Bryan Voltaggio Takes on D.C.
Juliet Glass / April 2013
With his new Range restaurant in the nation’s capital, the hometown boy from Frederick, Maryland, is joining the players.
Thirty-six year old James Beard Award finalist Bryan Voltaggio loves his hometown of Frederick, Maryland. For the first few years that he was executive chef at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C., a position he assumed at the tender age of 25, he lived in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. But when he and wife Jennifer wanted more space, they moved back to Frederick, the town where they grew up, met in high school, and attended senior prom together. For Voltaggio, this meant bookending his long days in the kitchen with a 50 mile, often congested, commute. But it was worth it for the Voltaggios, who wanted to start a family and valued the small town amenities of Frederick: affordability, great schools, and proximity to family.
When Voltaggio decided to open his own place in 2008 with partner Hilda Staples, he ditched the commute and unveiled Volt—not in Washington, D.C., where he had earned his reputation as a chef—but in Frederick. Volt was—and still is—a restaurant unlike anything in Frederick, which is a large town of 65,000 with a quaint historic district, and, for the intrepid, not too far from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Tucked into a 19th century mansion, Volt is a modern fine dining restaurant, with tasting menus and tables draped in crisp white linen, but with enough quirky touches—servers all wear chocolate brown Chuck Taylors, Voltaggio’s favorite kicks—to make it feel big-city hip.
Although a critical success, Voltaggio was not sufficiently known among the monied metropolitan diners to make Volt a destination. What saved Volt, concedes Voltaggio, was Top Chef, where in season six (aired in 2009), he competed against—and lost to—his younger brother Michael Voltaggio (ink., Los Angeles). “I opened Volt in the beginning of the economic downturn in a non-foodie, no-name town. When I left for Top Chef, I wasn’t sure there would be a restaurant to come back to,” confesses Bryan. “Top Chef gave my restaurant the exposure it needed to put Frederick in the spotlight. I knew if I could get them here, I could keep them coming back.” Bryan and Staples harnessed the post–Top Chef momentum to open two more places in Frederick, Lunchbox (2011) and Family Meal (2012), and calibrated each to be more in step with the town—casual, family-oriented, and accessible.
Pitting the brothers against each other made great television. And it’s easy to compare the two—who is the better cook? Whose tattoos are cooler? Which Voltaggio is hotter?—and to pick a favorite. Television drama aside, though, the Voltaggios are, in fact, extremely close. While their culinary styles differ, they share a strong work ethic, something they got from their working class parents. Bryan started working at the local Holiday Inn in high school, and Michael followed suit, working for his brother. Bryan was an executive chef by the time he graduated from high school, and then left Frederick to attend The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The brothers drifted apart, as adults do, but reconnected on the show. “Prior to the show, we didn’t spend a lot of time together. We had our separate lives. When we went on Top Chef, we lived together all those weeks and realized how much we had in common as chefs,” says Bryan. “The show reinforced our relationship with each other—as family, brothers, and colleagues.”
Since Top Chef, the two have since penned a cookbook together (VOLT ink.: Recipes, Stories, Brothers, 2011) and formed a strategic partnership with Williams-Sonoma. “We speak every day, if not multiple times a day, to help each other out, discuss recipes or industry news,” says Bryan. “We are each other’s biggest fan. We truly set the bar for each other.”
Don’t take Bryan’s word for it. Michael cannot help himself from heaping compliments on his older brother. “Bryan’s not just a chef,” gushes Michael. “He’s the smartest businessman I know. He’s a role model for me.” Like their shared mentor, Charlie Palmer, Michael explains, Bryan understands both sides of the business: that the customer has to have a great dining experience and that the restaurant has to succeed as a business so you can repay the people who believed in you and invested in it.
His brother is right. Much of Voltaggio’s restaurant savvy comes from his time with Palmer. Shortly after the CIA, he worked for Palmer at Aureole (NYC) and made a lasting impression. Next, he cooked at Maison Pic (Valence, France); when he returned stateside, Palmer recruited him as executive chef of Charlie Palmer Steak before it even opened, giving him soup-to-nuts experience in opening a restaurant, from oversight of general contracting to menu development. “I knew him not only as a chef, but as a person,” says Palmer of why he entrusted such a young chef with so much responsibility. “I always felt that he was mature beyond his years. I saw a lot of myself in Bryan from when I was the chef at The River Café at the age of 23.”
This combination of maturity, culinary skills, and business acumen, plus a generous dash of reality TV magic, got Voltaggio to the enviable place of owning three thriving restaurants in his beloved Frederick. However, as charming as Frederick is, it’s no place to build an empire. It’s too small, too sleepy, and a tad too far from major cities. “Volt will always be my flagship—it’s the restaurant I’ve worked my entire life for,” and the truest expression of himself as a chef, he explains. And Volt enjoys certain advantages from being in a small town. For instance, Voltaggio notes that at Volt “during morel season, we even have Girl Scouts show up at the back door with their forage.” But in order to grow as a chef, he needed to return to Washington, D.C., where he had cooked for nearly a decade.
