Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Interview with Chef/Owner Bryan Voltaggio of Volt

We interviewed Bryan Voltaggio, Chef/Owner of Volt restaurant on April 10. After reading the transcription, we thought readers would enjoy reading the interview as is. Here we post the first half of the interview. Photos are taken by Dan.

Shannon Moore: So Yeon and I started a blog about local agriculture about a year ago, wasn't it?

Yeon Kim: Less than a year, we started in June.

Bryan Voltaggio: That's right about the same time we opened the restaurant.

Shannon: And the purpose of the blog for us was to basically connect people to the local producers. We focused on the West Frederick Farmer's Market because we went there and we volunteered there, but we also kind of wanted to talk about in general how people could connect to the local experience- and actually get really meaningful experience out of supporting local agriculture, kind of close the loop. So we write about all kinds of things. We write about our own backyard gardening, we also write about the farmer's market, what's in season. Some of the farmers send us their emails every week when they have stuff so that we post them on the blog, so people can tell what is going to be at the market that week. And we write about recipes. One of the things that was exciting for us obviously was you coming here, was that you're very focused on local food. And maybe a lot of people aren't as familiar with why restaurateurs and chefs do that. That would be fun to talk about. Some things that are obviously in your lexicon but that the average person wouldn't know about like food miles. So I wondered first if you wouldn't want to just talk about yourself and then the restaurant, and then we could ask more specific questions.

Bryan: The philosophy behind our food, I guess we'll start with that, and the reason why we decided to look locally for our products, were, for one, I was very familiar with this area, in growing up here all of my life pretty much. I knew Frederick County was a big agricultural area, and I grew up in Walkersville. And actually there was a farm adjacent to my family's home. It was cool, because at a young age, I get to go down to experience what it's like working on a farm. I mean, at seven years old, I was hanging out with a friend and she was the same age as me, and it was more fun to play on the farm than it was to play in my yard, so we'd go down there, pick corn, bale hay, and at seven years old run around and chase turkeys. I think that's where I fell in love with the farm aspect of being close to where our food comes from, because I understood that at a very young age. Our family always had a garden. My brother and I, we would constantly be in the garden, picking peas or peppers, eating them right out of the garden, so we got the firsthand experience of what fresh produce is all about. Fresh products. And I so think that resonated with me throughout my entire start of my career, I guess.

When I got to New York, I think that's kind of the starting point of me wanting to reconnect, because when I got to New York, I mean New York is a huge city and it's very difficult to see how your product is coming in when you're just in a concrete jungle for six years. I went to school in Hudson Valley, so I knew just north of us there was a lot of agriculture, and there was a lot of produce, and a lot of game was raised there, pheasants, ducks, and the partridge, so I knew it was very near us, but never got to see it on a regular basis and I missed that aspect; however, the greenmarket saved me. I'd go down to the 14th Street Greenmarket, every Wednesday, every Saturday, and I would be there during the seasons, because then we could actually pick our produce out, rather than rely on the supplier, where you'd call him up and say, "hey, you know, I want a case of baby golden beets", and whatever they'd decide to throw on the truck is what arrives. To me there is a disconnect. If we're not actually able to - well we could choose at the dock. You could say, "well this is no good, send it back" so that's the only option we have. We have the option of going through there and saying, "I want these particular sizes", and I could pick- and the greens- and okay all the greens are still attached to the beets, and it's really nice to use the greens as well, it's using all the product. Half the time, take beets to continue with the same example, they were sometimes topped with ice during the summer, and it crushes the greens or definitely ruins them. I think that was probably what I was missing when I was there.

And then when I got down to DC, that's when I knew I was back in the area where I could get to know farmers. I tried it at Charlie Palmer Steak as much as I could. It's good to know local farming. But it was difficult for meats. The volume we ran through, I couldn't find a small producer to keep up with that, there's no way, but we did some specialty stuff. I remember out in Berryville there was a gentleman who was raising Randall Lineback. It's a breed that was almost extinct, and he raised it to produce veal. It's grass-fed, it's not the particular veal processing or raising that you would think of. It was actually raised naturally on grass, then taken to about 800 pounds. Which was great for us in the restaurant, but I'd have to buy the whole cow. The steakhouse concept is difficult, because you only want the prime cuts, and all of the shoulders and the legs you usually grind or something like that. So it wasn't quite practical but it was fun. And then just continuing the path of just trying to get closer to the product, because I always wanted to get back to that point. And that's where when the opportunity for Volt came. it seemed to be based on that.

