Monday, October 24, 2011

Voltaggio Brothers Kentucky Arena Show and Book Pre-Premiere

It’s been two years since Michael and Bryan Voltaggio finished 1st and 2nd on Season 6 of Top Chef. Since then, they’ve been working to “brand” themselves, they’ve entered into a partnership with Williams-Sonoma, Michael’s long-awaited LA restaurant “ink.” has finally opened its doors (along with his surprise lunchery, “ink. sack”), and the brothers’ first cookbook, a collaboration titled Volt ink.combining the names of both their restaurants, hits bookstores tomorrow.

Prior to the official release date, however, the tattooed twosome did a couple of promotional events, including an appearance last week at Harry Grove Stadium in their hometown of Frederick, Maryland, complete with a charity kickball game, live bands, and the Voltaggios’ take on ballpark food. A week earlier, I had the chance to check out the brothers – and their book’s pre-premiere – in Lexington, Kentucky, at another sizable venue, Rupp Arena. Here’s my report.

As headliners for the third annual Incredible Food Show sponsored by Kentucky Proud (previous years’ celebrity chefs were Bobby Flay and Giada DeLaurentiis), Bryan and Michael did two demonstrations in the vast space that hosts University of Kentucky Wildcats home basketball games. (If you know anything about Kentucky, or sports, you may know that UK fans take their basketball very seriously.) The chance to see the Voltaggios perform was included in the $15 regular admission price to the food show, which also featured more than 100 local foods vendors giving out samples and a wide array of demos and seminars (more about it here on my blog, Eggplant to Go). A $30 ticket to the event qualified you for VIP seating for the duo’s demo, but I stuck with the lower priced admission.

Stacks of advance copies of Volt ink. were on hand for purchase, and the siblings’ schedule allowed one hour for autographing, pursuant to these guidelines.

I have no idea whether the Voltaggios themselves, the show organizers, or sponsor Joseph-Beth Booksellers were behind these caveats, but I was a tad put off. I’m not good in crowds to begin with, and I certainly didn’t want to make the required on-site purchase of the $40 book (it’s less than $25 on Amazon) only to endure a crush of people and find myself one of those who did not get her copy autographed.

Curiosity couldn’t keep me away, however, so I wandered up to the book-signing area to observe. The line wasn’t too long, and those waiting for their books to be signed were quite polite. I even managed to snap a couple of photos of the celebrity authors from the sidelines. Yes, Bryan does occasionally crack a smile.

Michael, not so much.

I meandered through the vendor aisles for some more local foods samples, returning before the allotted autographing hour was up to find no one left in line. In fact, one of the Barnes & Noble folks brought a stack of unpurchased books to the table so the brothers could continue to autograph and, uh, look busy? A gentleman next to me asked if there was still time to purchase a book and get it signed. Assured there was, he headed to buy one, and I finally decided to bite too. Although I could have requested they sign the book “To Eggy,” I opted for a generic autograph, thinking perhaps I’d use it as a blog giveaway. (Sorry, once I had it in my hands, I decided to keep it.)

My book purchase also bought me the opportunity to actually speak to the Voltaggios. I was so not expecting this that I came with no prepared questions and just asked a couple things off the top of my head. “How excited are to have ink. finally open?”

Michael looked as his watch and said, “Actually, it’s really hard not being there right now.” During the afternoon arena demonstration he also mentioned that his restaurant was only 11 days old, as an anxious papa would speak of a newborn.

Since Bryan works on the east coast and Michael on the west coast, I asked how the Voltaggios came to participate in this event in the middle of the country. I found myself saying (yes, in my out-loud voice), “It’s a far cry from shilling for Domino’s.”

Michael answered this question too, after a pause. “We get asked to do a lot of things. And we turn down a lot. We liked that the emphasis here is on local food, which is very important to us.” He paused again. “Actually, Domino’s approached me . . . I think Fabio took that one.” I smiled and this time refrained from saying anything in my out-loud voice.

Doors to the arena opened an hour before each of the Voltaggio Brothers’ shows. I’d forgone their 11:00 a.m. performance to watch a smaller presentation on heritage meats. It was now closing in on 2:30, so I entered Rupp to select a seat for the 3:00 show, greeted by a soundtrack that reminded me of the pre-show warm-up for Anthony Bourdain except that it included Sheryl Crow and Bruce Hornsby. (I’m guessing this is not what you’d hear in the kitchen of either Volt or ink.) I could have grabbed a seat in the front row of the non-VIP upper section, but moved back a row to avoid the guard rail in my line of vision for snapping photos. As I settled in, I saw at least three cameras poised to project the show onto large-screen monitors flanking the stage and smaller flat-screens positioned up front for those in the VIP seats. A fair number of seats in the closer, $30 section filled by the time soundtrack quieted and the demo started, but plenty in the massive venue remained vacant.

