Home on the Range

‘Top Chef’ finalist Bryan Voltaggio brings star power and ambitious plans for a new restaurant to Friendship Heights



The mechanical burst of nail guns, the whir of table saws and the banging of hammers create a cacophonous soundtrack for the frenetic scene at the Chevy Chase Pavilion in Friendship Heights. Ropes crisscross the atrium, temporary walls create a maze on the lower level by Starbucks, and construction workers outnumber consumers two to one on this mid-February morning.

In the middle of this chaos, Top Chef favorite Bryan Voltaggio sits at a table next to the coffee kiosk with the floor plans for his new restaurant, Range, spread out in front of him. Dressed in a black hoodie, gunmetal-gray jeans and ebony Converse, he looks more like a concertgoer than a critically celebrated chef and up-and-coming restaurateur. His arms are embellished with tattoos, but they’re hidden today by a blue-and-white micro-plaid shirt with a pair of classic Ray-Bans hanging from the front.

Don’t be fooled, though, by the hip façade: Voltaggio is a savvy businessman who wants to build a restaurant empire. Bringing Range to Friendship Heights is the next step in his campaign.

The ambitious, $10-million project will occupy a large portion of the mall’s second floor in the former Stein Mart space when it opens in mid-September. It’s a massive undertaking that will boast nearly 275 seats, a wine store, a grab ’n’ go coffee bar, an in-house bakery, giant wood-burning ovens, a colossal raw bar, rotisseries, a cooler to dry-age meats, and counter seating that overlooks the open kitchen, if all goes according to plan.

“I’m like a kid before Christmas,” says Voltaggio, who celebrated his 36th birthday this spring. He gestures toward the sweeping architectural schematics. “Range is all of my experiences…brought together to create a new approach to the steak house.”

The name has multiple meanings for Voltaggio. “It can refer to the range of options, the livestock coming from the range and cooking on the range,” he says.

As he shows how the terrazzo-floored section of the sprawling, 14,000-square-foot eatery will overlook the remodeled atrium, a woman at a nearby table leans over, apologizes for listening in and asks what’s going on in the upstairs space.

“I can’t tell you,” Voltaggio says with a grin.

“As long as it’s not something crappy like Panera or Cheesecake Factory,” she says with a sniff. “The area needs something better.”

That elicits a chuckle. “You’re going to be happy,” Voltaggio says. “I guarantee it.”

The eavesdropper makes a good point: There are few restaurants of this caliber in Friendship Heights. Voltaggio considers Jaleo in Bethesda and the nearby Rosa Mexicana to be his closest competition in terms of the quality of food he’s aiming for, but those are boutique chains. Range is a stand-alone effort that represents a big step forward for the local dining scene.

Voltaggio could easily have opened it in downtown D.C., but that wouldn’t have jibed with his vision for expansion. “I want to be in touch with my restaurants, so I want to be close,” he says.

He may want to build an empire, but he wants to personally oversee every corner of it. And Friendship Heights is just a 30-minute drive from his home in Urbana.

“How does Wolfgang Puck split his time?” he asks. “He’s got restaurants all over the world. I don’t want to go that far."

“I’ll be spending a good amount of time at Range when it opens,” he says, “though I’ll have to split my time between all my restaurants.”

 

Voltaggio plates at Volt, the Frederick restaurant that earned him a James Beard nomination in 2010. Photo by Ken GoodmanCurrently, Voltaggio has several restaurants in Frederick: his flagship, Volt, which opened in the summer of 2008 and earned him a James Beard nomination two years later; Lunchbox, a soup and sammie spot that he opened in the fall of 2011; and Family Meal, a modern diner scheduled to open this summer.

Volt had already been open about a year when Voltaggio appeared on the Bravo TV series Top Chef, coming in second to his younger brother, Michael, a celebrated chef in his own right who lives in L.A. The older Voltaggio still has a hard time believing that people consider him a celebrity and can sometimes be shy when fans want to take a picture with him. “I wake up every day wondering how I got here,” he says.

His business partner, 41-year-old Frederick resident Hilda Staples, who has a hand in all of Voltaggio’s restaurants—as well as in Top Chef alum Mike Isabella’s Graffiato and R.J. Cooper’s Rogue 24 in D.C.—was blown away by the aftershock of Voltaggio’s Top Chef appearance. “Bryan really did become a celebrity overnight,” she says.

As Voltaggio’s episodes aired, Staples organized viewing parties at Volt to cheer on her partner. These started with 10 people huddled around an old television set in Volt’s lounge, but as Voltaggio began to dominate the competition, more and more people showed up. Ultimately, Staples had to buy a giant flat screen so everyone could watch the culinary contest, including Voltaggio, who was back behind the burners by then.

