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Notes from a 'Top Chef' party


When he's in the kitchen on a regular night, as shown here, chef Bryan Voltaggio is always focused. He managed to do so during last night's party as well. (John Johnston)

Last night's "Top Chef: Las Vegas" viewing party at Volt restaurant in Frederick was obviously headed into the wee hours by the time I left at 12:15 a.m. or so. I did stay long enough to see Bryan Voltaggio, who had changed from chef's whites into street clothes, try to get his chef-brother Michael on the horn from California.

Michael, of course, had just won $125,000 on the Bravo competition show in a nail-biter finale that featured, among other things, the brothers' mom being asked to choose, Sophie-like, between her sons' first-course dishes. "I plead the Fifth," she told co-host Padma Lakshmi, to much laughter from the Volt crowd.

By the time Bryan got Michael on the phone, the Frederick love-fest was in full thrall. "I can't say that in other cities they've got the same pride as here," Bryan told the crowd. "Yeah, we are special, and for that, I'm so grateful." The only problem with the phone call to Michael, though, was that while I assume the younger Voltaggio heard his older brother as well as the crowd on the other end of the line, we couldn't hear a thing from him.

No matter. We had characters like Mike Isabella ("Tonight, I'm a Voltaggio, baby!" he yelled at one point) of Zaytinya to keep us entertained.

Before the party started, I had the joy of sampling Bryan's cooking in the kitchen dining room, where the highlights of the tasting menu were: shiitake veloute with pine-nut sabayon, chili oil and micro-basil; goat-cheese-filled ravioli with little cubes of butternut squash, a sage brown butter sauce, and chanterelles; pork belly mostarda with calypso beans and red ribbon sorrel; and duck breast with foie gras, Brussels sprouts and pureed apples.

After all, the chef wasn't sitting back and letting all the attention merely wash over him all night. He had a restaurant to run: 85 seats plus the lounge, and an expected 125 covers, not to mention the hundreds of people he was feeding in the party tent set up over Volt's garden. In addition to the two tasting menus in the kitchen dining room, he was supervising that room's Table 21 (a menu that changes every day), the a la carte menu and a bar menu. When he presented some of the dishes to our group, he was an hour or more away from the other assignment facing him: He was to participate in Bravo's Ultimate Virtual Viewing Party by supplying regular Tweets throughout the night.

"I'm multitasking," he said. "My iPhone is sitting right next to my cutting board."

In fact, the chef has turned a carved-out station on one wall into an office of sorts, with outlets and his laptop. But as the night wore on and he transitioned from the kitchen to the viewing party as the 10 p.m. finale got underway, he confessed: He handed off the Tweeting to publicist Rebecca Brand of 2911 Productions.

Under the tent, fellow cheftestants Isabella, who had hired a stretch Hummer to come to the party, and a newly blond Jesse Sandlin juggled cocktails, handshakes and requests for photos as the show started on big screens. "I wouldn't miss it for the world," Isabella said. "Bryan and Michael are like family."

Voltaggio's beaming wife, Jennifer, a graphic designer, literally sparkled in a black-sequined dress. "I bought it this afternoon when I saw the tent," she said. Nearby, Maryland State Rep. Joseph R. Bartlett called himself a "big fan" of Voltaggio's and a regular patron of Volt. "I'm thrilled that all the stars have aligned," he said.

From Volt, the show seemed to fly by in a blur, with watchers having a hard time even keeping up with what the cheftestants were cooking onscreen but content to raise a glass every time a compliment was thrown Bryan's -- or fellow hometown boy Michael's -- way. When all was said and done, and Lakshmi pronounced that Michael was Top Chef, you would hardly have known that the onsite man of the hour hadn't won. From this crowd's perspective, it was a victory for the brothers, together.

Even though "Top Chef: Las Vegas" specialized in showing one brother or the other's grimacing facial expression whenever the other one succeeded, last night Bryan expressed nothing but pride for his bro's win. Of course he was disappointed to finish second, but he told the crowd, "Sometimes it comes down to good days and bad days. I'm not saying I had a bad day, but Michael had a really, really good day."

I asked him to say more about the projects the brothers hinted at in the live chat they conducted with Washington Post readers yesterday (which has been updated with more answers, by the way): cookbook, Web site and possibly restaurant? When? Where?

"We have a lot of ideas," he told me, as he sipped a PBR. "Because of everything that's been going on, we haven't had time to make anything concrete. But the bottom line is that we first worked together here in Frederick, at the Holiday Inn. And Bravo and 'Top Chef' brought us back together again. That's the most important thing. I've already got a restaurant that I'm very proud of. 'Top Chef' was about Michael and I being able to not just compete against each other, but with each other."

I did make him promise one thing: that if the term "BroVo," which yours truly coined in a Twitterific moment of brilliance, shows up in any of their projects, that I at least get a little credit for it. An asterisk, perhaps. He agreed.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  December 10, 2009; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs , Television  | Tags: Joe Yonan, Top Chef, Twitter  
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