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Bryan Voltaggio on the Importance of Balance in Cooking

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Over the weekend I chatted with Bryan Voltaggio, chef at Volt in Frederick, Maryland. In addition to discussing his two new projects, he explained why he doesn't always source locally, how it's a mistake to label him a "molecular gastronomist," and the importance of emphasizing classic fundamentals in your kitchen.

What's going on?
Lunch service. We're good though, slowing down.

Was it crazy today?
It's not crazy by any means. It's a normal pace, usually doing about 60 to 70 people.

How many people do you usually do at dinner?
About 120. We typically stay pretty strongly booked all the way through. We're only open five days and we've started booking two months out.

What do you attribute the popularity to?
Being on a TV show helps, with six million people tuning in every Wednesday. Frederick isn't too small, but we have a small town mentality. There was this sense of community. People were rooting for us to do well.

How has the restaurant evolved in the last few years?
Our philosophy has always been the same: start with sustainable, organic ingredients and apply both modern and classic technique. Obviously I say local, sustainable, and organic for one reason: I can't commit to only one of the three categories because you can't sustain a restaurant in the mid-Atlantic all year serving all local product. It wouldn't be right.

So I decided that I can't change the world, so at least we are making an impact by being as responsible as possible.

I went to the CIA, worked for Charlie Palmer at Aureole and at Charlie Palmer Steak, so with those classic fundamentals, that classic base, I've started to also apply modern technique whenever it's necessary or appealing to the guests. Ultimately, my food needs to taste good. I'm not just trying to show off the latest technique. Those are extra tools in my repertoire that apply only in some cases.

What are your thoughts on the state of progressive cuisine?
A lot of influential chefs have established a thought process where they have modern tools and techniques, but first and foremost they are trying to be responsible in how they procure their ingredients, because the majority of our guests are much more interested in that than they were, say, five or ten years ago.

But I think there's a serious emphasis on the classic now. So many students are coming straight out of school who want to play around with the newest kitchen gadget or whatever and are forgetting about how to sear a piece of fish or blanch vegetables. Those are the things forward-thinking chefs are starting to really consider.

Balance.
You're exactly right. That's what's happening. It's hard to put it into one small sentence, but that's the big trend I'm noticing now.

Do you feel in some ways disadvantaged because people may come into your restaurant with negative preconceptions about modern or modernist technique?
There was a time when there were a lot of chefs who were mostly concerned only with the the new, cool idea, and now we're seeing a more balanced approach across the board. Someone described my Table 21 tasting menu as "molecular gastronomy" and I had them take the term out, because that's not what it is. I understand the properties of using hydrocolloids as an ingredient in some of my foods, but that doesn't make me a molecular gastronomist. It makes me a chef.

But I don't feel that way, no. Because where I do apply something like that that has been done before [poorly], the person will try it and be convinced immediately.

Can you explain more about how you source?
The state of the union at Volt is that it's about localized food, because this is our season. I'm looking to the orchards for the great peaches and I'm trying to showcase them in ways where I don't mess too much to what the farmer has done to make it a delicious, juicy peach. That's where we are.

But what happens when it's not the season?
I knew you'd ask that. It doesn't change gears by any means. A good example of what we do: I have this dish called Mock Oyster. Oyster leaf, which I'm sure you've had, tastes like oyster and has this great, crisp texture. We took it to another level. We pressure cook salsify to get this intense broth and we make a sphere with that. Salsify also has this intense flavor of oyster, so to that sphere we applied powdered malt vinegar and a smoked maldon salt. Then we do a fine chiffonade of the oyster leaf on the top and then one piece on the bottom. So it has the intense flavor and texture of oyster without being an oyster. For me, that's something where we are indeed playing with the food, but it tastes good and makes sense.

I was talking to Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, and he has some really interesting, thoughtful ideas about sourcing. Among them are that there is no such thing right now as total sustainability and that local isn't always good. Can you reflect on that?
This sums up the reason why I get my ingredients three ways. If I got all my fish locally, I would be robbing the bay of things we are trying to recover and restock.

It's time for me to source other product that may not be local but where the producer is using sustainable practices. I learned about this arctic char from Nanavut, Canada, fished thirteen weeks in the summer using single poles, single lines in an eskimo village of 700 inhabitants. They do the right thing. They fish properly, they don't use long lines or mess with the environment.

But that's not local. I'm looking for ingredients that taste good. Localized food is not always the way to go. What is local? 25 miles? 50 miles? 100 miles? I'm looking for the best strawberries within 100 miles when they are in season, but I'm not going to buy them in December.

Seasonality comes first. You look there first, but outside of that, you look for things you want to cook and then source as responsibly as you can.

And what's the deal with the two upcoming projects?
Right now both are in design and development. The one in Chevy Chase is just about finished and ready to go for permits. That one is going to be a 220 to 250 seat restaurant. I'm going to celebrate my time at Charlie Palmer Steak but I want to eliminate some of the old-fashioned aspect by using lots of alternative cuts: shoulders, legs, offal, and things that take a lot more time and technique to cook. It's not going to be a center-cut filet mignon.

I'm also going to do charcuterie and flatbread pizzas in a wood-burning oven. It's going to be an American bistro, a shared plate environment.

The other one is going to be a neighborhood market, but a restaurant first. I was looking at this building that used to be a market for months and months before Todd English opened the Plaza Food Hall, and I saw that there was a need for something much more casual and accessible in Downtown Frederick. The main idea was to have the ingredients I use available to my guests.

The stations will be separate. I'm not trying to mimic something someone has done already. We're looking to do a fun mix-used retail/restaurant Downtown that's a little more neighborhood-friendly.

A lot of people have drawn comparison to this and Eataly, in New York. It can get a bit hectic there, with shoppers passing right through where you are eating.
That's kind of the difference. It's not going to be set up so much as a market first. There will be some ingredients out in the restaurant, but it's not going to be as in your face. My pasta station, for instance, will have the mise en place on display — and it'll also be available by the pound.

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Volt

228 North Market Street Frederick, MD 21701-5335

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