi restaurant. There’s a very limited amount of kitchen space. There’s a sushi bar in the middle of it. All we did was came in here and changed the textures of this room. What we’re doing is gutting…
LAC: All the infrastructure was the same at ink?
MV: Yes, everything was the same. We took out a stove and put in a stove. The sushi cases are from the previous sushi restaurant. The limited bar area. This area we’re sitting in now was a private dining room. Creatively we learned how to make this space work for the experience we offer. Now we’re building a restaurant where everything is there for a reason.
LAC: Here it was a cosmetic retrofit and there it’s a gut
MV: And there, I think the way we’re building the restaurant it can be…put it this way if we’re not successful up there, the next person isn’t going to have to gut it. It’s a restaurant being thoughtfully built out by a chef for chefs for their guests.
LAC: And food wise you’re still exploring that too?
MV: Yeah because I could wake up tomorrow and decide I want to do something completely different.
LAC: How did your travels…you went to thirteen countries for a week here, two weeks there, and you recreated the food…Did that teach you or reinforce…what lessons were derived from being in those different cultures?
MV: I mean what lessons do you learn when you travel in general? You learn so much about the world when you go out and travel and for me it was obviously focused on conflict and food since that was what the show was about, so I learned a lot about conflict. And that’s what I think was articulated through the show but I did learn a lot about cooking and food too because at the end of every episode there was a version of local dishes on every single episode. It wasn’t that I just showed up knowing how to do it.
LAC: I had asked you about once before and it was you putting in all that time doing all the prep without a big crew. That’s right correct?
MV: Yes, but I had to learn how to do it, and the way I learned how to do it was when we weren’t shooting going out to eat on or off camera asking questions, how do you guys make this? Or what’s the national dish here, or what’s the thing you’re most excited about cooking wise. Or what dishes did your parents use to make. I’d just ask all these questions and then I’d just keep notes and take notes the entire time. Plus the shoot of the meal was always on the last day so I had three or four days to prepare myself for that shoot so I had three or four day to learn what their local cuisine was all about.
LAC: So it was like a cram course for each cuisine?
MV: Absolutely …some of most stressful meals I’ve ever had to cook. I didn’t show and cook what I knew how to cook. I showed up and….
LAC: Do you have any other tv types things on the horizon?
MV: Not anything definite. I still occasionally do spots with Bobby Flay and shows on Food Network. We work with the cooking channel now and then …Doing the local talk shows. I think it’s important to stay connected with that community just because a lot of people who are fans of me there only exposure to me was on television. I think I like to stay connected with them that way. One point you made with television, you paid a lot of dues, and slept on a lot of couches before getting on top chef…there was a lot people didn’t see… you weren’t an overnight sensation..
I went on TV to build a faster platform to get money to build a restaurant. Television gives you more opportunities, and like I said earlier I like getting out of my comfort zone and doing something new…and for me TV was new too. Now it’s not just about being on TV, it’s about being good on TV. So that was I’m going to go learn about a world that I don’t know anything about and then once I got expose to that, I want to be good at this now. So these people, we take it for granted…we look at actors and people who are in entertainment like they have it so easy ..there lives what a joke, I could go do what they do. Okay put a camera in your face and say the same thing. Make the sacrifices that those people have made to get where they are. So I think the entertainment industry is very closely related to what we do in that you have to work…its hard work.
LAC: Let me just switch topics to Ink Sack real quickly, you have the one location and your opening up a third location…the second location is a licensing deal at LAX with Host…do you envision making it a which wich?
MV: The whole goal of ink sack. It’s going to evolve the whole brand is going to evolve. Ink Sack was created it was a sandwich shop next door to Ink. Ink Sack exists to someone based on this being next to Ink. If Ink Sack is going to continue to grow, then people who don’t know that it exists in that way aren’t really going to care about its connection to Ink restaurant. So now the goal then is to evolve that and make it better, so part of those efforts are to make it include probably rebranding focusing on more that it was about a lunch sack. It’s not about Ink, it’s about getting a sack lunch which I took to school when I was a kid. So telling that story, that’s the next chapter of that restaurant concept.
LAC: Is there a sustainability aspect to it?
MV: I think it’s about sustainability, but it’s about the opportunity to grow and expand. I’d love to build a bunch of sandwich shops because we make delicious sandwiches and there are a lot of markets out there that could appreciate the sandwiches that we make…so ..plus for me it’s like again it took us four years to get to the point where we feel comfortable enough to grow it now.
We put process into it. In the beginning we were just making sandwiches. We need to make four hundred sandwiches today, let’s figure it out. Now this is not easy, but it’s easier than it used to be so again rather than lose the opportunity- it’s kind of like the staff- we have enough trained staff, we either build enough restaurants or they go work for someone else. Well we got build concepts, we got a concept that works, we should go build more of those or someone else is going to build them. Look at Subway, there’s the largest concept right now. They have 43,000 stores and no one is competing with that. I’m not comparing ourselves to Subway because our price points are definitely higher but we also know exactly what our ingredients are and where they come from, and I feel like what we doing is providing…We’re also providing value in the sense that we’re giving quality at still a low price. And that’s…we’re offering people an alternative to fast food without the expense of having to go have a fine dining meal.
LAC: I trying to think what Mendocino farms ended up doing in a similar setting. They’re a larger company, but they received private funding. At some point after you build enough units would you try to receive private funding or are you not there yet?
MV: I don’t need it. My partners that I have. I have a great partner and have his support. The goal right now is just open sandwich shops. I don’t know I never knew I’d be here if you asked me eight years ago if I would have a restaurant and three sandwich shops as I sit here talking to you and another restaurant under construction and a deal with MGM that’s being built right now, I would have said that’s crazy but now it’s actually happening. To say that Ink sack can become sacks….
LAC: Okay so let me ask one final question then, as you build these restaurants, you’re a very hands on chef, how do you see yourself redefining yourself or your roll in your kitchen since you can’t be in three or four or six places at once?
MV: By giving people the same opportunities that people gave me. By hopefully giving them those opportunities here within the restaurant group here what I’ve created together so they’re just as much a part of the growth of the company, in fact more important because if I don’t show up today everything is going to run fine. We’re not successful because I’m here or not here anymore. We’re successful because they believe in what our goals are and they are here to help support those goals and in return they should expect to get something out of it too