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Silverton and Voltaggio Talk Restaurant Empires, the LA Dining Scene, and the Lack of Fine Dining Today

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This year's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books Cooking Stage didn't have quite the same draw as last year's, when both Thomas Keller and Duff Goldman dominated. This past weekend, however, highlights included cooking demonstrations by local chefs Michael Voltaggio (ink.) and Josiah Citrin (Mélisse). Other demos by TV personality Gail Simmons, and chefs Chris Cosentino, Alice Medrich, and Debbie Lee rounded out the two-day line up. The most interesting contribution of the weekend was an interview of Michael Voltaggio side-by-side with Nancy Silverton conducted by Los Angeles Times Deputy Food Editor Betty Hallock.

Silverton sat straight as a stick and periodically patted or tapped Voltaggio (slouching) as one would a puppy or small child. She related to the crowd a story of a recent conversation with Voltaggio who told her, "I don't know how anyone opens another restaurant." Which turned into a long discussion about why chefs may not be content with having just one restaurant. Wolfgang Puck was Silverton's mentor in this matter, explaining that when a chef finds a talented team of kitchen chefs and cooks, those key employees only stay at a restaurant for two or three years. Then, they want to go somewhere else and be the boss. But if a savvy chef with a good concept opens another restaurant, he or she then gives those loyal cooks another space to grow in, a kitchen to lead, a dining room to oversee for themselves.

"I don't know if Michael agrees with me yet, [she pats him] but he'll get there," mused Silverton.

Then it was time for Voltaggio to ramble on about how having his restaurant is a "job," and when he's there he's "working" -- presumably as opposed to milling around in the dining room and chatting with guests. And when he's not there, Voltaggio says he has separation anxiety, even though sometimes his cooks tell him that the place runs more smoothly when he's not there. "I try not to be offended by that," he chuckled.

On the subject of fine dining, Silverton and Voltaggio agreed that it's about the presentation, the multiple servers per table, the expensive stemware, silverware, plates, linens, and so forth. So is ink. fine dining? "It's not fine dining and it's not not fine dining," answered Voltaggio. The two agreed that Mélisse, Providence and perhaps Patina were the only traditional fine dining restaurants in LA today. Why? Perhaps because of LA's more relaxed attitude towards entertainment in general and that great chefs have the desire and freedom here to serve great food, but not require gentlemen to wear jackets.

When asked where they liked to dine out, the two responded by saying they were afraid to name names lest they forget to list a restaurant owned or operated by a dear friend. Silverton mentioned that she had recently been to Pollo A La Brasa, near 8th and Western, and asked Michael if he'd ever been. He shook his head. The two food personalities could not be more different, but were united in their love for Los Angeles and the dining scene past, present, and future.
·All LA Times Festival of Books Coverage [~ELA~]

Melisse Restaurant

1104 Wilshire Boulevard, , CA 90401 (310) 395-0881 Visit Website