When Michael Voltaggio's ink. opened in September 2011, there was no hotter reservation in town. The young chef, fresh off his Top Chef win, was all brooding talent and ego, and his restaurant reflected both. Five years later, it's much easier to get a table at ink., and Voltaggio decided it was time to shake things up. Recently, after working with his brother Brian Voltaggio on Voltaggio Brothers Steak House, a Washington, D.C., steakhouse concept, he decided ink. could use a little steakhouse in its DNA, too (though he insists the restaurants are different). The result was a menu overhaul for ink., turning it into a modern steakhouse of sorts, while retaining much of what made the restaurant such a hit in the first place.
I spoke to Voltaggio by phone, about being a chef in more than one restaurant, about growing up, about the creative benefits of restrictions, and about the difficulty of relevance in a fickle market.
Besha Rodell: I feel as if I’ve seen pictures of you everywhere but L.A. recently.
Michael Voltaggio: It’s hard to be a chef in more than one restaurant and try to have a presence in them. I try to do that. I don’t know that a lot of chefs who have more than one restaurant do that, but you can always find me somewhere in a kitchen.
BR: It’s easier if you can drive between your restaurants, and not have to fly between them.
MV: I want to know how these guys get to the point where they just don’t cook anymore. That doesn’t sound appealing to me. But these guys manage to do it somehow. I find myself still in the shit, every single night, somewhere.
BR: There’s a large part of it now that’s more about being a business person.
MV: Well, that’s the part I’m not good at, so it’s probably better that I stay in the kitchen.
BR: I’ve been thinking so much recently about relevance, and the trickiness around the fact that people have such short attention spans. Some places can just chug along, but people stop talking about them. Or you go there are feel like, “Why was this ever a thing?” I wonder if that was a big part of your thinking when doing this overhaul.
MV: Yeah, absolutely. The restaurant is going on six years now, and you’re totally correct. The diners in L.A. are kind of transient … it’s a transient scene. People come through and they move on to the next thing. I love that all these restaurants are opening, and continue to open, but it’s important that established places continue to get the same sort of love as the new restautants.
Sustainability is important. How do you have an emotional attachment to a restaurant? Or how do you have a favorite restaurant if your favorite restaurant is always the newest one? Ink,'s transition wasn’t, like, a cry for help or anything. It was more like, “Hey, we’re still here, and we’re still doing new things. And we’re listening to the people that are coming into the restaurant.” As a chef, I think you get to a certain point in your career where you have to start listening to the people you’re cooking for. You can cook for yourself as much as you want, but at the end of the day, what do your guests want? What are your guests asking for? If you listen to that, evolution is defintiely going to happen.
We toyed around with, “Hey, let’s change the name of the restaurant, let’s redecorate it, let’s do this, let’s do that.” And it didn’t make any sense because we didn’t want to not be who we still are, or who we’ve been for the past five years. But at the same time, it was time to be something slightly different. Even in the kitchen, it felt — it didn’t feel stale to us, but if we were getting bored with it in the kitchen, then we have to assume our guests are getting bored with it in the dining room. And so we needed to do something more.
BR: It’s a funny thread that’s been coming up in a lot of the work I’ve been doing recently. I just reviewed Patina, and then I’ve been going to Michael’s in Santa Monica as well, and they’re both standard-bearers in their own way. I look at Patina just kind of trying to do the same thing for the same people, and I worry that, well — those people are going to die eventually. And Michael’s, which has brought in Miles [Thompson], has completely blown the roof off of the place, and that’s a gamble, too. Did you feel like this was a gamble? Because you’ve certainly made a reputation for yourself, and people think of the restaurant in a certain way.
MV: That’s why we did it the way we did it. It would have been a gamble to reconceptualize the entire place, like let’s be a whole new restaurant. We’re still the same restaurant, we just added more to it. And we basically restructured the menu. When you sit down that statement of: welcome to the restaurant, small plates meant for sharing, we recommend two to three dishes per person, blah blah blah…the same shit you sort of hear all over the city. That became trendy, and the thing I’m trying to stay away from is food trends and the idea of food being trendy. So, for us it went back to: Let’s make some good mashed potatoes. Let’s cook some beef really well, let’s create a good steak sauce, let’s put a couple of salads on the menu, but let’s keep the things that have been hits for us over the years. We don’t want people to come back and say, “Oh, I can’t believe you took of that dish, it was my favorite.” So, it was about maintaining some of the classics, and then changing the format of the menu so it’s easier for the guest to navigate.
