Working parents often wish there were more hours in a day. But when you’re a working parent that also owns four restaurants, you might wish there were more days in a week. Chef Bryan Voltaggio is one of those parents.
“I’m always busy,” Voltaggio says. “My wife would love to have me home more.”
Luckily, Voltaggio’s wife Jennifer understands the time commitment that the restaurant field demands. “We’ve been together for about 19 years, so she’s grown up with me. She understands this business. If she didn’t, she’d have left me a long time ago.”
“One day, I’ll scale back,” the father of two promises.
That day is not today. Voltaggio currently owns four restaurants and spends much of his time either in one of his establishments, or shuttling back and forth between them. Three of his restaurants are located in his hometown Frederick Maryland. These include upscale VOLT, relaxed diner Family Meal, and the more casual eatery Lunchbox. His latest venture, Range, is in Washington, DC.
Events and menu changes determine his schedule. “There’s no formula yet, but I’d love to get one, like ‘Monday and Tuesday I’m at Range, Wednesday is Lunchbox,’ or whatever,” says Voltaggio.
The Maryland resident admits to enjoying some of the spontaneity in his schedule though: “I do want to retain that element of surprise when I just show up and the staff is like, “Oh, shit, the boss is here!” he laughs.
Voltaggio first became boss in 2008, when VOLT opened just months before he would go on to be a finalist on season six of Top Chef. “I opened VOLT in Frederick because I knew they were ready for fine dining there,” says Voltaggio.
VOLT was a success from the start, but when it came time to conceptualize additional restaurants, Voltaggio knew exactly what he didn’t want—another VOLT. “My places all have different concepts. I didn’t want to just open four VOLTs,” he says. “It’s my flagship restaurant that I worked hard to open, so there’s only one VOLT for me.”
Voltaggio’s not opposed to expanding some of his other spots, however. “A place like Family Meal could be replicated in other places, maybe,” he says. “It’s that kind of family place alternative to all of the Olive Gardens and Applebees out there.”
He considers Lunchbox a “fresh take on a fast-food place,” and Range is “everything in one restaurant.”
“I find the steakhouse format boring,” admits the Culinary Institute of America grad. “I get bored eating just meat. I wanted Range to have it all. It’s my version of a steakhouse, but a modern-day one.”
If Range doesn’t have it all, it comes awfully close. The Friendship Heights hot spot boasts an in-house bakery, a butcher, a chocolate shop, a raw bar, a wood-burning pizza oven and more.
“Nothing is better than pizza over wood,” says Voltaggio. “Originally, I was thinking we should serve flatbread, but then I figured people don’t want fancy flatbread. They want freaking pizza.”
Yes, his restaurants all have their own unique identity. But does anything tie them together? Is a diner able to step into one of his establishments and somehow sense they’re in a Bryan Voltaggio restaurant?
“My former employer, Charlie Palmer, was good at that,” says Voltaggio. “When you walk into one of his places, it looks and feels like a Charlie Palmer place in a big way. I think in my places, it’s something smaller.”
“For example, I put the front-of-the-house team at VOLT in suits, but they were all wearing Chuck Taylors, my favorite shoe,” says Voltaggio. “You’d see people come in and be chatting with staff, and then look down and see the shoes and smile. Fun little surprises like that, I think, are carried throughout all my spots.”
Another thing all of his places have in common is their commitment to farm-to-table dining.
“All of my restaurants meet one of three requirements: local, sustainable, or organic,” says Voltaggio. “The farm-to-table movement has been going on long enough; people have come to expect high-quality local ingredients from restaurants.”
That’s not to say that everyone knows exactly where their food comes from. “We had a sheriff drop off a goose at VOLT one day for us to cook, and one of our interns cried,” says Voltaggio. “I wanted to say, ‘Man, buck up! Or get a refund from culinary school.’ Where do you think your food comes from? Animals don’t come prepackaged in a box for us to prepare.”
“If you’re out picking those beans yourself, you’re going to pick every one of them, not just every other one,” says Voltaggio. “Food going into the garbage while there are hungry kids out there drives me nuts.”
Voltaggio’s own kids, Thacher, 6, and Piper, 2, don’t lack for great meals. Voltaggio tries to cook for his family as often as he can. “When we do go out, my family loves going to Oyamel and Woodbury Kitchen,” he says.
Growing up with a chef for a father, are his kids more inclined to want to cook professionally one day?
“This is a very tough business. Looking at my son, I’ve wondered, ‘Do I want this career for him?” says Voltaggio. “Having a 9-5 where I could come home and kick the ball with my son sounds great, so that’s something I want for him. That being said, my son loves to cook.”
Thacher is a fixture at his dad’s restaurants. “When he comes over to one of my places, my teams always take care of him and treat him like a rock star,” says Voltaggio. “He’s even got a locker at Lunchbox that he keeps stuff in.”
Don’t count Piper out of the kitchen either. “My daughter, she’ll be the one who goes into it. She’s constantly in her play kitchen,” says Voltaggio. “But same thing, I want her to be home with her family at decent times too.”
Ultimately, Voltaggio knows future career choices are up to his children.
“My kids will do what they want. I had a soccer scholarship and got injured and my dad asked me, ‘What will you do if you can’t play soccer?” says Voltaggio. “I said ‘I’ll cook.’ And he was like, ‘You’re just going to be a cook?’ But now, I get to kind of smile, because yeah, I cook.”
Voltaggio plans to be cooking for a while yet—and in the same spot.
“I’ll definitely be sticking to this area. I’m not going to be one of those guys that opens a restaurant in Vegas, that’s not my style,” says Voltaggio. “I consulted on a spot in Hawaii once, and that was tough. The travel was tough, the not actually being there was tough. That’s the reason I opened Range in Friendship Heights, so it could be close to my other places.”
And when he finally does stop cooking full time?
“In 10 years, I’ll be 47, so I won’t be working over a hot stove as much,” says Voltaggio. “I would love to cultivate new culinary talent. My mentor was so supportive of me and was a big help. I can definitely see some people in my kitchens now that in 10 years might have their own kitchen. Helping them get to where I am would be the dream for me.”
Visit Bryan’s restaurants.
VOLT: 228 N. Market St. Frederick, MD; 301-696-VOLT; www.voltrestaurant.com
Family Meal: 880 N. East St. Frederick, MD; 301-378-2895; www.voltfamilymeal.com
Lunchbox: 50 Carroll Creek Way Frederick, MD; 301-360-0580; www.voltlunchbox.com
Range: 5335 Wisconsin Ave. NW Ste. 201 DC; 202-803-8020; www.voltrange.com