Michael Voltaggio has a whole lot of job titles on his resume. He’s the chef-owner of Ink and ink.sack, co-author of the cookbook Volt Ink with his brother Brian, and host of the Travel Channel show Breaking Borders, just to name a few. Now he’s adding another title to the list: activist.
The season six Top Chef champ is teaming up with Wholesome Wave and Naked Juice on the “Drink Good Do Good” campaign, which is on pace to donate 500,000 lbs of produce to people who otherwise don’t have access to it. And you can get in on the action: If you take a selfie holding a fruit or vegetable and tag #DrinkGoodDoGood, Naked Juice will donate 10 lbs of produce. We hung out and took selfies with chef Voltaggio at the Downtown L.A. Art Walk to get some more details on his charity work and find out what projects he has coming up in the future.
What made you want to get involved with the Drink Good Do Good campaign?
Well I’m already a Naked Juice fan so I was like, “Do I get free juice?” No, we started talking and got into the details of what they’re trying to accomplish—how for every post they’re donating fruits or vegetables to food deserts—and I really connected with the project. I was really shocked to find out, like, food deserts exist in L.A. This is happening right here. You’d think in a place like California where the growing season is year-round and we have access to so many fruits and vegetables that people are actually getting them, and they’re not. So I told them to sign me up.
And you’ve been involved with other food-focused charities, right? Didn’t you raise money for Share Our Strength by getting tatted up with their logo a few years ago?
Yeah I did. You know, when I get involved with any organization that’s going to do something to help feed someone else, I don’t ask many questions. It just makes sense: I’m a chef, I cook food, I bring food to people, other people are trying to bring food to people, and I want to do whatever I can to help with that process.
Now that chefs have bigger platforms than ever before, what do you think their roles should be in lobbying for change in the food system?
I think that for the first time chefs are being asked to step out of the kitchen a little bit. For a long time we were in the back of the house because we were the introverted ones, the ugly ones, the tattooed ones who had to stay on the other side of the wall. But there is no more separation like that anymore—everyone in the industry works together with a common goal, and that’s to feed people. Whether it’s in the restaurant or getting food to people in the streets, we’re all in it together. And the chefs bring a special skillet to the table: We understand creatively what you can do with food.
So chefs aren’t just using their Twitter following to shout out charities, but actually bringing some usable innovation to the table.
Exactly. I’ve cooked at the L.A. Mission for Thanksgiving the last three years and that for me was a huge eye-opener. I walked out on the streets and saw thousands of people that didn’t have anywhere to get dinner except for the streets of Skid Row, and we fed three-thousand people that day with sliced deli turkey and boxed stuffing mix. But for some people, that was the best turkey they’d ever had. And the Drink Good Do Good campaign kind of pulls back the curtain and shows us that we take for granted how accessible we think food is, and even if it’s right in front of us, people aren’t getting their hands on it
In that case, what do you think about what Roy Choi’s trying to do with Locol? Do you think that’s a sustainable model to try and get food to hungry people?
I’m a huge Roy Choi fan; he’s a friend of mine; I support everything he does. And he’s doing what he’s been doing forever really—he’s getting food to the streets. That’s exactly what we’re talking about: He’s using his ability, his power, his skillset as a chef to feed people on a large scale. And Locol is also setting out to prove that you don’t have to eat bad to eat cheap as long as you have creative minds behind the food that you’re offering. It’s like Roy always said, the people that are running the fast food chains are people in suits. Why can’t it be people in chef jackets? And at the end of the day it’s really simple: Do whatever you can to get food to people.
But it’s not always that simple, right? I worked at a catering company where the health department threatened to shut us down if we donated any leftovers to a food bank. Do you think there needs to be some legal reform to make it easier to get food to people?
Oh, absolutely. It’s a crime to give that food to somebody, but it’s not a crime to throw it away? There are so many water restrictions in place right now because of the drought—how often you can water your lawn, when you’re allowed to serve it at restaurants—maybe we should be looking at a more creative way like that to stop food from filling up landfills and start actually getting it to people.
You have so many things going on right now with restaurants and cookbooks and TV shows—where do you see your career trajectory ultimately going? Tom Colicchio just became the nation’s first full-time food correspondent for MSNBC. Would you think about doing the same?
When it comes down to it, I’m a cook. When I’m at the restaurant I’m working the line, not shaking hands and talking to every single guest that comes in there. But I feel like it’s my turn to pass the torch, and it’s my responsibility to teach other people what to do with the same kinds of career opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have. I still go to work every day and want to cook and create dishes, but I like that fact that chefs are encouraged to come out of the kitchen and do more. Because we’re the thinkers of the restaurant and also the people who put in the most work for the least pay. So people know we’re willing to put that hard work and creativity into other things.
There are a lot of old school chefs complaining that there’s a shortage of young driven young cooks who want to put in the time and pay their dues in the kitchen. Have you noticed that?
You know, I’m a big believer in talent. If you want to associate cooking with art—there are prodigies out there. There are eight-year-old kids who can sing really well, and there are kids who can cook really well. But there are other aspects surrounding cooking that need to addressed too. There’s the business side that you need to learn, sure, but also things like—I don’t know—how to deal with food allergies. Diners are literally trusting you with their lives and you need an education to be able to handle that. You need to know how to cook and how to be a chef before you just go out and decide to run a restaurant.
So what do you think about someone like 16-year-old chef Flynn McGarry opening up his own restaurant? That seemed to piss off a lot of chefs.
I mean, he’s been at it for a while. He’s been cooking in top restaurants for four or five years and that’s the equivalent to a lot of people who would open a restaurant. If he’s a smart kid and he’s a fast learner, I don’t care how old he is. And it seems like he’s put himself in the right situations to succeed. I’m not hating on him, but I do think this industry consumes you. He’s got his whole life to spend in the kitchen, might as well take all the time he can to learn.
Are these some regrets you’ve had in your own career?
I’ve been cooking since I was 15-years-old and I turn 37 in a week or two. I missed all of my 20s because I was at work the whole time. Flynn, keep going man, everyone’s rooting for you, but don’t forget to be a kid. He has the opportunity to be the best in the world because he’s already surrounded himself with—and worked for—some of the best in the world, so keep down that path. Don’t be in such a hurry. The hype will come, just keep learning.
What projects do you have coming up in the future? Do you have any new restaurants that are in the works?We’ve got some restaurants that are in construction right now. But first it’s all about getting Ink., which is four years old this month, up to the point where not only are we fully staffed, but we’re overstaffed. The last thing we want is someone to eat there and say, “It wasn’t as good as when that guy only had one restaurant.” I want to open up my next restaurant on Sunset by the end of this year, but if not then, definitely the first month or two of 2016.
That’s right around the corner. What’s the concept?
Haha, I haven’t figured that out yet. Well, not that I haven’t figured it out, but I’m trying to build out the space, put everything into it that I’ve always dreamt of having in a restaurant, then figure out what to do with it. With Ink, I went into a restaurant that used to be a sushi bar and, I don’t want to say I forced our style of cooking into a restaurant where it didn’t fit, but we certainly had to go through some growing pains because it wasn’t build for the type of food we’re cooking. Hopefully the new space will be built for anything that we want to cook.