More than 300 people attended the finale, almost getting the restaurant shut down by the fire marshal due to overcrowding. “Everyone assumed that Bryan had won,” Staples recalls. “When they announced Michael was the winner, there was a momentary silence. Then everyone started congratulating him, because it was like he won anyway.”

After the show aired, Voltaggio was flooded with offers to open new restaurants, but he demurred. “I didn’t go out there and put up a bunch of crap,” he says. “I wanted to do it right.”

The Frederick native started his career bussing tables at a local Holiday Inn. That wasn’t good enough, though; he wanted to work in the kitchen. “I thought being a chef would be a cool way to pick up chicks,” he jokes.

He married his high school sweetheart, Jennifer, and they now have two children, a 4-year-old son named Thacher and Piper, who celebrates her first birthday this summer.

After studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Voltaggio spent almost a decade working for James Beard Award-winner Charlie Palmer at Aureole in New York and Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C., and he learned a lot about building out a boutique brand. He helped his mentor open a number of new locations around the country. When it came time to set up shop on Capitol Hill in 2003, Palmer gave him complete control. “He gave me the keys and told me, ‘Open up Charlie Palmer Steak,’ ” Voltaggio says. “I was there from the construction onward, which really gave me the confidence to do Range.”

Range is a huge undertaking, with more than twice the number of seats as Volt. The project has been in the works since the end of 2010, when real estate investment management firm Clarion Partners approached Voltaggio. They wanted a top-tier restaurant with a celebrity chef attached to it to bring some A-list shine to Chevy Chase Pavilion, which housed retailers such as J. Crew and World Market but hadn’t been the shopping hot spot developers had hoped it would be.

Voltaggio had been thinking about opening a restaurant in the District, but hadn’t considered Friendship Heights. He quickly realized its potential. “I saw the neighborhood as having a need for great dining,” he says. “There are some great restaurants there, but not chef-driven concepts.”

To make the space more attractive to Voltaggio, Clarion Partners developed plans to give the mall a multimillion-dollar facelift, including a three-story LED screen, new escalator and elevator systems, and a complete aesthetic revamp of the center atrium.

It took some convincing, but after almost a year of negotiations Voltaggio finally signed the lease in February. “When you’re working on a project this large, you have to be sure that every piece of the project is going to work the way that you want it to,” he says. “There’s no room for error.”

Voltaggio and Staples originally thought about putting in a restaurant/gourmet grocery called Market Kitchen, modeled after Mario Batali’s Eataly in New York, but they ultimately decided the concept wouldn’t work. After looking at the Friendship Heights demographics—businessmen, retail shoppers and young families—they decided to go in a different direction. “It looked like a more traditional dining experience would do well there,” Voltaggio says.

Traditional isn’t a fancy way of saying average. “We wanted to do something original that’s not cookie-cutter,” says Staples, who partnered with Voltaggio in 2006 when she set out to open a champagne lounge in Frederick, the project that ultimately became Volt. “The area has so much fine retail, but there’s no great food. The area needs this.”

“Bryan coming to Chevy Chase is good news,” says acclaimed chef and restaurateur José Andrés, who knows both brothers well and used to employ Michael at The Bazaar in Los Angeles. “Volt is amazing, plus he’s hardworking, humble and has his head on his shoulders.”

Top Chef competitor-turned-friend Mike Isabella, who thinks of the Volt chef as a big brother, couldn’t agree more. “I wish all of his restaurants were in D.C.,” he says. “That way I wouldn’t have to drive so far to eat his food.”

When Range opens, Isabella can start saving on his fuel bill. Voltaggio refers to the restaurant’s wide-ranging menu as “casual fine dining.” There will be an emphasis on small plates and shareable options, though you’ll still be able to get straight-up steak for one if that’s what you want. Even when you’re getting your carnivore on, Voltaggio wants options beyond what you’d find at Ruth’s Chris. Small plates will cost $8 to $18, and entrées will be in the $25 to $33 range.

“The idea is to go beyond the classic center cuts,” he says. “A rib-eye is great, but I don’t understand how people can eat it every day.”

In a way, Range is a return to Voltaggio’s Charlie Palmer Steak roots. “I miss that à la carte atmosphere where people order a bunch of different things to try,” he says. “But that style of restaurant requires a lot of space and a dense population, both of which we have here.”

