While not everyone will recognize “Top Chef” season six winner Michael Voltaggio in his role as fussy Chef Julio on “Suburgatory” tonight, fans of the reality TV show will enjoy the sly reference to Voltaggio’s rep as a creative, if cranky, genius behind the stove. During a set visit to “Suburgatory,” I had a chance to chat with Voltaggio about his appearance on the show, why he doesn’t always hang out with other “Top Chef” contestants in Los Angeles, and the cooking show niche he’d like to fill.
Hitfix: Before we get to “Suburgatory,” we have to start with “Top Chef.” Did the show cause any lasting friction between you and your brother Bryan, who also competed on the show?
I don’t think either one of us realized we’d make it to the end. The goal was for us to make it to the end together, and once we got there, I don’t think either one of us realized what the impact would be. To be honest, it would have been harder had we both not made it to the end. Because it’s been great for both of us. That being said, he would have loved to have won as well, so it’s been bittersweet. It was a huge platform for both of us.
HitFix: The expectation was that you would open your Los Angeles restaurant, ink., quickly after “Top Chef.” But it was delayed for months. What was the hold up?
Permits. The restaurant, when I built ink. it was ready to go, and it actually sat empty for 6 or 7 months while we were waiting to get permits because we have a neighbor next to the restaurant who kept kind of protesting the liquor license or protesting the conditional use permit, so a lot of it had to do with paperwork.
HitFix: And everything’s fine now?
Everything’s been ironed out and we have a great business and we’re really happy with where ink is right now and where it’s going. It seems like that was so long ago, it’s all behind us now.
HitFix: Given how extreme some of the challenges are on “Top Chef,” does anything from the show inspire your real-life cooking, or is it just too ridiculous?
The cooking part feeds into it for sure. But some of the challenges being a little out there, no. I think the difference between being a chef and doing a show like “Top Chef” is that when you’re a chef in your own kitchen, you’re pretty much in control of what happens throughout the day. Whereas when you’re on a show like that, you’re out of control, so the only thing you are in control of is what you actually make with your hands.
HitFix: Would you ever appear on an all-star season of “Top Chef”?
I’ve been asked to do all that kind of stuff, and I have a huge amount of respect for the brand. Top Chef has been a huge platform for me and I’m very grateful for what they gave me. But at the same time, I do like focusing on the restaurants and the challenge of building all those businesses and making them successful and cooking for people. That’s what I love to do.
HitFix: On “Suburgatory,” you have a cameo as Chef Julio, an extreme chef at the restaurant George plans to take Dallas for Valentine’s Day. Do you see acting as a way of extending your brand?
For me, it’s just fun. Chefs have agents and stuff now. It’s gotten to the point where there’s more outside the kitchen to do as well. It’s great for us, because ten years ago telling people you were in food service industry and telling people now are two different things. So there’s a lot more elements to it. Things like “Suburgatory,” that’s the extra fun stuff we get to do. The script came through my agency, UTA, and I think the description in the script was something like, “A Michael Voltaggio-type chef.” And they said, he’s a client, why don’t we see if he wants to do it? So I ended up on the set playing Chef Julio on “Suburgatory.”
HitFix: How different is working on a scripted show versus a reality TV competition like “Top Chef”?
There’s definitely an art to acting. Watching these guys on the set, when you’re growing up watching TV, we would go, oh, I can do that! It’s luck, it’s luck! But there’s a lot of skill that goes into it. Getting a peek at what it’s really like to do what these actors do, it takes work and they’re really talented. I’m not going to say it was easy for me to go out there and do it. It definitely took some practice and it was a lot of fun.
HitFix: Would you consider tackling Chef Julio again?
Absolutely. I would do it again in a heartbeat. This is actually the third scripted thing that I’ve done outside of commercial. This is the second sitcom I’ve been a part of, and I have a one-second part in a movie coming out soon, but I don’t think I can say what it is.
HitFix: There are a lot of “Top Chef” alumni in Los Angeles. Do you guys hang out?
Not really. I’m friends with more of the restauranteurs in LA, like Jon and Vinny of Animal and Son of a Gun and Jordan and Noah at Red Medicine and the guys over at Bouchon and David Myers [of Comme Ca] and all those guys; these are more my colleagues in L.A. than the “Top Chef” cast. I want to say that I am friends with all those people, but we don’t hang out all the time or anything like that. Hopefully they’re just as busy as I am running their own restaurants.
HitFix: Do you find you get fans of the show at your restaurant who show up once to see a “star cook” and then never again?
One of my favorites are the people who come in just because they heard it was a great restaurant and then they find out I was on TV while I was there, and they’re like we had no idea you were on television. I love that, because it’s a huge compliment to what we do. But then there’s certainly the type who come in just once to get a look at that guy who was on top chef. That happens, and I’m grateful for that, too. I’m grateful for any guest who comes into the restaurant. At the end of the day, I work there because I cook there and I want people to eat my food.
HitFix: What’s next for you?
I definitely see myself opening another restaurant in LA. The goal is to keep everything as close together as possible so hopefuly create concepts instead of just dishes so I can get creative in the overall concepts to give people something a little bit different to go out and experience. That being said, the TV stuff is fun to. Not to say I’ll never go back on TV. I definitely don’t see myself becoming a full time actor, but there’s other opportunities, whether that’s judging on some type of show or hosting something.
HitFix: Would you consider your own cooking show?
If there’s enough research in it. If I can learn something through the process, I can definitely see myself wanting to do it. I think education is key, and there’s definitely a void in that in cooking shows right now. The cooking shows that are out there right now are solely for entertainment and so reality focused, there’s an element of realness missing, and I think there’s a demand and interest for an inside look at what we’re doing in the kitchen, what we’re doing out of the kitchen, what the creative process is, what we do to get inspired. One of the number one questions is, what inspires your food? People would like to learn that, so why not show them where we go out to get that, whether it’s traveling or simply having a mean somewhere? What do you bring back when you go out?