I leafed through my copy of Volt ink., waiting for the show to begin. The book is organized around “families” of ingredients, reminding you, of course, that Michael and Bryan are family. The color photos on the openers of each chapter are spare and striking.

The book is also filled with superb black and white photos, and the design and typography are clean and deliberate, like the authors and their food. In a previous life I worked in publishing, and I lust after the high-end production values of this book. This is a book you want to hold in your hands, savoring each page as you turn it.

Whether you ever make one of these dishes in your own kitchen is another matter. But after seeing how the book was referenced in the afternoon’s demo, I realize there are solid tips even a humble home cook like myself could make use of. And the brothers’ headnotes to their respective recipes give you a glimpse into their creative process, whose roots runner much deeper than merely composing an attractive plate.

At last the Voltaggio show began, and the brothers walked us through their creation of an edible garden on a plate. They said they’d arrived in Lexington at 9:00 the previous night and asked show organizers to provide them with a “mystery basket” of local ingredients from which they would take inspiration for their demo. (Somehow Bryan also managed to buy a Vitamix at a local Williams-Sonoma Friday night after 9:00 p.m., or so they suggested.)

To start their edible plated garden, Bryan made “clay” from roasted parsnips pureed with dates in that Vitamix.

On top of the clay went Michael’s “dirt,” a crumbled streusel of almond flour, cocoa, cardamom, coffee, and butter baked in the oven along the lines of this recipe from Volt ink.

Utilizing more of the parsnip, Bryan created “bark” from the peel by frying it in hot oil and plating it as though it were a fallen tree. Parsnip bark serves as the base of this dish in their book.

Next, Michael created black sesame cake “rocks.” All you do is put your cake batter into a whip cream canister, whoosh it into a paper cup you’ve sprayed with vegetable oil and poked with a few holes into, then pop it in the microwave for 45 seconds.

My notes are hard to decipher about which garden elements the next few components were supposed to resemble. But they continued the Voltaggios’ theme of making use every element of the produce you’re working with and showcased the brothers’ unusual techniques for preserving food, extracting maximum flavor, and creating presentations with undeniable wow factor.

For instance, Michael made a vegetable “paper” by putting roasted red pepper puree into a food dehydrator until it takes on a jerky-like consistency, “like a red-pepper fruit roll-up.” He then made red dots from the paper with the use of a hole puncher.

And here’s a fun idea. Blanch and dehydrate broccoli florets (you can dry them in the oven if you don't have food dehydrator), then cook them in hot oil until they pop like popcorn.

“Charred” is the new “caramelized” or “roasted,” at least according to the Voltaggios.
To make “ash” for their edible garden plate, they roasted oranges and leek tops until blackened, which can then be steeped to make a fragrant oil, blended into an ash puree, or turned into a flavored salt. They suggested using the oil to augment roasted flavor in roasted – and non-roasted – vegetables. (Burnt flavors seem to be something Michael is especially interested in experimenting with these days. Click here to see the brothers’ recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon, where Michael made burnt wood ice cream.)

They also created a grass-evoking combination of kale and swiss chard by vacuum sealing them in a food-saver bag with olive oil until they become tender, even though they are still raw.

To be fair, although a number of these techniques are described in their cookbook as using appliances sold by Williams-Sonoma (whose partnership helped Volt ink. turn out to be the stunning book it is), during the demo the brothers really tried to make them accessible to the lay (or laid off?) crowd by mentioning similar gadgets available at, say, Wal-Mart.

To create another component, “gazpacho water,” they blenderized cucumber and tomato (and probably a few more ingredients I forgot to note), brought it to a boil, then strained it through a simple coffee filter until the mixture separates and gives off a clear liquid tasting of the essence of gazpacho.

Michael mentioned he is not a fan of spicy foods but has found a way to take the heat out of jalapenos and radishes while still retaining their essential flavor. Soak them in ice water for two hours, a trick that can work to remove the earthy flavor of beets, too.

As much as these inventive chefs like to play with food, they’re dead serious about trying to use every part of the vegetable “to honor the hard work of the farmers who grew them,” as Michael put it. A root-to-stem counterpart to nose-to-tail cooking, if you will.

