Family Style


“I’m going to just mess around and see what I come up with,” says Thacher Voltaggio, 7, standing on a chair at the kitchen island of his family’s Frederick home, squeezing gobs of white aerated cheese from a stainless steel whipped cream dispenser into a bowl. He goes to the fridge and returns with an armload of supplies—baby carrots, sprigs of fresh rosemary, cherry tomatoes.

The self-described “picky eater” already has a published recipe under his belt—his Coca-Cola Potatoes appear in his father Bryan’s new book, “Home: Recipes to Cook with Family and Friends,” which comes out April 7.

He drops carrots into the cheese, tears spikes of rosemary to sprinkle on top. Are you sure you want to do that? I wonder to myself. The cheese is a mixture of cheddar and condensed milk that Bryan Voltaggio has emulsified, heating and stirring until the two combine, then packed into a nitrogen-charged canister. When piped on a bowl of chili, he told me, the foam rests “like shaving cream on top,” and when stirred, swirls like ribbons through the dish. “It’s the only way to eat cheese in chili,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”

Bryan, 38, meantime, is standing by the stove, 18-month-old Ever straddling his hip, stirring butter into a saucepan of mashed potatoes. The white potatoes have reached a creamy consistency, and look more like a thickened roux than spuds. “They’re just at the point of breaking,” says the elder Voltaggio, gently turning them away from the edges of the pot with a spatula. “You might see little pockets of butter in the corners.” Bryan will finish the potatoes with a sprinkling of buttermilk powder mixed with poppy and sesame seeds, a seasoning described as “everything bagel” on the menu at his newest Baltimore restaurant Family Meal, which opened at the end of Pier 4 in the Inner Harbor in January. 

Piper, 4, climbs on her own chair by the stove and waves a piece of paper at her father: “Daddy, here’s a list. Look at the list,” she demands. Bryan reaches down for the list she has made—of family members she wants in the photos we’re here to take. Piper, it seems, likes to take charge. Bryan sees Thacher at the counter and briskly removes the aerator and a sharp paring knife, taking note of his son’s project. Ever squirms, reaching for the half-eaten banana on a nearby counter and emits a piercing squeal.

Wife Jennifer comes to the well-timed rescue, lifting her daughter from Bryan’s arms. “When Bryan’s cooking, I’m here to wrangle the kids,” she says. But when Bryan is at work, which, as a chef/owner of six restaurants, is most of the time, she manages the meals on her own. “When he’s not here, what should take 10 minutes takes three hours.” 

Jennifer, 36, says she’s excited about the new cookbook, an approachable collection of gussied-up comfort food. She’s tried to mimic her husband’s meatloaf, for example, but it never turns out quite right. “Now I have a recipe,” she says.

“Bryan likes my pancakes,” she offers. I ask what makes them special. “Mainly that he doesn’t have to get up and cook them.”

Even so, when he is at home, Bryan Voltaggio likes nothing better than cooking for his family—or anyone else who happens to be around. “When we have parties I make way too much food,” he says. “People come with bags to take stuff home.”

In prepping for today’s interview and photo shoot, Bryan has proven true to his word. There’s a meatloaf and a casserole of mac ‘n’ cheese in the oven. Chili stays warm on the stove next to a pot of braised greens—kale, broccoli rabe and chard, aromatic with smoked bacon. A plate of New England style split-top hot dog buns sits at the ready for griddling with butter for lobster rolls. He’s also prepared banana pudding parfaits for dessert.

Bryan discovered cooking when he was in high school. He wasn’t a great student, he admits, and had taken a job in the kitchen at the Holiday Inn in Frederick. When too many injuries prevented his dream of an athletic scholarship to the University of Maryland (he played on a state championship soccer team), he decided to attend Frederick County Career and Technology Center’s culinary program. 

If soccer didn’t get him to college, it got him the girl. When he and his brother moved to the Frederick area to live with their dad for a bit, Bryan found a way to attend Governor Thomas Johnson High School, where he knew the soccer coach. That’s where he met Jennifer Covell, two years his junior. They’ve known each other for 20 years, and have been married for 10. If he’d gone to college, who knows what would have happened? “I was really into science in middle school and high school,” he says. “I was interested in marine science.”

Bryan eventually went to the Culinary Institute of America—graduating in 1999—and later worked for Charlie Palmer at Aureole in New York. Meanwhile, Jennifer, who attended James Madison, went into graphic design, working for tech firms in Manhattan during the dot-com boom. (She now designs the logos and does miscellaneous graphic design work for the restaurants.)

They returned to the area when his boss asked Voltaggio to open Charlie Palmer Steak in D.C. The young couple decided it was a good time to start a family, and when they returned from the hospital with Thacher, found a message on the voicemail from a stranger—Hilda Staples, a former corporate public relations exec—looking for advice on a bar she wanted to open in a historic mansion in downtown Frederick. Bryan and Jennifer had already worked up a business plan for a high-end restaurant, and Hilda’s spot seemed like a good fit. Volt opened a year later, but got off to a shaky start. Bryan’s appearance on the Bravo show “Top Chef” with his brother Michael, however, changed that. By the time season six came to an end—with Michael beating him by a nose—Volt had a six-month wait for reservations.