There's so many benefits of buying local, eating local. For one, we have the connection between the farmer: the grower, and the chef. And we're able to talk to them about what's coming in season, so we can menu plan. We've gone as far as now, some of the farmers are actually going to grow specifically for us. That's still a work in progress, but a lot of chefs don't have that opportunity. We do here, and that's exciting. We can talk about, okay, I want this specific chioggia beet because it's the right sweetness, the right balance I'm looking for, to use beets as an example. And that's great. Not a lot of people have that. Not only that, we're supporting our local economy, I believe. To keep money within our area, this exchange of business that's happening, it's like we're supporting our economy, rather than a foreign economy or something else. Which is okay, obviously there's some good products in Europe, but I would rather buy here, buy local. Yes, so that for me is a great thing. It's having that relationship where somebody comes to the back door and says, here's three pounds of arugula, have fun.

My brother is a chef in Healdsburg, California and I visited there several times. It's a Charlie Palmer restaurant. They had a network of farmers, because that was a huge growing area in California, and it would be the same thing. Farmers would show up at the back door. They wouldn't even get a phone call first, they would just show up. "I got five pounds of chantarelles. You want em? I was foraging on my farm this morning. And this fennel just grows around my farm." Because there it grows wild. And they would just show up with all of this great product, and I'm like, "God, If I could work in an environment like this it would be fantastic". Well I knew that Frederick could do that. And I already have a forager I am working with right now who gives me chicken-of-the-woods, hen-of-the-woods, morels, that's all he's brought to me so far. He's finding these huge growths, they're like, oh my God, everywhere! And they're perfect. Because they're coming in and they're just picked off so they're not dried out. I'm already getting some morels. What I've got now are some Oregon, some Eastern morels. But soon, here in the next two weeks, we'll get them here, which will be great.

So the base of the cuisine is local, sustainable, organic.

Shannon: One of the things that I thought was neat was that you've extended the concept of local foods to local wild foods. Not everybody would do that. It's a little bit harder to get some of the things. But they're so unique and interesting. I saw that with the mushrooms. And obviously this summer...pawpaws!

Bryan: Oh, I can't wait until that season because trust me, I only had, it was like the end of the season when you introduced me to them, and I didn't have, really, an opportunity to play with it, but now this year I'll have a whole lot of fun with that, hopefully.

Shannon: I have a contact for you.

Bryan: So bring me some. But so, that's very very interesting. And that's not something that's not cultivated.

Shannon: But it's a tropical fruit, it's like "how did that happen to grow in this region?"

Bryan: Well they must have been brought here at some point.

Shannon: It's a native, actually.

Yeon: I think it's native.

Shannon: It's a native wild food. It actually originated in this region.

Bryan: Did it really? I didn't do my research on it.

Shannon: On the banks of rivers.

Bryan: I gotta start looking a little bit more into it.

Shannon: Talk to me a little bit about food miles. Do you think about that at all when you're buying food, or?

Bryan: Yes.

Shannon: You do think about food miles. From a more practical perspective?

Bryan: The mileage of where it's-

Shannon: Where it's coming from, yeah the distance.

Bryan: Yeah absolutely. Well that's why I use one of the three criteria [
local, sustainable, organic] to- we're just trying to be responsible in our restaurant as much as we can. It is difficult to buy everything locally in a climate that doesn't support agriculture all year. Also, I'm limited to what's around me. The fishing is very, very seasonal here and it's very regulated because of the impact we've had over the past 200 years on the Chesapeake Bay of course. Which is okay but I can't buy fish all year. So when I think about what I'm doing, I think about it a couple different ways: Let's take carpacci that I serve on the menu. It's actually going to be on the Easter menu. It's farm raised. It's farm raised in Kanu, Hawaii. That's one where I say, "okay, well I know that I'm getting it from a reputable source, it's farm-raising this fish, it's not impacting the environment, except for I have to get it flown here." I look at it as, well, I can't, I haven't been able to find products where I can do everything, but I can at least do...the fun process is that we're not ripping the oceans off, we're buying something that's healthy, we're getting something that the farming practices make sense, it's actually a model for the future, what they're doing out there is a model. Then I feel like I need to support that. I have to fly it. And I'm okay with that. Now, there are a few fisheries now that are starting up in the Chesapeake Bay area. There's actually a prawn farmer, a shrimp farmer that's actually on land, they've built ponds and they're in greenhouses...