“I wanted a metropolitan location, a larger format restaurant, and the support of a larger dining population. But I wasn’t looking in Downtown or Capitol Hill,” he notes of two obvious Washington, D.C., locations for a restaurant. “I wanted to be as close to home as possible.”
In 2011, when Washington, D.C.–based Clarion Partners, owner of the recently revamped Chevy Chase Pavilion in the city’s tony Friendship Heights neighborhood that borders Bethesda, Maryland, approached Voltaggio about opening a place there, it was exactly what Voltaggio wanted for his next project, Range, which opened last December. “Maryland is literally across the street. With Range I can be door-to-door in 35 minutes,” notes Voltaggio, who has two children, Thatcher (age 5) and Piper (almost 2).
As much as Voltaggio needed D.C., Washingtonians wanted access to him, among the brightest rising stars in the region. And judging from Range’s brisk business since opening, Washingtonians have taken a shine to the place. Three nights of preview dinners in mid-December were open to the public; reservations became available on Opentable.com at 5 a.m. on Black Friday, and all 450 of them were completely booked within an hour. And in January, generally a very slow month for restaurants, Range was doing well over 400 covers on Fridays and Saturdays.
In planning Range, Voltaggio made a series of choices that would maximize his ability to reach as many diners (and wallets) as possible. Rather than being upscale like Volt, or casual in the vein of Family Meal, Range is upscale-casual, an industry sweet spot. With a $1.1 million, 7,000-square-foot kitchen where even the bells and whistles have bells and whistles, Range is a place where Voltaggio and his team (which includes chef de cuisine Matt Hill and chef de cuisine/pastry chef John Miele) can flex their culinary muscles and turn out refined creative food using the region’s best products. Although casual enough for jeans, the 300 seater (plus banquet facilities) still feels nice enough for a special occasion. And with a $50 to $65 per-person check average, dining at Range is accessible to a wide range of guests, from the business traveler staying at the neighboring Embassy Suites to young parents out on date night to star-gazing foodies nursing cocktails and hoping to catch a glimpse of Voltaggio himself. “A lot of it comes down to time,” Voltaggio explains about his decision to take Range in the upscale casual direction. “People who have the means to dine out don’t always have the time. One and a half—maybe two-hours, max—rather than the three hours needed for fine dining—“is the attention span of a diner these days.”
The name Range references (among other things) the restaurant’s meat-centric sharing menu that showcases food from the range—and local ones, at that, with much of the meat and fowl coming from the Chesapeake watershed. With this endeavor, Voltaggio also hopes to broaden the range of products he uses from the region, since operating in D.C. means he can expand his supply chain. “For farmers and growers south of D.C., it’s difficult for them to deliver to Frederick. Range broadens my ability to use mid-Atlantic products,” explains Voltaggio. “For instance, I can now work with Polyface Farm,” Joel Salatin’s Virginia farm made famous by Michael Pollan, which has a cult-like following among chefs.
Voltaggio considers Range his take on the modern steakhouse where everything is à la carte (proteins do not come with sides). However, given that Range’s expansive exhibition kitchen has nine discreet stations—chocolate/confections, coffee, bakery, raw bar, pasta, wood-fired oven, wood-fired grill, charcuterie, and rotisserie—Range should not be pigeonholed as a steakhouse. The name Range also refers to the restaurant’s expansive sharing menu of nearly 100 savory items. The flexitarian can easily feast on Kampachi crudo embellished with pine nuts, lemons, and coriander; a dainty salad of fennel, arugula, Parmesan, and candied kumquats; and finish up with oven-roasted sunchokes. The carb-monger will be equally satiated by the bakery menu offering such starchy delights as skillet cornbread with bacon marmalade and ciabatta with smoked cream cheese; a robust roster of house-made pasta and blistered pizzas; and such on-trend sides as “everything” mashed potatoes inspired by the bagel of the same name. And for carnivores looking for excitement, Voltaggio is walking the nose-to-tail walk, breaking down entire animals: wood-grilled veal heart with chimichurri, house-made scrapple, or headcheese, anyone? If you’re smart enough to save room for dessert, there is, along with plated desserts and house-spun ice creams, a dazzling array of handmade truffles, bonbons, and confections to choose from.
With the Range build-out, Voltaggio got every kitchen toy his heart desired. But these are not toys for toys’ sake. “At a 300 seat restaurant, I really wanted to do everything in-house, from confections to all the baking. Moreover, with nine stations—each an independent kitchen, really—we can fire out more food. Diners get the full experience without the wait. Because of the style of the restaurant and the menu, as soon as a dish is ready, we send the food out,” Voltaggio notes.