After TV established the Voltaggio brothers as culinary celebrities, they penned a cookbook together, “Volt Ink.” The photo-heavy book, named for their respective restaurants (Michael runs Ink in Los Angeles), is packed with complicated, multi-ingredient recipes.

“The constant comment about ‘Volt Ink’ was ‘I can’t cook any of this stuff.’ And I say, that’s the point. It’s for professional people—or people like you.” (He over-estimates my culinary ambitions.) “It’s for people who come to my restaurant and want to know how we do it.” By “it” he means the airy foams and sabayons, veloutés and sous vides—molecular gastronomy that is largely absent from his new cookbook and restaurant, aerated cheese notwithstanding. 

The recent ventures are Bryan’s homage to the way he was brought up, eating home-cooked meals most nights with his mother and two siblings—Michael and Staci, the youngest, now a pastry chef at Voltaggio’s Range in D.C.  More specifically, the book may be seen as an homage to his mother.

“I cooked every day because I was really adamant about the family dinner,” says Bryan’s mother, Sharon Mangine, who now lives in Florida with her husband Bob. Sharon would make thick pork chops, the boneless kind, coated in Shake ‘n’ Bake, slow-simmered tomato sauce using her mother’s recipe and homemade mac ‘n’ cheese. “My spaghetti sauce was something they dearly loved,” she recalls. “The boys would get into bread and get into it.” She had a hard time getting Michael to eat vegetables.

Bryan would cook with Sharon’s father, a former Navy SEAL and accomplished home chef, until her dad died at 56 when Bryan was 6. Her eldest, she says, “did everything early. He cut his teeth at 3 months. At 6 months, he stopped eating baby food. He wanted people food.” Bryan used precise diction as a toddler and was in gifted and talented programs in his early years at school. “Unfortunately, he had a bit of an attention problem,” she admits, a condition not commonly diagnosed or treated when he was a kid in the 1970s. “He was bored.”

Cooking, she says, “saved Bryan’s academic career.”

Her sons “have worked hard and paid their dues in the industry,” says Sharon. But their eventual success wasn’t always assured. “I can remember both of them saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ They’d call and complain, fingers cut off, bad burns. But that’s part of the industry.” (OK, “deep cuts,” she amends.)

The cookbook “Home” is organized according to meals—weekend brunch, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday—“times that I’m at home, cooking,” says Bryan. But the recipes are anything but conventional.

Take that lobster roll. The picked lobster meat is returned to the vinegar-laced cooking liquid, where its flavor intensifies. Then it’s mixed with Bryan’s signature Trinity sauce—mayo containing the holy trio of sriracha, soy sauce and fish sauce. If the recipe were printed in Maine, he says, “I’d probably get death threats.”

As a native New Englander, I disagree. The sweet flavors of lobster meat and the buttered bun trigger memory—I think of the food critic in the animated film “Ratatouille,” who, jaded by fancy preparations, flashes back to his boyhood when tasting a simple dish. The scene brought me to tears.

“We all have foods that tug on our heartstrings,” Bryan says. “Chocolate cake, fried chicken.” At Volt, a longtime favorite, cheese ravioli, was made with housemade pasta and topped with sage “air.” “It was very refined,” says Bryan, “but when you ate it, it took you back to your mom.”

Bryan Voltaggio’s Lobster Rolls

Makes 6 to 8 lobster rolls

Perfectly cooked lobster meat is plump and juicy, tender but firm, and slightly chewy. The trick to this recipe is soaking the lobster meat in the cooled cooking liquid to give it an extra burst of flavor.

Trinity Sauce:
1 cup mayonnaise (I prefer Duke’s)
1 tablespoon sriracha
1 teaspoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon fish sauce
1⁄8 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon finely sliced fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh
cilantro leaves

Lobster Salad:
8½ quarts water
¾ cup white vinegar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons fine sea salt
¼ cup Our Bay Seasoning Blend
6 (1½-pound) lobsters
3 celery ribs, peeled and thinly sliced
½ head fennel, cut into small dice
¾ cup Trinity Sauce
1½ tablespoons lemon juice

6 to 8 hot dog buns, for serving
Unsalted butter, room temperature, for griddling the buns
Potato chips, for topping

Make the Trinity Sauce: Put all of the ingredients in a medium bowl and stir well to blend. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until needed. Trinity Sauce will keep for up to 10 days in the refrigerator.

Cook the lobster: Put the water, vinegar, salt and Old Bay Seasoning in a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and submerge the lobsters in the pot. Bring the mixture back to a simmer and cook for 12 minutes. Take out the lobsters and transfer to a large platter to cool. Reserve the cooking liquid.

Once they are cool enough to handle, use kitchen shears and a lobster cracker to remove all of the meat. Put the meat in a large container and pour over just enough cooking liquid to cover. Let the lobster meat macerate for 30 minutes.

Make the lobster salad: Drain the lobster meat, pat dry, cut into bite-size pieces (roughly 1-inch dice) and put in a large bowl. Add the celery, fennel, Trinity Sauce and lemon juice. Mix gently with a spatula to blend. Reserve the lobster salad in the refrigerator.

Prepare the lobster rolls: Split open the hot dog buns and spread butter on the insides of the buns. Set a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, place the buns, butter side down, in the pan and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the insides of the buns are crisp and golden brown. You may need to do this in batches. Transfer to a large platter and fill generously with lobster salad. Top with potato chips and serve immediately.

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