Busy Chef Strives For Balanced Mix Of Home Life, Culinary Ambitions

Busy Chef Strives For Balanced Mix Of Home Life, Culinary Ambitions

6:24pm Apr 07, 2015
Voltaggio sprinkles sugar on granola pancakes, a dish from his new cookbook, Home.
Voltaggio sprinkles sugar on granola pancakes, a dish from his new cookbook, Home.
Emily Jan / NPR
  • Voltaggio sprinkles sugar on granola pancakes, a dish from his new cookbook, Home.

    Voltaggio sprinkles sugar on granola pancakes, a dish from his new cookbook, Home.

    Emily Jan / NPR

  • Chef Bryan Voltaggio cooks at his home in Frederick, Md. He has restaurants in and around Maryland and Washington, D.C.

    Chef Bryan Voltaggio cooks at his home in Frederick, Md. He has restaurants in and around Maryland and Washington, D.C.

    Emily Jan / NPR

  • Voltaggio with his wife, Jennifer, and two of his three children, daughters Ever and Piper. The chef is focused on finding a good recipe for work-life balance.

    Voltaggio with his wife, Jennifer, and two of his three children, daughters Ever and Piper. The chef is focused on finding a good recipe for work-life balance.

    Emily Jan / NPR

Breakfast is Bryan Voltaggio's favorite meal because it's the only time he gets to eat with his family. Most other times, the Top Chef and Top Chef Masters finalist is at one of his restaurants. That's why the recipes in his new book, Home: Recipes to Cook with Family and Friends, are centered on family and family gatherings, from Thanksgiving to Super Bowl Sunday.

Home for Voltaggio is Frederick, Md., a small city with a charming downtown about an hour west of Baltimore. His cookbook is full of recipes from the Mid-Atlantic region, including Chesapeake crab waffles and bacon biscuits.

His wife, Jennifer, says the cookbook's name is a bit of a misnomer.

"We were going to call it 'Occasionally Home,' " she says. His editor didn't approve.

Jennifer was his high school sweetheart, and at the beginning of their relationship, she was the one cooking for him. At the time, Bryan lived with his father and worked 40 hours a week at a Holiday Inn. He would often come to school without food. "I couldn't sit there and watch him not eat anything," Jennifer says. So she started packing him a lunch every day.

Now he loves to cook for her, and for the crowds that pack his five restaurants in Maryland and Washington, D.C. One reason he kept his restaurants local was to make it easier for the family. Still, he worries about the time he spends away from Jennifer and their three children.

"There's a lot of time I wasn't home being supportive of us as a family and being there to help change the diapers, you know what I mean? To do the things that we need to do to raise kids," Voltaggio says.

But there are a lot of perks that come with a life like Bryan's, says Jennifer. He's on the road a lot, but there are plenty of opportunities for vacationing together in popular spots like Disneyland.

"Food is powerful," Voltaggio says. "It gets us places."

Still, the need to balance work and family came into stark focus when his third child was born. Nearly two years ago, his daughter Ever was born prematurely. She had severe respiratory problems and spent the first weeks of her life in the hospital.

"It was the most difficult time of our life. I'm a chef. You're a control freak if you're a chef. I couldn't fix my daughter," says Voltaggio. "I want to be there for my family, I want to do more, so I'm starting to find that I'm fighting for the time."

Now, he's focusing on expanding his restaurants regionally so he can stay close to home.

"Bryan's drive and love of what he's doing makes it hard for me to say, 'Oh, you can't open this, or you can't do this, like it's too much for our family,' " says Jennifer. "Every time he comes to me and says 'I'm going to open this new restaurant,' I'm like 'Uh, not again.' But it always seems to work out."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear now from a top name in the cutthroat cooking competition "Top Chef."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")

BRYAN VOLTAGGIO: I'm going to fight to the very last dish.

MONTAGNE: Bryan Voltaggio was a contestant back in 2009 when he got the assignment make something inspired by your mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOP CHEF")

B. VOLTAGGIO: Growing up, my parents were divorced at an early age. So my first course is going to be a play on tuna casserole - my mom's version.

MONTAGNE: Bryan Voltaggio and his brother, Michael, were both chefs on Bravo's show that year. Michael ended up winning, but both brothers became household names. And while Michael has taken his career out here to the West Coast, Bryan owns restaurants closer to home, which is Maryland. That's where our colleague David Greene met up with him.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: It was a rare chance to see a "Top Chef" chef in his own kitchen. Home for Bryan Voltaggio is Frederick, Md., the small city with a charming downtown that's about an hour west of Baltimore. "Home" is also the name of his new cookbook, which is full of recipes from the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. It is not a place all that known for its cuisine, unless you live there and spend summer days on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay with a spread of crabs smothered in Old Bay seasoning, maybe some corn and a pitcher of beer. Bryan Voltaggio tried to recreate all of that in a breakfast recipe.

B. VOLTAGGIO: So we're going to start some crab waffles - put a generous amount of crab. It's, like, a whole pound.

GREENE: So the crab goes into the waffle batter?

B. VOLTAGGIO: You know what's really great about this is actually - if you think about this, this is a crab feast, but it's for breakfast.

GREENE: And breakfast is Bryan's favorite meal because it's the only time he gets to eat with his family. Most other times he's at one of his restaurants. And this is why the recipes in his new book are centered around family and family gatherings, from Thanksgiving to Super Bowl Sunday to the morning we visited. He was making his pancakes with granola.

B. VOLTAGGIO: Texturally it's great. I love texture in food. You know, I'm that guy who takes a sandwich and I put my potato chips on that.

GREENE: Wait a minute. I thought I was really weird to do that.

B. VOLTAGGIO: You thought you were weird?

GREENE: Yeah.