For instance, got chard stems? Try quick-pickling them in a cup of vinegar, half a cup of water, some sugar and salt; bring to a boil, then let cool on the counter. Another tip I picked up during that segment: As much as even we home cooks are accustomed to using salt and pepper to adjust seasonings, sometimes what it takes to bring out the best flavor in a dish is to add a pinch of sugar.

For the big finish, they pulled out the liquid nitrogen (which they quipped could be coming to your nearby Wal-Mart next year). As they Vitamixed a combination of discarded veggie tops, oil, garlic, and vinegar, Michael mentioned something about Hudson Valley, leaving the audience uncertain. Bryan came to the rescue: “No, Hidden Valley,” he explained, as they proceeded to make ranch dressing “snow” for their edible garden. Finally, a glimmer of understanding from the crowd.

After their demo, the Voltaggios also did a brief Q+A. One audience member asked if there might ever be a match-up between [Food Network’s] Iron Chef and [Bravo’s] Top Chef contestants. Michael said he found that hard to imagine given how each network wants to protect its brand. But he did mention the Voltaggio Brothers have a Thanksgiving show coming up on the Cooking Channel. (It starts November 6 and will be in heavy rotation until the holiday.)

And then there was a proud and concerned mother who stood up and spoke into the microphone. “After everything I have told my son about going to college and getting a degree, you undid it in one day.” Michael looked abashed, apparently knowing full well which young man he’d spoken to earlier in the day this woman was referring to. He tried to explain: “Your son is already working. He’s already working in this industry. That’s huge.” Older brother Bryan stepped in to smooth the waters, saying, “I know where you’re coming from. Michael and I have each gotten where we are in our careers on different roads. I went the culinary school route and Michael learned on the job by working with some very talented chefs.” At the end of the exchange, Michael said, in front of God and everybody there in Rupp Arena, “Ma’am, I would hire your son.”

Whether that comes to pass, and however things play out as the Voltaggios promote Volt ink. across the rest of country, that comment brought the house down in Kentucky in a way no amount of liquid nitrogen “snow” possibly could.

Hungry for more?

To see the Voltaggios’ finished edible garden demo plate and more, check out this great report on the Incredible Food Show with excellent photos by Kentucky blogger Lori of Fake Food Free.

Another Kentucky blogger, Joyce of Friends Drift Inn, who also writes for the Appalachian News-Express, has a plethora of great coverage, including a back-stage interview, here, here, here, and here.

And here are six tips from the Voltaggios any cook can incorporate.

Posted on


theminx said...

Brava, Eggy - what a terrific recap of the event!

Lori said...

Excellent post. I enjoyed reading everything from your perspective. You remembered and heard a few things I didn't. I was tweeting during the show, but it was for my own benefit! I went back and used my tweets to remember their tips.

I find it really interesting that they came to the show based on it supporting local products. I hadn't seen the book signing rules. That is disappointing. I mean if you buy the book and stand in line, you should be able to pose for a picture with them. That's sort of what it is all about, right?

They seemed very quiet and uncomfortable during the meet & greet, yet so funny and outgoing on stage. They did perk up quite a bit when we started asking them about their restaurants though. Such cool concepts. Thanks for the link, much appreciated! I really enjoyed your recap.

Buzz Kill said...

Nice write-up. I like that you take notes when you go to these things. I should start doing that. Michael Voltagio always seemed to me to be the loose cannon of the brothers and why I didn't want him to win Top Chef. He needs to show more restraint in what he tells young people, who (like it or not) see him as a role model.

And as I mentioned before, Lea Ann Wong was just on Iron Chef this week and beat Marc Forgione. There are a number of past TC contestants that could be Iron Chefs - just not Spike Mendleson.

Intuitive Eggplant said...

Thanks, Minxie!

Lori, I enjoyed your perspective as well. With your access, you got some info I didn't. P.S. I love that you tweeted for your own benefit - if I ever join twitter, I will have to keep that in mind :)

Buzz, I've learned that it's too easy to forget stuff if I don't take notes at least shortly after I go to something. I thought Michael V. seemed very quiet and reserved when I met him, not at all what I'd describe as a loose cannon, although I can understand where you're coming from about his advice to young people, especially since you're raising two of your own.

I saw Lee Anne on Iron Chef and was glad to see her take the win, although the theme ingredient was kinda hokie (par for the course for a holiday-themed ICA). I can't see Spike making it through Next Iron Chef either, but he will probably provide some "train wreck" interest :)