Interview: Michael Voltaggio

The Travel Addict was able to catch up with season six Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio at this year’s music, drink and food event Bourbon & Beyond in Kentucky.

Bourbon and Beyond took place on September 20-22 at the Kentucky Expo Center in Louisville KY.  Chef Michael Voltaggio was one of the participating chefs this year on the culinary stage at the festival headlined by Foo Fighters, Robert Plant, the Zac Brown Band, and ZZ Top.

Voltaggio talked about his secret to a killer grilled cheese as well as his show Breaking Borders, some of his favorite travel destinations and some heartbreaking and eye-opening experiences while in Africa and in the Middle East. We wanted to chat about Lebanon travel because that is the Travel Addict’s next big travel destination. Check out the Travel Addict’s interview with chef Michael Voltaggio below:

On National Grilled Cheese Day, you were on Instagram with your grilled cheese tattoo. Do you have a favorite tattoo inspired by travel or food?

I have a tattoo on my wrist that I got in Israel at apparently the oldest tattoo shop in the world. It is the Archangel Michael fighting the Devil. Back in the day, people would stand in line with wood blocks that had carvings on them. They would dip them in ink, put it on their arm, and tattoo over it in a stencil. I wanted to go through that process. I got that tattoo there. That was while I was filming Breaking Borders on Travel Channel.

What makes the perfect gourmet grilled cheese, in your opinion?

My secret for grilled cheese is putting mayonnaise on the outside of the bread. Because when you pull the butter out of the fridge and it’s not tempered then you go to smush it on the bread, it puts holes in the bread. I use mayonnaise for that, which has eggs in it so when you cook it on a pan it gets crunchier and crispier and it’s easier to spread.

You and your brother were on Top Chef and you just opened a new restaurant in Washington D.C. together. Since opening Estuary, have you determined a signature dish at the restaurant? How do you like working with your brother?

I love working with my brother. It’s our second restaurant. We also have Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse as well, also in the Maryland, D.C. area. The favorite dish there is – we make these little miniature crab rolls, instead of lobster rolls, and we cut out these little crab-shaped plantain chips and garnish it with it so it looks like there are little crabs crawling over the outside of the sandwich.

On Breaking Borders, you were with a seasoned journalist going around the globe trying to engage in some hot spots across the world. You did a lot of amazing things on the show – getting to marry people, getting the tattoos – Which location left the most lasting impression and why?

Every country we visited left an impression for several different reasons. Egypt left an impression because we had our passports taken at gunpoint because we were trying to film in Tahrir Square. Being in Africa, I had the opportunity to go out in the wild in the natural habitat of Gorillas.

In Uganda or Rwanda?

In Rwanda. Then we went to Volcanic National Park. I was so inspired being there that I pulled potatoes out of the dirt, the volcanic soil. Then I took bags of the soil with me and I roasted the potatoes in the soil it grew in. Just how gracious and full of life, Africa was an amazing trip. I connected with Rwanda in a big way.

Is there any place on your bucket list that you’d like to go?

There are certain trips I’d like to go on for selfish reasons and others for life experiences. I’ve always wanted to go on the Inca Trail and climb Machu Pichu. I’d love to get down there. If I am traveling, I am going to relax, that’s part of it. Usually, I travel for work, but for me, Bora Bora is on my list because I see how beautiful it looks on all the images.

I have been to Sri Lanka, I’d love to go back to Sri Lanka and experience it again because it was such a magical place. I want to go where I haven’t been. Tonight, I am flying to Amsterdam actually. I’ll get off stage at 3:30 pm. Then my flight is at 5:50 pm and I take the red-eye to Amsterdam and from there I’ll be in Paris next week.

A lot of chefs I talk to don’t travel at all because they are constantly working.

It never really is about vacation. We travel a lot for work. I think it was Jean-Louis Palladin who said he didn’t start learning until he stepped out of his kitchen. For us, I think when the restaurants are running, it is our responsibility to go out and get new information, to get new inspiration. If you travel and don’t bring something home with you, then it is a wasted trip. Whether it is for business or pleasure, there is always something coming back with me that I can apply to the restaurant in some way.

How did the show Breaking Borders come about?

I was cold-called by the producer. I did a test with Mariana [van Zeller] and we hit it off. She is still to this day a dear friend of mine. The opportunity to travel the world, but to go to conflict zones and use food to bring people together around the dinner table to talk about their differences. I think the world could use that exercise. We don’t eat at our own dinner tables anymore. That is a place for conversation, the ritual my Mom made sure at 5:00 or 5:30 every day there was dinner on the table and you had to stop your day and sit down and talk about what you did. Now on a more global level talking about more important things, getting people around a dinner table is a good opportunity to break bread and discuss things.

 Have you been to Lebanon?

I have been to Lebanon. I went to Beirut, I went up to Tripoli, it is destroyed. The buildings all have holes in them. There are flags in the street, black flags still. I was with a member of Parliament and he was telling me how horrible it was when the war went down. The fact there isn’t any opportunity to build really.

The city of Beirut was amazing. The food of Lebanon is probably one of my favorite food destinations. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but we were on the coast and the sea is right there. When you are in a conflict zone, people aren’t going in the water as much. So there is pristine seafood coming out of this body of water because no one is going in the ocean. I would definitely tell people to go and visit.

But I went out into Hezbollah territory. I went up to the Syrian border. I went to a Syrian refugee camp and hung out with the refugees and talked to them about what was going on there. There is a level of fear that is very real. Lebanon is a pot of water with a lid that is gently simmering and they are trying to do what they can to make sure it doesn’t boil over.

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