Feast Portland Q&A: Michael Voltaggio

By Kathleen Squires  |  September 22, 2013
Credit: Hernan F. Rodriguez

He’s won Top Chef and was recently named a Food & Wine Best New Chef for his inventive take on American cuisine at his LA restaurants ink. and ink.sack. But what people probably don’t know about Michael Voltaggio is that he also makes a helluva pho. Attendees of Feast Portland’s High Comfort event, however, now know about his prowess with the Vietnamese classic. The line for Voltaggio’s station was the longest of the event, with people coming back for just one more slurp. During a ladling break, the chef gamely shared the secret behind his soup, among other tidbits.

Zagat: Tell me about this amazing pho and why you chose to serve it at this event?

Michael Voltaggio: The theme was comfort food-driven, so for me, when I crave comfort food, I always get pho. It’s warm and delicious and easy to just run to the pho shop. Snake River Farms provided us with 150 pounds of Wagyu short rib. So we cooked it sous vide, made a dry rub for it, made a broth out of beef bones and saved all the fat that was rendered out of the meat. We emulsified it back into the broth and we did puffed beef tendon and added a bunch of herbs such as Thai basil and coriander flowers. And we made our own hoisin sauce for it.

Zagat: I heard you recently visited Copenhagen for the MAD Food Symposium. What did you come away with from that experience?

MV: What Rene Redzepi put together there is a sense of community. He’s bringing together the industry and it’s not about people doing cooking demos, it’s about talking about how people are eating, where our food is coming from - there is an anthropological approach to what we do so it’s not just about food. It’s a lot more about what our responsibilities are. It’s about what more we can do than just be behind our stoves.

Zagat: You’re opening an ink.sack in LAX. Why do you think it has taken so long for airports to serve decent food in the US?

MV: I think it was figuring out the logistics of how to do it. It’s such a unique environment to get food in and out, so small restaurants aren’t equipped to go in and figure out that process. Companies such as HMS Host are helping us figure how to do business in bigger ways. We do 300 sandwiches a day at Melrose ink.sack, and in the airport we are going to do 3000 sandwiches a day. So it’s been a big learning experience and I’m excited to see it happen.

Zagat: As a chef in California, how do you feel about the state holding up the foie gras ban?

MV: It was a shame to lose that ingredient. I understand where it was coming from, though. Part of it was a lack of education. But it was bittersweet. I like the fact that it took an ingredient out of our repertoire and it made us focus on being creative on the ingredients that we have left to work with. I do miss eating it. And I like traveling outside of California so that I can still eat it. But at the end of the day it forced us to be more creative.

Zagat: In your travels, which cities do you feel are coming up in terms of a food scene?

MV: I think Portland is coming up. I was here about five or six years ago, and it’s my first time back and my first time going around and eating at the restaurants. But what’s going on here in Portland even beyond the restaurant. This event alone - it’s only the second one and it feels like it has been going on for ten years. It’s one of the most complete events I’ve ever been a part of. And everyone here is just so cool. I can’t get past that. All the egos are left at the airport and everyone here is having a good time and being so gracious and grateful. I feel so humble to be cooking here in Portland because I feel that I have a lot to learn and this is a place that I would like to come and learn it. There’s a real community here, it reminds me of what food should be like and what cooking is all about.

Zagat: I read an interview with you recently where you said you miss hospitality in this business. How do you feel that the industry has gotten away from that?

MV: I feel like as much as chefs are artists, and I think we are at the end of the day, the backbone of what we do is we take care of people and that we serve people. I think some people may have gotten a little too cool along the way and have forgotten that we are here to make people feel special. Many people have to remember that we are cooking for other people and not just for ourselves.