About 2 weeks before the season finale aired, I had the pleasure of dining at a private dinner party for 12 people at the Dining Room at the Langham Hotel where Michael Voltaggio was at the helm, biding his time until he could tell the world that he had won the title of Top Chef. He cooked a 7-course meal for us. I remember his food was unique, beautiful, and a little bit crazy, though not always spot on ”delicious.” This was a while ago but one dish that stood out was his deconstructed PB&J, with a savory cake that oozed purple jelly just when you cut into it. Each plate was more beautiful than the next, and the ingredients were carefully paired in ways I had never experienced before. There was absolutely no mistaking that this guy was the real deal.
After the dinner we went into the kitchen to meet the man himself for an “eat and greet.” Though Voltaggio was of course bound to secrecy on his Top Chef experience, he did say that he had a good time on the show but that it mischaracterized him as a little bit of a bully. He was gracious but exactly like he appears on TV, intense and buzzing with energy. He showed us how he prepared the vacuum packed meats for sous vide, his favorite technique, at the end of each night for the next night’s service.
Voltaggio left the Langham shortly after that dinner to begin working on his new restaurant, Ink, which currently has a 30 day wait to even get a reservation. I plan to dine there when I can get in, but in the meantime I picked up his new cookbook co-written with his brother, Volt Ink.
The cookbook showcases the brothers’ unique approach to family and food. Foods utilized in the recipes are grouped together by their families (eg. from avian to the night shade family), and then each brother contributes a recipe showcasing these ingredient families. Both brothers show off their crazy skills by marrying classic with modern techniques. You’ll find most of the recipes calling for expensive restaurant equipment like an immersion circulator, nitrogen tank, and smoking gun. They attempt to offer alternative instructions on these techniques for the home cook, but I doubt I’ll be purchasing a pig’s head any time soon so that I can brine it in a plastic bag in my cooler for 10 days, just to pick through the cheeks and jowls to obtain the small amount of meat garnered and then pressed for Bryan’s “head cheese with sunchoke relish” recipe.
Highlights for me included Bryan’s “mock oyster” dish as well as Michael’s pork belly ramen with squid noodles.
Most of the techniques in this book are impractical and nearly impossible to recreate at home and only work in a restaurant setting, because each dish requires multiple elements, and each element often takes a day or two to create. In a commercial kitchen you can whip up large batches of elements used for a complicated dish and then store them and use them throughout the week. (Make no mistake, that blood orange charcoal or tarragon gelee that garnished your plate in the fancy restaurant you ate at last night was not made to order just for you. It was made days ago and stored in a deli cup so that it can be artfully plated by the line cook on a busy Friday night.)
But this cookbook was not intended to teach the home cook. The recipes are carefully constructed road maps to create art on a plate, albeit art that would fall flat as “too derivative” if duplicated by another. Rather it offers a window into the brains of two very inventive chefs on the forefront of the evolution of new American cuisine. And on that note it succeeds.
*Photos by Ed Anderson via Cool Hunting