BR: My problem with almost all the steakhouses in L.A., and everywhere, really, is that it's difficult to eat steak without spending a ridiculous amount of money, unless you’re going to one of the really old school places — which I love! But the quality isn’t going to be there. I don’t neccessarily want a giant hunk of meat. I was going to ask you about price point. One of the things I really like about ink. is it’s a friendly place to come and stop in at the bar and have a few things to eat. Is that still a possible way to use the restaurant? Do you feel like the price point is changing?
MV: I looked at the steakhouses that are in L.A., and specifcially the ones that are in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, the ones that are closest to us, and said, “Can we do something like that but do it differently?” So instead of committing people to a giant piece of meat and maybe one salad, we created a menu where you can still order a couple of starters, share a couple of side dishes, and maybe share one steak between two people. Offering the steakhouse experience without forcing people to commit to something that’s bigger or more than they want to commit to. The most expensive steak on our menu is $62. And then it’s $60, $42 and $39. Then every dish is south of 40 bucks down the whole menu. So you can come in and split things.
At a regular steakhouse it’s like: I’ll get the rib eye, you get the New York strip and you get the filet. I’d rather see people come in and get more of the starters, get more side dishes, which are interesting. We’re taking heads of cabbage and roasting them and glazing them in sauerkraut juice and putting black olive croutons on them, stuff like that. It tastes like sauerkraut, but it’s a big, thoughtful, beautiful-to-look-at side dish. It’s not a pile of creamed spinach. I enjoy that, too, but ink. wouldn’t be ink. if we started cooking that food, and that would have been too far of a departure from where we started. And then we would have had to call the restaurant something different.
In terms of price, I think it’s the same. I think our prices have always been fairly cheap, to be honest, and that’s because I’d rather feed more people than charge more money. It’s a stupid business model. But I like cooking for people. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I’m still a believer in hospitality. Service is very important to us. We have worked really really hard to make sure there’s an authenticity to the things that are being said at the table but also the individuals we hire. It’s not like, “Hey, you can breathe and take notes and know how to ring something up on a P.O.S. system? Cool, you can be a server!” It’s bigger than that for us. We want people who have personality.
I believe what we’re doing today is better than what we were doing five years ago, when we had 175 people in the restaurant. I think that there’s a maturity in the restaurant now that we lacked when we opened. To be honest, I was believing my own bullshit five years ago. I expected what happened five years ago to happen, and the reality is, I don’t think we were the restaurant then that we are now. I think we’re the best version of it today, a better version. A grown-up version. I’m a grown-up version of me!
I was a shithead five years ago. Coming off of television, thinking I was the cool, new hot thing in L.A., and the reality is, we were cooking food that lacked confidence and lacked maturity.
BR: I was going to ask you what parts of the restaurant you looked at and said, “I can get rid of this,” and what parts you were like, “Ok, I need to retain this.” And I don’t mean dishes, necessarily. From a philosophical standpoint, what was important?
MV: What I looked at was: We can get rid of having to force a technique onto every single dish. We can replace that with having to force a flavor on every dish. We used to write menus, where it was like, “Yeah, yeah, that sounds good, but what’s the cool thing we can put on top of it?” And not cool, meaning cold, because obviously we do freeze a lot of stuff, but, like, “What’s the trick, what’s the magic?” And sometimes, it ended up ruining the dish. So now it’s like, “Is the dish finished? Yup, it’s finished.” It’s about having an edit button.
BR: I always say that there are certain chefs who need editors. There are writers out there who hate the editing process — and obviously it depends who’s editing me — but I’m grateful to be in an industry where, if I go too far, if I put my head too far up my own ass, there’s someone there to pull it out.
