A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times presented the Festival of Books, a free, public extravaganza that brought together publishers, authors, booksellers, cultural organizations, and story enthusiasts in general for a fun-filled weekend with one goal in mind: to celebrate all-things books. Going annually since 1996, the Festival of Books has become the biggest and most popular book festival around the country, attracting more than 100,000 readers each year. With all these folks congregated together–this year the festivities took place on the campus of the University of Southern California–one shouldn’t be surprised by the comprehensive schedule of events offered to these thousands of book lovers. I, however, was blown away by the variety and amount of events happening all over USC’s campus for the weekend, which included various author events, storytelling, musical acts, book signings, poetry readings, even cooking demonstrations. As much as Chrystal and I love to read, needless to say we were most interested in the cooking stage. As luck would have it, we were offered a press pass for the festival and even invited to interview one of the festivals’ stars, Season 6 Top Chef and restaurant owner Michael Voltaggio.
By now, my adoration for Top Chef should be clear to everyone. In fact, this past December we were given the opportunity to interview Top Chef contestant, Tiffany Derry from Season 7. So, just imagine my gleeful exclamations when I heard we’ll get to interview another person from the show, and this time an actual Top Chef! Chef Voltaggio was at the event to do a cooking demo, be on a discussion panel, and stay for a book signing of his latest collaborative effort with his brother, their joint cookbook called “Volt ink.” After his book signing, he graciously met me back stage. We sat down for a few minutes where we chatted about his new restaurant venture in LA, some of his favorite things in the kitchen, and the emergence of the pressure cooker. I’m still bouncing up and down with excitement. Check out our interview below…
I wanted to hear about your new restaurant ink. It’s been on my list to check out for a while now. What can we expect?
Really, the basis of the restaurant and the reason for it…I’ve always been a fine dining chef, and I wanted to take the idea of fine dining and make it more accessible for people. I find that the demographic of diners is changing a lot, and when first started cooking in restaurants that I worked in the people that would come in were very fortunate people, and it wasn’t necessarily a group that I could relate to. I wanted to make my restaurant one that they could get into and have the same experience. So we eliminated some of the steps of service. I don’t want to say we dumbed anything down at all or lessened it, but we definitely cut things out that would drive cost so that people could come in and just get what they paid for and eat.
Awesome! And ink.sack is next door? Or really close to it, right?
Three downs down.
Is it a different menu there?
ink.sack is just sandwiches. So the idea of that is little sandwiches. They’re 4 inches each, eat two or three of them. They come in a black bag where we write your name on them like you’re going to school and stuff like that. It’s just a sandwich shop. There are no seats. Everything’s to go. And it’s just a fun project that we did.
Cool, cool, cool. How would you describe your cooking philosophy or culinary style?
Ingredients and flavor first, technique second. I would call it “modern American” with a lot of global influences. I guess, that’s a loose term that a lot of people use but it’s what we do. A lot of the dishes that we use or make are ones that can be rooted back to something else. So for instance, we have a poutine on the menu, but it’s classically potatoes, oxtail gravy, and cheddar cheese curds. We use chickpea French fries, lamb neck gravy, and yogurt curds. So, a lot of the food has got some history to it or has some lineage that got us to the dish.
Speaking of ingredients, do you have a handful of ingredients that you tend to gravitate towards all the time or that are on your list of favorites to use over and over?
There’s a lot of salt and olive oil. We finish a lot of food with finishing salts and different types of salt. Olive oil, I found lately that finishing a dish with a few drops of olive oil can really bring it to life and freshen it up. Vinegar and really acidic things. I love salty, acidic, sour, dryer type flavors. So a lot of that stuff are things I tend to gravitate towards. Farmer’s Market ingredients too, fruits and things that are in season, I think are important as well.
On my food blog, we do a lot of recipes. We’re just home cooks. The last thing I would ask is if there’s an utensil in your kitchen that you can’t live without?
Obviously, all the modern stuff that we use like the circulators and all that kind of stuff. Things we always have on us are tweezers, and little mini offset palette knives, and spoons and things like that that are extensions of our hands that we use to put things together with. I love little interesting tools though, you know, anything from – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a pickle slicer, but it’s a little hand tool that you use to cut cornichons into little slices, but you can also use it to cut noodles and things like that as well. It’s like 4 little or 5 little blades stuck together on a tool. I mean, there’s a lot of things. I love gadgets. I’ll go to kitchen stores and buy gadgets that I don’t need…
Right, there always seems be a new single-purpose gadget.
Yeah. And pressure cooking is probably the one that I’m focusing a lot on now, using the pressure cooker. It’s something that I think people are going to start using more.
Note: Some comments have been edited for clarity and length.