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'Top Chef: Las Vegas': Michael Voltaggio on his win, talking trash and why the viewers turned on him

December 10, 2009 |  4:04 pm
NUP_137268_0076 Dried out chocolate cake or not, Michael Voltaggio emerged victorious on last night’s “Top Chef: Las Vegas” showdown, topping fan favorite Kevin and older brother Bryan. We talk to the 30-year-old chef about why he thought Bryan had beat him, his emotional reaction after he won and why he thinks the viewers turned against him.

I just read your Q&A on where you say that you thought Bryan won. The show looked like a dead heat between you two. Did we miss any critique that didn’t make it into the show?
No, I don’t think it was criticism from judges per se, as much as it was self-criticism. I knew what I put out, and I was looking at what Bryan put out, and so, just based on eating food with my eyes, I thought Bryan had won. That’s where that came from.

Which of the four dishes in the finale did you think Bryan had won over yours?

By far, I actually overcooked my cake. It was dry as a hockey puck. I knew pulling it out of the oven. Like I turned around and thought, oh, man, I forgot my cake in the oven. So I thought this is the last thing I’m going to serve to the judges. This is what they’re going to remember. This is what I’m going to be critiqued on. And, sure enough, they actually took into consideration the rest of the evening.

They did and, despite the cake being dried out, they seemed to have seen your vision for it.
I actually do a little pastry in the restaurant here, so I’m very familiar with pastry and dessert. I just forgot about it in the oven. That was it. The other components on the dish were enough to bear the weight.

You had done pretty well throughout the season. What was your game plan going into the finale?
My game plan was to simplify everything and not overdo it. You know, Napa. You have to let the ingredients kind of speak for themselves. So I wasn’t going to do too much, but in the end I was still going to cook my style of food my way.

Then, there’s poor Kevin. He seemed so stressed out and put off by Preeti being his sous-chef. He’s usually so cool.
We were all stressing. Honestly, I didn’t know what was going on around me. I didn’t know what was going on with Kevin, or Bryan really, until I watched the actual episode last night. I haven’t even actually been able to see the whole thing yet. I had no idea he was so stressed.

I know that earlier in the season you had said that Kevin’s food was like what you would make at home. Do you still feel that way?
I’m kind of regretful. I’ll be the first one to say that. The way we judge each other’s food on the show, because we don’t get to taste it, we just judge it by the way it looks. So that comment was solely based on the fact that if you look at my plate next to his plate, your immediate reaction is going to be, wow, there’s a lot more work on that plate. With that being said, I have tasted some of his food and it’s very good. So it was not a shot at Kevin and his cooking. It was more a shot at the fact that this is a competition and I’m putting myself out there, trying to get everything on the plate and show what I do. But, at the end of the day, it just comes down to flavor, and that’s ultimately what Kevin was winning with. I don’t take anything away from that.

You and Bryan did a lot of trash talking on each other. After you were announced the winner, we saw a different side to the Voltaggio brothers. What has being on the show together done for your relationship?
Our goal from the start was to see each other in the finale. I don’t think any of us realized or prepared ourselves for what that would feel like, A. And, B, we had to watch the other one win. The whole process definitely brought us closer together. I love my brother. Then again, only one person can win. It’s called “Top Chef,” not “Top Chefs.” It came down to, like, salt and a nail-biting finale between my brother and myself. For that alone, I think it was worth it for both of us.

Did you really just realize in Vegas that Bryan was on the show?
I knew that he applied, but once you start going through the process everything is confidential. Both of us did a really good job of keeping secrets, so we didn’t really find out the details of all of it until that moment.

What was it like seeing him?
It was like, “Oh, ... . There’s another good one here.” Honestly, when I signed on to do it, I thought this was going to be easy. I watched the show in the past. The people who usually won definitely deserved to win, but I never thought that anyone who has won in the past was a better cook than I am. I went into it pretty confident I could win. When I got there, I realized that maybe Bravo stepped up their game with this show. It’s actually going to be a cooking competition. Great. I was going to be in the first season where it was going to be difficult. The other cooks were pretty phenomenal.

Did you catch the viewer poll? You had the lowest number of voters rooting for you.
Nice [he laughs].

How do you feel you came off this season?
If you go back and you look at the comments in the beginning, I had so many people, like, “We’re rooting for you.” Then, as the season progresses and when Mike left, they needed to have someone to hate on. It’s very easy to take things that I said and perceive it for something totally different. Unfortunately, people create their own perception of what they think you are, and they don’t know you. They know a person that they see for three to four minutes in a sixty-minute segment once a week. If I’m the least favorite, ok. They didn’t eat my food and it’s a cooking competition. It’s not like watching “American Idol” where you watch somebody sing and actually form an opinion. So, it’s like, “I don’t like that guy. I don’t know what his food tastes like, but he always thinks he’s blah, blah, blah.” It’s more of a personality thing, where that’s not really what this show is all about. I’m a lot more humble for real, anyway, than how I was portrayed on the show.

Well, like I said, we saw a different side at the ending. How was it to have your mother there?

It was awesome. I think, ultimately, she was probably sitting in the back hoping Kevin won, so she wouldn’t have to go though what she had to go through. It’s like very rare that you have to be comforting and excited at the same time. She was like me – she didn’t know what to feel in that moment. All three of us were just, “What happened?” Not to mention we were standing there for hours and hours. That whole process takes a long time.

What’s going through your mind as you’re just waiting around?
Wow, I really screwed up that chocolate cake.

— Jethro Nededog and Denise Martin

Photo credit: NBC Universal