Michael Voltaggio / Last week, Season 6 Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio came to Hawaii…not to cook, but to check out the Waikiki Edition and to vacation, which for a chef means a lot of eating. The Weekly caught up with him at an event at the Edition to ask for his thoughts on his first Hawaii visit, his new obsession with Leonard’s and life after Top Chef.
Where did you eat while in town and what’s your assessment as a visitor?
I think the next trend is going back to the basics, not trying to do so much with the food and actually turn it down a little bit and just make it taste good. I think there’s a lot of that in Hawaii. I spent all day eating around the North Shore. We ate the shrimp at Giovanni’s, we ate shave ice, we ate poke at the back of a grocery store off the highway. This morning, we ate at Ono. It was awesome. We didn’t eat anything fancy. We just ate the kalua pork and–what do you call the coconut cake? Haupia. The stuff is unbelievable. We ate at Leonard’s yesterday, too. That was so good, unbelievably good. They had a plum powdered sugar–li hing mui–and dusted the outside [of the malasada] with the sugar. I’d say probably Leonard’s was my favorite. So good.
I went on Twitter and just asked, “What do I eat when I’m in Hawaii?” and I just got, like, 80 responses and everybody was so adamant, you have to go here, you have to go there. The only place I didn’t make it to was Side Street.
Did you go to Alan Wong’s, too?
How was it?
Nostalgia. The funny thing about that restaurant is it’s the one that everybody said you should go to. The reason why I wanted to go was that I did my apprenticeship at the same place where Alan Wong did his apprenticeship, at a resort called the Greenbriar in West Virginia. So it’s very rare, especially when you’re traveling to Hawaii, to eat at the same restaurant where the chef went through the same schooling that you went through. This program only takes eight people a year from throughout the world, and it’s a coincidence that he and I went to the same apprenticeship. So it was just fun to go and see the iconic Hawaii restaurant. It was good, it was fun. I wasn’t blown away or anything like that. But it was simple, clean cooking. I have to say, I’m more impressed and more interested in the underground food scene here. Driving like we did to the North Shore and going to Ono’s.
Going back to basics, that sounds kind of funny coming from the guy who on Top Chef was all about the “tricks.”
I think people forget to make food taste good. There’s enough people out there messing up modern food that it’s making the people who actually buy it just want something that tastes good. I think I can kind of do both. I mean, I still cook very modern food, but I’m getting away from so much “in your face, look what I can do” and focusing more on the flavor of food, and that’s really important. You’re still going to see what I do in the food that I do. I don’t think it’s necessary to try and show off anymore.
Was this a revelation after Top Chef or have you always felt this way?
When you look at Top Chef, you only get a couple hours to prove yourself and you really want to stand out and you want to do something different. So you definitely take a lot more risks in that situation. But for me, I just like cooking. I wanna go home and make some stuff that I tasted here. Just something as basic as poi. Making it not taste gummy. To me, that’s modern cooking because you either overwork the starch or you get it just right. I think that term “molecular gastronomy,” or whatever, I think that’s more what it is, is understanding how that vegetable actually works and making sure you’re using it the right way.
What’s your next venture?
I’m working on a project in LA, opening a new restaurant, probably in February or March, depending on how renovations go.
What’s the concept?
Not really telling anybody right now. I’ll start slowly teasing about it in the next few months.
So why did you want to go on Top Chef?
I thought I could bring more authenticity to it, make it more of a cooking show. I watched it and I thought it was such a good idea and not really a good competition. So I went on it to make it a good competition about cooking and not a good competition about personalities. But it always shifts back to that. I thought maybe after we did it, and a couple of the other guys on the show with us, like Kevin, Mike, Jen, Eli and some other people on the show, I thought it would become a more serious competition. But the very next season, it went back to just mediocre cooks with whatever. It’s a shame.
What’s life been like after the show?
The past year has been the busiest ever. I’ve been traveling a lot. Probably 20,000 miles last month. Here, back and forth to the East Coast four times, went to Germany, went to Singapore back in July (for the last Top Chef). It’s been nonstop like that. Every week it’s been crazy. So I’m ready to focus on my restaurant, not travel, not do any of that kind of stuff, just be cooking.
Are you tired of Top Chef questions?
They’re easy to answer because they’re kind of the same questions. They’re the obvious ones. No, I don’t get tired of them. I’m totally thankful. But like I said, I’m ready to focus on my restaurant. Because that’s who I really am, not the guy who was on TV. I’m just a cook.