Yeon: Oh, I just read an article.

Bryan: Yeah, they started about three years ago. I think they're like in Queen Mary's County?

Shannon: Queen Anne's or Saint Mary's?

Bryan: Saint Mary's, yes, that area. And I'm just starting to get to know them, but their product is very limited right now, so it's tough to get it up here. But it's very very smart. That's something that's going to be a model for the future too. And that's something new and we want to support it.

Shannon: Well I imagine too, somebody like you, because you're committed to trying to do that, if a farmer really had an opportunity where they had an outlet they could produce more because they would know that you would buy it. And I guess that's part of the benefit too of having a relationship.

Bryan: Yeah, it's an effort that you need to get involved in. Buying like this, it's a little bit different. I just spoke to somebody yesterday about the same subject, and he's actually a writer. I said, I know you're constantly on the phone with chefs on the same topic. They have obviously talked about sources. I am willing to give away all of my sources up here because I want everybody in Frederick County to benefit from our relationship.

Shannon: So tell me about some of your relationships.

Bryan: Well I'm working with Rick Hood, who's an organic farmer in Thurmont. Glade Link farm, which is also a local one in Middletown; she has some great kale and flowers and blueberries.

Shannon: And blueberries.

Bryan: The blueberries are fantastic yes. Blackberries. Um let's see. Scenic View Orchard, which is Sabillasville, but I pick up from them at the greenmarket. Everybody at the greenmarket. Everybody that's there, that's who I've been talking to.

Shannon: They're always talking to us about you too, because they know that I like to eat here. And they're like, "I just sold a whatever to Bryan and I heard that you spent a hundred and twenty dollars on dinner there." And I'm like, "who told you about what I spent there?"

Yeon: I did! [Laughs] Danny [Rohrer, of Rohrer's Meats] was so excited when you [Bryan] stopped by and got a big load of his steak, he was very excited you wanted to try some meat. And they came to me, they're like "Yeon, you gotta meet this guy. You gotta learn what he's doing, buying all of this food at the farmer's market."

Shannon: One of the farmers even said that without this market this year, he won't be profitable. They really rely on the market because it's their opportunity to sell things at retail instead of selling them at wholesale.

Bryan: It gives them an opportunity too to grow new products, and it gets them out of the "wheat, barley, corn and soybean" and gets them growing some specialty produce.

Shannon: Right, not just commodity crops.

Bryan: Right. And that was one thing that resonated with me. The owners of Thanksgiving Farm down on 85.

Shannon: They're turkey, right? turkey farmers?

Bryan: Yes. They grow a lot of produce. They were growing a lot of interesting stuff, petite vegetables, kohlrabi, things that weren't coming off the shelves down there on a regular basis but they were doing it because they did have a few clients in Frederick that did want it but they kind of went away. Restaurants or a few people that were interested in new products. So they stopped growing all that because they didn't have an outlet. Or they'd ship them to Baltimore to the market there, it was down to Baltimore or to DC. So it wasn't staying here, and I'm looking for stuff like that. It's nice that there are still people that are trying new products.

Shannon: There's someone at the market who has the dog biscuits, who has all of the really gorgeous heirloom and unusual varieties of things, at the very end of the first row.

Yeon: That's Nancy [Weiss, of Chesapeake's Choice].

Bryan: Nancy, yeah. She's in Middletown. When I show up, with her, I buy all of her petite eggplant, I buy all of...

Shannon: Her stuff is exquisite.

Yeon : They are always looking into unusual vegetables. And she'll ask, "oh, Yeon, so what if I grow some chinese vegetable. If I grow this- bok choy sometimes- what do I do?" and I'm like "well, you can do this and this and this". So I think it's really exciting that farmers such as Nancy are willing to try some different kinds.

Shannon: I kind of put them more in the category of like artists as opposed to straight farmers, because a lot of the people who are kind of straight farmers, they're making their living from the farming, so they have this kind of thing that they're doing and it's kind of more routine.

Bryan: Well there is a love of farming there too

Shannon: Absolutely

Yeon: They love to try new varieties, new things. I think that it's really exciting that we have some chefs that are willing to take those products, who love to experiment, and show people, see, you have basil, you can do this. See, you have this small Chinese green. Just simple stuff you can do.