He has no interest, however, in repeating the past, so he has designed Range to go far beyond what his old stomping grounds could handle. This sprawling new setup will have several rotisserie ovens, and will offer whole roasted chickens, legs of lamb and pork shoulders. There also are plans for the menu to include flatbreads, house-made charcuterie, fresh shellfish and casual lunch options.

 

Voltaggio holds a silver fox rabbit at Whitmore Farm, which provides some of the meat for his restaurants. Photo by Erick GibsonThe chef has been long invested in using locally sourced, seasonal products; it’s an ethos that will carry over to Range. He will be getting a lot of his produce from Frederick’s Big White Barn Produce, which will be specially growing heritage varietals and botanical rarities for all of his ventures; fresh lamb  from Border Springs Farm in Patrick Springs, Va.; and some of his eggs and meat from Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Md.

Click here to see a behind-the-scenes video of Voltaggio's photo shoot at Whitemore Farm.

One thing you won’t find: a hyper-exclusive tasting menu like the one showcased at Volt’s Table 21. Forget dishes highlighting molecular gastronomy, unconventional ingredients or unexpected flavor combinations such as a mock oyster made with root vegetable salsify. For now, Voltaggio is reserving such haute cuisine for his flagship.

But as is the case at Voltaggio’s other establishments, there will be a subtle emphasis on healthier eating. At Lunchbox, diners get a free piece of fresh fruit—oftentimes an explosively crunchy apple from a nearby orchard—while Volt strives to reduce the sugar in its desserts so that the natural ingredients shine.

“Not all of the steaks will come out with half a pound of compound butter on them,” Voltaggio says. “And I’ll be cutting back on the butter in the side dishes a bit to let the vegetables do the talking.”

To give a better sense of his overall idea, Voltaggio leads the way upstairs to the space that will soon be home to Range. On this day, it requires some imagination to envision it. All the demolition is done, so there’s nothing but unadorned drywall and unfinished floors punctuated by massive concrete columns.

“It’s easy to build a restaurant on paper,” he says. “Making it come to fruition is the hard part, but also the most exciting part.”

As he walks through the bare-bones space, Voltaggio offers a guided tour of the restaurant-to-be. “The kitchen will be right here,” he says, sweeping his arm along a back stretch of the room where coils of wiring hang from the ceiling. “I’ve redesigned it three times already.”

In this latest iteration, the kitchen is completely open. “People want to see what’s going on,” he says. “It’s part of the dining experience.”

When the construction is finished, the space will be decorated with warm woods, marble and a panoply of grays with a butternut accent. “It’s going to follow in the style of Volt,” Voltaggio says. “It’s going to be organic and not flashy.”

Striding over to the opposite end of the space, to the wall abutting Military Road, he notes that the venture next door will be a cigar lounge called Civil. Though separately owned, Civil’s menu will be designed and executed by Voltaggio and his team at Range. He’s hoping its proximity will inspire him to enjoy stogies again. “I haven’t had two hours to smoke one in a long time,” he says. “I feel bad lighting one up and putting it out.”

There hasn’t been much chill time ever since Top Chef catapulted Voltaggio into the culinary stratosphere and onto the pop culture landscape. In addition to his restaurants, the hardworking and determined toque has been devoting his energy to an impressive slate of projects. Collaborating with Frederick’s Flying Dog Brewery, he created a signature beer, Backyard Ale. He partnered with Isabella to open Graffiato, which debuted in the summer of 2011. That same season, he and his brother went on a Williams-Sonoma-sponsored road trip around the South, cooking barbecue and learning about regional techniques. Just a few months later, they released their first cookbook, VOLT ink.: Recipes, Stories, Brothers (Weldon Owen).

After stepping away from the keyboard and the test kitchen, he spearheaded the Rogue Sessions at Washington, D.C.’s Rogue 24, where nine high-profile chefs—including José Andrés, The Source’s Scott Drewno and fellow Bravo TV alum Jennifer Carroll—recently took over the kitchen for a week each, while chef-owner R.J. Cooper recovered from open-heart surgery.

Amid all this action, Voltaggio found time to return to TV. First he did an ad with his brother promoting Samsung’s Flex Duo Oven. Then he stepped out on his own with a Maryland Public Television special, Obsessed with Everything Food. He hopes that production turns into a series in which he would travel the country exploring and cooking regional cuisines.

“It’s an exciting time,” he says. “We’re having fun with it and, I hope, making some smart moves.”

And with that, he returns to poring over the plans for Range and thinking aloud about how it’s all going to come together. There’s a lot of work to be done, but he clearly can’t wait to get started.

Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who frequently writes about culture and food.

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