CAUSING A STIR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The high school culinary arts teacher who taught Bryan Voltaggio how to put together a good bearnaise watched him "deconstruct" the sauce on national TV.

The guy who's known Voltaggio and kid brother Michael since they hung their toques at Frederick's Holiday Inn has been tuning in to "Top Chef," too.

The city immortalized in poetry for its "Clustered Spires" is clustered these days around the TV. Nearly everyone in Frederick - foodies and non-foodies, reality television lovers and loathers - seems to be watching the brothers Voltaggio survive week after week on "Top Chef."

The Frederick natives have hung on for 10 weeks, through souffle-like ups and downs. High praise for Bryan from celebrated chef Joel Robuchon one episode, disdain for his grainy ganache another. Glory for Michael's pressed chicken with calamari noodles, then mockery; a Bravo bit spliced him touting his cool-headed kitchen leadership with a montage of his fiery side.

With the number of contestants whittled to six from 17, and one or another Voltaggio frequently finishing at or near the top in each episode, excitement is building that Frederick may get to claim not just two "Top Chef" competitors, but the Top Chef.

The grand prize means $200,000 in cash and cooking merchandise and a feature in Food & Wine magazine for the chef. And for the city? Local pride if either native son wins. Should the winner happen to be Bryan, who has an acclaimed restaurant in town, Frederick expects a further boost to its identity as a culinary destination.

The effects of the show can be felt at Volt. The restaurant is booked six weeks out for Fridays and Saturdays, said Neil Dundee, beverage director at the restaurant. Table 21, the restaurant's 21-course tasting menu, is booked until May.

Interest in "Top Chef" is so high that the Frederick News-Post has seen fit to update readers every week on the Voltaggios' fate - on the front page. The paper even made note when Bryan Voltaggio was spotted at The Great Frederick Fair in September eating pulled pork with his 2-year-old son, Thacher.

"The attention and support from everyone in town has been unbelievable," said Bryan, 33. "It's just not something I could have ever anticipated - being recognized. I never thought that would happen, just going to the grocery store or clothes shopping with my son. ... It's really exciting."

Michael, 31, feels his hometown pulling for him from across the country. He is chef at The Dining Room at the Langham in Pasadena, Calif.

"I literally have gotten cards in the mail from people I went to high school with, e-mails," he said. "It's kind of nice to hear from my hometown."

The Voltaggios grew up in Frederick, sons of a clerical worker and a state trooper whose moonlighting in hotel security got them into the Holiday Inn kitchen as teens. Both brothers left town after graduating high school in the 1990s. Their parents and sister have moved away. Bryan has made a high-profile return with Volt, but that opened only last year.

Yet there enough people in Frederick who remember the Voltaggios, or have gotten to know Bryan recently from Volt, to form a sizable "Top Chef" cheering section. They include Elizabeth Tringali, who taught English to Bryan his senior year at Thomas Johnson High School, where he split his time between academics and culinary education through the county's Career and Technology Center.

"I remember him well because he was smart and because he had one of the best excuses for being late that I've ever heard from a student," said Tringali. "He arrived a few minutes late to my class, and when I asked him why, he responded, 'My sabayon wouldn't set up.' "

Will Morrow, who supplies Volt with meat from his farm in Emmitsburg, doesn't need a reality show to witness Bryan's culinary skills. He sees that every time he and two other guys lug a sheep or goat into the restaurant and plop it - skinned, gutted but otherwise intact - onto the counter for the chef to butcher himself.

"What impresses me the most is he takes the whole animal and he uses every part of it - to take the heart and make an appetizer out of it, to take the sweetbreads," Morrow said. "He takes the head and he makes stock that goes into the sauces. That takes a real talent."

A fan like that is not about to miss an episode of "Top Chef," though he can't watch it Wednesday nights. ("Farmers get up early, so I'm in bed by 10 p.m. when it airs live," he said.) He sets his TiVo and watches with his partner and three farm hands early Friday evenings.

"He's definitely our local hero, this small-town boy who made it big," Morrow said.

The show has won some converts to reality TV, at least for this season. Laurie Boyer, executive director of the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, proudly counts Bryan as a friend but has a low opinion of reality shows. "I don't understand the fascination with those shows, just normal people doing normal things," she said.

But there she is, at Volt Wednesday nights, watching "Top Chef" with 50 or more fans on a big screen in the courtyard. Some of it still strikes her as ridiculously contrived.

"I do think some of it is kind of crazy, like when they had to cook with cactus," she said. "Who is going to a restaurant to eat cactus?"

But Boyer has come to think of "Top Chef" as a cut above the average reality fare.

"It's not just surviving, living on an island, 'Can you do some goofy relay race?' " Boyer said. "This show at least makes sense to me, that people are there because of their skill and competing based on the training they have."

Bravo swears the "Top Chef" competitors to secrecy, so even the Voltaggios' relatives don't know the outcome. For them, watching is excruciating.

Staci Rosenberger, the Voltaggios' only sibling, cries whenever a brother seems in danger of being told to pack his knives and go home, as when Michael's halibut came out overcooked because his electric wok kept losing power.

"When he was on the chopping block, I was just beside myself," said Rosenberger, 29, who lives in Las Vegas but did not get to see her brothers while the show was filmed there. "It's gut-wrenching. You sit on the edge of the seat and say, 'Are they going to make it? Are they going to make it?' "

As much as their food, the brothers' sibling rivalry is aired and analyzed.

The family has been "ecstatic" that they've done well, Bryan said, but also pained by "the small scuffles between Michael and I."

Said Michael: "My mom is struggling with that most. It's bittersweet for her."

Emotional reactions to the show are not limited to the Voltaggio family.

"I spend a lot of time yelling at him on the TV - 'Oh, God! Don't do that!' " said Susan Garfield, who was Bryan's culinary arts teacher in high school.

She had no problem when the guy she'd schooled in bearnaise whipped up a "deconstructed" sauce that combined classic ingredients like tarragon and vinegar in a new way.

"There are fads, and right now, deconstructing everything is the way everybody does things," she said.

But she got upset with Bryan for that grainy ganache, and angry later, when Michael said his brother shouldn't give it another shot.

"Michael, shut up!" she said. "Let him make his ganache.'"

Boyer finds cheering for the Voltaggios as emotionally exhausting as rooting for a beloved sports franchise.

"We're team Voltaggio," said Boyer, who also finds herself yelling the TV at times, just as she does in her capacity as a long-suffering Orioles fan.

"It's fun," she said, "to have a winning team."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°