B. VOLTAGGIO: That was a stepping stone to becoming a really good cook. There's something satisfying about the crunch...

GREENE: Yeah.

B. VOLTAGGIO: ...In the potato chips there.

GREENE: Yeah.

B. VOLTAGGIO: So you use granola, fold it into the batter.

GREENE: OK, you're doing it one-handed while holding a child. That's...

B. VOLTAGGIO: Yes, this is the best way to cook.

GREENE: (Laughter).

JENNIFER VOLTAGGIO: That one, when he's in here cooking on a Sunday, she stands right there the whole time.

GREENE: That's the voice of Bryan's wife, Jennifer, who says the cookbook's name, "Home," is a bit of a misnomer.

J. VOLTAGGIO: We were going to call it "Occasionally Home."

(LAUGHTER)

B. VOLTAGGIO: Yeah, we tried to sell that to the editor, and he was not...

J. VOLTAGGIO: They weren't buying it.

B. VOLTAGGIO: He wasn't buying that.

GREENE: Now, Jennifer was Bryan's high school sweetheart. And we should say at the beginning of their relationship, she was the one cooking for him.

J. VOLTAGGIO: Bryan lived with his dad, and he worked 40 hours a week at the Holiday Inn. And he just would come to school, and he didn't - you know, he had just probably gotten off work at 10 o'clock, did his homework, went - you know, he didn't pack himself lunch. So he would come and sit next to me, and he'd be hungry, so I would feed him. And then it just got...

GREENE: You were like here's this pathetic guy who has no food...

J. VOLTAGGIO: Yeah.

GREENE: ...At the table.

J. VOLTAGGIO: I mean, I couldn't sit there and watch him not eat anything. And so then I started packing him a lunch every day.

GREENE: Bringing his lunch for him every day at high school. Yeah, you could say Bryan owes Jennifer. And he does love cooking for her and also for the crowds that pack his five restaurants in Maryland and also Washington, D.C. And one reason he kept his restaurants local was to make it easier for the family. Still, he did begin to worry about the time he was spending away from Jennifer and his three children.

B. VOLTAGGIO: I was gone from 7:00 a.m. until 1 in the morning. That was my schedule. I was never here. And so there's a lot of time I wasn't home being supportive of us as a family and being there to help change the diapers - you know what I mean? - to do the things that we need to do to raise kids.

J. VOLTAGGIO: Bryan - I mean, there's a lot of perks that come with a life like Bryan's as well. I mean, he's gone a lot, but we go on great vacations. He'll be doing something at Disney, and then we get to all go to Disney together and spend a week together. That was something I didn't do as a kid. We couldn't afford it, so...

B. VOLTAGGIO: Food is powerful. People want it...

J. VOLTAGGIO: Yeah. I mean...

B. VOLTAGGIO: ...And it gets us places.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)

GREENE: Now in the kitchen, Bryan has moved on to one of Jennifer's favorite recipes.

So can I admit that when I read this recipe, I thought of strawberry and bacon, and it didn't scream delicious to me?

B. VOLTAGGIO: It didn't?

GREENE: Bacon biscuits - the bacon is glazed with strawberry jam and a tangy sriracha sauce.

B. VOLTAGGIO: You're taking bacon, smoky and salty, and a little bit of sweet and sour mixed in there. To me, that sounds like money.

GREENE: As we ate breakfast with the Voltaggios, standing around the island in the center of their kitchen as kids were watching cartoons in the living room, Bryan and Jennifer spoke a bit more about the balance between work and family. It's something that came into stark focus when their third child was born. Nearly two years ago, Bryan's daughter, Ever, was born premature. She had severe respiratory problems and spent the first weeks of her life in the hospital.

B. VOLTAGGIO: It was the most difficult time of our life. I'm a chef. I mean, you're a control freak if you're a chef. I couldn't fix my daughter. You know, I couldn't do anything about what was going on there, and I had no - I didn't know how.

GREENE: Do moments like that ever make you think about, I have enough restaurants, I don't need to keep pushing?

B. VOLTAGGIO: Yeah, no certainly, it does. I want to be there for my family. I want to do more, so I'm starting to find that I'm fighting for the time. The unfortunate thing now for me is that I want to be in every single restaurant, and I can't. And that's why I've grown only regionally. You know, I don't have a big - a restaurant out West. I don't have a place in a different country right now at the moment. Growing and doing more just means that I would be more on the road. And so that's why I'm trying to keep it close to here because I feel like I can still be in touch with that.

J. VOLTAGGIO: Bryan's drive and love of what he's doing makes it hard for me to say, oh, you can't open this or you can't do this, like, it's too much for our family. Like, I want to give him what he wants because I know it's so important to him. It's just every time he comes to me and he's like, oh, I'm going to open this new restaurant, I'm like, oh, not again. But it always seems to work out.

B. VOLTAGGIO: We'll get there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

B. VOLTAGGIO: And doorbell's ringing. (Laughter) And it's just - you know, it's just a life balance.

GREENE: Bryan, thank you for serving us breakfast.

B. VOLTAGGIO: It's always fun to cook for people, and it looks like you're enjoying the bacon biscuit.

GREENE: Yeah, I think you can be sure.

Getting to know Bryan Voltaggio, restaurant owner, top chef, dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD DAY SUNSHINE")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Good day, sunshine.

MONTAGNE: And that's our own David Greene with Bryan Voltaggio. Voltaggio's new cookbook is called "Home: Recipes To Cook With Family And Friends." You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD DAY SUNSHINE")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) I need to laugh, and when the sun is out, I've got something I can laugh about. I feel good in a special way. I'm in love, and it's a sunny day. Good day, sunshine. Good day, sunshine. Good day, sunshine. We take a walk... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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