Michael Voltaggio: How 'Top Chef' Changed My Life (Guest Column)
West Hollywood's Ink owner-chef discusses how the cable food show made his restaurant a huge success.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When you're on the show, you have no access to any means of research. You don't have books, the Internet or your recipes on you. Everything you do is out of your head. Then there's adapting to each challenge. The things that stumped me were to cook outside and BBQ in the desert. I'm not an outdoors guy, I don't sleep in a tent — I sleep in a hotel. On the show, you're not in control. As a chef, you control everything.
While a contestant, I learned you have to listen to the people you're cooking for — which I've taken into my business. I also learned from Kevin Gillespie, one of the other chefs on my season, who would always cook something crave-able, relatable and homey. He'd make kale chips or candied bacon. I adapted to take his lead and then pushed the envelope.
Top Chef and Food Network made our careers more interesting. It created the ability to make other sources of income because chefs don't make a lot of money, and we put in a lot of hours.
I was able to open the restaurant so quickly because of television. That being said, my partner, Michael Ovitz, didn't watch the show. He was looking for a chef to partner with and saw more value in that I was willing to work hard to make it succeed than being on TV.
For me, what was cool was that people were coming in as fans of the show but leaving more adventurous as eaters. That was the most powerful thing: We were making more people more interested in food. They were coming to see me and leaving going, "Where else can I go to find food like that?" It makes it accessible. The curiosity is there.