Unlike many exhibition kitchens, which offer a sanitized peek into the back of the house, at Range it’s truly on display. Imagine taking the guts of a restaurant kitchen and unrolling them along 163 linear feet in the dining room; that’s pretty much the Range exhibition kitchen, with each station exposed and visible from the dining room. The confections station has two tempering machines, a ChocoVision and a Matfer. The bakery has a Baxter triple deck oven. The pasta station boasts Arcobaleno pasta machines, Electrolux pasta cookers, two Vulcan ranges, two Traulsen refrigerators, and a Delfield refrigerator. The Wood Stone gas-assisted wood-burning oven is where Edan MacQuaid turns not just pizzas, but sorghum-glazed cod face and roasted clams dotted with country ham. Next to the Rotisol rotisserie, there’s a double Winston C-VAP, for holding food. The back of the house (home to pastry and a full banquet kitchen) is equally decked out; instead of a range suite, there’s a trio of side-by-side Vulcan ranges, a 24-gallon pressure braising pan, a combi oven, and a blast chiller (all by Electrolux), to name just a few pieces of Voltaggio’s prized equipment.
For Range’s unorthodox kitchen design, Voltaggio turned to Alto-Hartley (McLean, Virginia), the family-owned restaurant equipment supplier behind all his restaurants. Starting with Volt, Voltaggio worked with Alto-Hartley’s project manager Chris Huebner, a trained architect and son of company president Peter Huebner. “Volt was one of the first kitchens I designed,” says Huebner. “Bryan took me under his wing, and I designed it 10 times before we got it right.” Next up for Huebner was tackling Voltaggio’s Lunchbox and Family Meal. The Range build-out, which has been Chris Huebner and Voltaggio’s biggest project to date. The kitchen at Volt, which was designed to turn out three-star food and certainly is nothing to scoff at, cost roughly $250,000 and can easily fit inside the kitchen at Range. Chris concedes that tackling Range “was a scary, scary nightmare at first. It takes forever to get started on a 7,000-square-foot kitchen. So we broke it down into stations.” It’s these stations that allow Bryan to offer such a wide-ranging menu, fire out as much food as possible, hopefully satisfying as many diners as possible, and still maintain his exacting standards.
Of all the stations, there are two that make both Huebner and Voltaggio swoon: the Italian-made curing boxes and a custom sous-vide table. There are lots of curing tools out there, but Voltaggio had his heart set on the state-of-the-art Italian curing boxes made by Stagionello. This piece of equipment (which Voltaggio explains is a response, at least in part, to climate change) digitally controls every variable that goes into getting the perfect cure—refrigeration, ventilation, heating, humidity, and smoking. Voltaggio has not one, but three, such boxes in the restaurant. The two smaller cases (36" by 36" by 84" each) are devoted to meat curing, while the larger case (103" by 103" by 96") is for dry-aging meat in-house. “We’re going to try 80- to 120-day dry-aged steaks, and play around with pork and fowl,” says Voltaggio. By dedicating a curing box to dry-aging, he hopes there will be less loss of product because he can precisely control humidity and temperature, so the meat shrinks less and doesn’t develop excess bloom.
This coupling of the ancient cooking technique with advanced kitchen technology in many ways epitomizes Voltaggio’s cooking style; and it’s also reflected in the design of the wood-fired grilling station. On a recent barbecue tour with his brother and Williams-Sonoma, Voltaggio fell in love with wood-fired cooking and wanted to include it at Range, but was cautious because it can be so tricky. “I didn’t want to leave it up to the interpretation of each cook,” explains Voltaggio. The design solution to the problems of cooking with wood is Range’s equipment pièce de résistance. Next to the Wood Stone wood-burning grill, Huebner installed a custom sous-vide table outfitted with three Polyscience circulators. “You flip a switch, and you’re ready to go. It’s auto fill, with built-in overflow, completely state-of-the-art,” brags Huebner. The meat is first cooked under vacuum in the sous-vide table to a precise temperature and then finished over the grill. “By using the immersion circulator, we’ve taken out the guesswork. Then you can put the sear with the wood,” explains Voltaggio. Some modifications to the table have been made since opening. Since there are almost a dozen menu items using the circulators, the cooks were playing go-fish to find their item. Huebner installed dividers to keep things tidy.
Like in any forward-thinking restaurant, the bar is really considered an extension of the kitchen; beverage director Owen Thomson (formerly lead bartender at José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup) takes the in-house ethos and runs with it. All syrups, sodas, garnishes, and even some liqueurs are made from scratch. Thomson, who is a partner in Favourite Ice, a D.C.–based specialty ice company, provides Range with bespoke 2" by 2" cubes, hand-cut with a bow-saw and reserved for certain drinks. Thomson uses the pizza oven to roast squash (for the pumpkin shrub) and mangoes for a cachaça-based elixir dubbed Unfinished Mishap. His cocktail list even includes a carnivorous tribute to Bryan’s meaty menu: the buzz-worthy Vegan Sacrifice, a heady mix of Great King Street Scotch, ginger/cayenne syrup, and Peychauds bitters, chilled by a cube of house-made beef stock, which, as it melts, transforms the flavor profile of the drink. Along with regional craft beers, Range has Chartreuse on tap.
To further accommodate his enthusiastic customer base, Bryan is rolling out lunch service. In the works are plans for breakfast and carry-out for baked goods and confections, and an outpost of Lunchbox in Chevy Chase Pavilion. Enough—for the moment.