Shannon: Yeah the red sorrel experiment was pretty cool.

Bryan: Yeah, it's great to see. And a lot of times there's a lot of trial and error, or I talk to people, the more I understand what they go through. Because I talk to someone on a regular basis, especially when he's growing it organic, sometimes things just don't work out, and that's time, money lost on seed, any irrigation he's doing, any issues in climate, any of the other things he's doing, money out of pocket to keep the crops from being destroyed, that could all be lost. And so there's also the risk that they're taking too to produce the stuff, and that, I respect them for very much. Because it's a gamble. I understand yes they start off with small crops, or small amounts, obviously until they get it down, but still it's a lot of work.

Shannon: Talk about Cherry Glen Farms. You showcase their products quite a bit here. Is that a farm that you have a specific kind of relationship with?

Bryan: Yes, well, we got to know her, and I was so excited that they were producing cheese twenty minutes away from us. Now I've found in Clear Spring Maryland there's a cheesemaker. There's more and more as we start to...so close to this area. And not only was I impressed with everything that she was doing there, they have enough quanity too that I'm not depleting it just on my own; they have plenty to sell, which is great. They have like 230 head.

Shannon: Does Cherry Glen make the Monocacy Ash cheese?

Bryan: They do

Shannon: Which is like a Humboldt Fog? That's a great cheese.

Bryan: Yes, it's a vegetable ash. Actually, I got them to send me a bag of the ash itself. I started cooking with it, which is pretty cool. I was roasting venison. Well first I cooked the meat, then I started rolling it in the pan a little bit. And then rolling it in the vegetable ash. Because the ash gives it a look that it's a charcoal briquet. It's like charred meat. It has the same flavor characteristics as a piece of charred meat; however, it's not all that carbon buildup.

Shannon: Interesting!

Bryan: It's done properly, it's not protein buildup, it's vegetables. It's pretty cool, because it has the same flavor and aroma you get from - some people like the meat burnt. There's some pretty cool characteristics there that are nice, but without making it harmful. So that's an interesting technique that we started doing these past few months.

Shannon: Have you had any of the cheese from Caprikorn farms?

Bryan: Yes, I have.

Shannon: They're outstanding also.

Bryan: Yeah, I got her soft goat. Every time I go to the market I pick some up. I just wasn't able to connect with her yet on a regular basis. These are all relationships I plan to really build upon this year. Last year I was so focused on establishing the restaurant, opening it, starting to establish relationships with farmers. This year, we're established, we'll have a lot more time to start working one on one with everybody. As much as they want to give, I want to invest in them.

Shannon: There's a lot of good farms too that are not necessarily connected with the farmer's market. Like if you're- you're not going up to Sabillasville to get your produce, but there's another farm up there, the Harbaughs. They have an operation up there, and they have their own little farm market there. That's a nice little place too. There's places like that all over Frederick County, which is kind of exciting, and even like Washington County, some of the nearby regions.

Bryan: I go to the Catoctin Mountain Orchard a lot, because they don't really come down to the markets, I'll just drive up there because they have peaches.

Shannon: Yeah, that's Robert Black.

Bryan: Yeah, Robert Black. And Pryor's Orchard. I grew up on those peaches. If I didn't have peaches...

Shannon: Yeah, they're transcendent.

Bryan: I drive up there. Peaches, better than any peach in Georgia.

Shannon: Really, seriously?

Bryan: I mean, I'm telling you, when they're in peak season the Redhavens are unbelievable. So I go up there every July, early August. And I'll get bushels and bushels of them. I used to use them in DC. I used to drive up there on Saturday mornings, buy like three or four bushels, take them down to DC and make them into desserts at Charlie Palmer Steak. So I was already doing this before. As much as I could.

Shannon: It must be kind of exciting to come back to a place where you grew up, obviously your vision has grown over time, and bring it back to this place. Does it feel kind of in some weird way, that it was inside you all along and then here it is again for you? It sounds like, guiding your tastes, and your love of local food.

Bryan: Yeah, I feel like it's finally coming full circle. I mean I always wanted to come back here and open a restaurant. I knew this before I left to go to culinary school I wanted to do this. It was with all of the experiences I had outside of here that I was able to come back here and do this. And do something that I think was a little bit different, something that people would respect and support, and I think we've done a great job of doing it so far.

Shannon: We think so too. [Laughs]

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