MV: There’s something to the model — look at Twitter, for instance. You’re limited to 140 characters. So even as a journalist, I imagine that’s kind of frustrating, but it’s also refreshing because you realize that every character has a purpose. You reread it and you reread it, and you limit yourself to those 140 characters. I definitely look at things as inspiration, take those same principle and apply it to the food: everything that’s on that plate should be there. Sometimes it is better to have some limits.
We have a tomato mozzarella salad on the menu right now, but tomatoes aren’t in season. So we wondered, how do we make a tomato mozzarella salad without using crappy tomatoes? And so we started making a pomodoro sauce, and then basically creating a skin out of the pomodoro sauce for the mozzarella. And what’s funny about this dish is that it looks like the most pedestrian dish on the menu — when you look at the dish, it looks like a tomato — but it’s actually the one with the most technique. And I think when people eat it, they think they’re eating cheese that’s stuffed inside of a tomato. We serve it on ciabatta that we bake ourselves every day. It doesn’t sell a lot because people think it’s just cheese, tomato and bread. You can’t please everyone because people are like, “We want to get the crazier stuff!” But that is one of the craziest dishes on the menu.
BR: What you’re saying about the limitations, I think that’s why a lot of chefs who aren't vegan are turning to plant-based cooking. The class that I took in college that was the most helpful for actual journalism was one where every assignment had a 200-word limit. And 200 words is nothing, it’s like a paragraph. But if it’s all you’ve got, you make every damn one of those words count.
I also wanted to circle back to what you were saying about the spiel you get at every single restaurant from waiters, the “Hello, my name is, small plates meant for sharing…” It makes me crazy, but I feel like we’ve forgotten how to have that interaction without the script. It’s like a crutch, it’s been so bred into every single server who works in a certain type of restaurant that it’s second nature. It’s like saying “excuse me” if you bump into somebody.
MV: Or, “pardon my reach.” How many servers do you think, at home, are going for the remote control next to their significant other and say, “pardon my reach”?
BR: Well I still say “behind you” at home when I’m walking behind someone in my kitchen. That’s been one from the restaurant world that I wish all civilians learned.
MV: Yeah, that one makes sense. We should say that. Or “corner” when you walk around a corner, because who wants to smack face-to-face with a complete stranger? “Pardon my reach” though? Whenever I hear someone say that, I can just hear the manager in the lineup saying, “Now when you reach across someone, make sure you say ‘pardon my reach.’ ” Why? “Excuse me” is still cool. “You mind if I grab that?” “Pardon my reach”? Is this the fuckin’ 1940s? Is this the Queen’s language?
What we’re trying to do is stay away from trends and cliches. We wanted to cook steak, so that’s why we’re doing it.
We aren’t as busy as we were five years ago, and that’s the unfortunate part. We’re cooking better food today, we have better service today, we’re doing a better job. We’re a better restaurant today than we were five years ago. I know that. In fact, I don’t think we deserved the hype we got five years ago, and I think we deserve the hype today that we got five years ago. That’s the part that’s frustrating about what’s happening in L.A. There’s a lot of restaurants like that. Animal is another example … Jon [Shook] is one of my best friends, and we talk every day. Jon & Vinny’s is doing a lot of business, and it’s an amazing restaurant, but all of their restaurants are amazing. Animal was one of the ones that set the pace for this new L.A. dining scene. And it’s a shame that … it’s not a lack of loyalty, it’s like ADD. Attention deficit diners.
BR: It’s really hard because I try to go back and review places that have been around, but I’m not sure anyone cares. In the past year I keep thinking: I just want to review Lukshon. That restaurant is so fucking good, and no one talks about it. And it’s not going to stick around if everyone ignores it. But if I wrote a review of Lukshon, no one would read it.
If you go review that new place on Melrose … well, I’m not going to mention it.
I think we need to get back to focusing on food and service. That’s all. I hope that people can appreciate what we’ve done here and embrace it. I’d love to get another five years out of this space. Because it is tough. The rent’s expensive, the labor’s getting more expensive. As restaurateurs we’re all trying to figure out the formula. Not to make money but to survive. And that’s what’s scary. A lot of great restaurants, if something doesn’t change, are going to go away.