PLATE AGAIN, SAM…I mean, Michael!

Michael Voltaggio

     I started with the premise of writing about the creative process when I found a series of photos in my archives of ‘Top Chef’ Michael Voltaggio creating one of his dishes for a photo shoot.

     Coincidentally, on David duChemin’s blog, at  ,  David has  been talking about the creative process this week.  David gleans a lot of  inspiration from various writers, and rightfully so, so I won’t try to copy what he has already very eloquently stated.  It’s well worth reading on its’ own.

     I think it has become obvious by now that I am somewhat ‘taken’ by the work of culinary artisans, so THAT will be the direction in which I am heading…or leaving from…

     I have said several times that I appreciate the fact that a truly good chef is creating a small masterpiece with each plate that he serves, usually to some unknown recipient, and generally to the masterpiece’s complete ‘destruction’ within a matter of minutes….although, I suppose, somewhat like a good painting, or photograph, or song, the chef can hope that the ‘image’ will linger in the mind, or soul, of the ‘audience’ and the experience might be shared with others, either through a formal critique or by a word-of-mouth recommendation.  Most often though, I believe with each artisan, in any arena,  the simple fact of creating is its’ own reward.


   A good ‘plate’, also much like a well constructed painting, screenplay or song, is first of all an idea, formulated seemingly ‘out-of-the-blue’. I think ‘out-of-the-blue’ means that all of one’s experiences happen to ping around in the brain until occasionally several bits and pieces stick together to form the cogent atom called an ‘idea’. The more they bounce around in the fertile mind, the more protons and electrons they attract…the idea grows. Unleashed, they are corralled and tamed by the artist’s expertise.

     In M. Voltaggio’s case, these ideas are formulated by his knowledge and experimental experiences with tastes, nuances and textures. I have watched Michael prepare the well thought out portion of a finished flavor combination relying on his accumulated years of trial and error, the learning curve of the perfected craft. A combination that I, as the epicurean amateur, at first glance, might not understand until the “Eureka!” moment of first taste. I have become aware that a good chef does not ‘just cook something’ any more than a photographer just ‘takes a picture’.

Don’t get me wrong. An accomplished chef is certainly capable of whipping up a scrambled egg, much as I might photograph a group of people ‘mugging’ for the camera, and with no less love for the ingredients, the  ‘participants’,  than is offered in our ‘finest hours’.

     That’s using the technique, but not necessarily the craft…the art.

     Where the art arrives is in the gentle, loving placement of a unique, personal combination…a ‘taking control’ of the idea, the seed, and causing a transcending fusion of the idea, education, talent and experience through a blender of proficiency, finesse and originality…and practice, practice, practice.

     Much like an accomplished musician who is able to jump in and ‘jam’ with anyone anywhere; a chef, a painter, a photographer, a writer, a preacher, a Mother, a Father, who has an understanding of their own talents and also their unique limitations, and the drive to mold them together and use them to their full extent can create wonders that cause heads to turn, tears to fall, or salivary glands to tingle…


     While trying not to be overly dramatic, a chef…THIS Chef,  is capable of experiencing the finished product simply by knowing the essence and subtleties of the individual ingredients involved, much like Salieri, in the movie AMADEUS , was brought to tears by merely ‘reading’ Mozart’s scores…he didn’t have to hear it performed, he could feel it!

     Where a culinary masterpiece, to me, is different than a painting, or photo, is in the fact that not only must the flavors work together and complement each other, but also, there is a visual aspect that must draw the viewer, the diner, into the experience before the first taste bud becomes involved.

     When I had the great pleasure of dining in Michael’s current venue, The Dining Room at the Langham Hotel, I found myself rotating the plate as each course was presented, to view the small sculptures from every angle,  to catch a glimpse of the characters in this petite drama, before I could allow myself the progression from the sense of sight to the sense of smell, taste and touch.

 Photo by Eric Adkins

     I’m afraid I can’t remember all of the ingredients for this dish, and unless Michael somehow gets the opportunity to read and comment on this post, I may never be able to share the ‘recipe’. I CAN assure you that it was a masterpiece of taste, as well as a visual masterpiece, as portrayed by Eric Adkins’ photograph of the finished plate. ( For more of Eric’s work, go to  Am I insanely promoting the work of a ‘competitor’?….No, I am proudly leading you to experience the images of a photographer who I am glad to call my friend!) 

     So…based upon years of experience… listening, learning, tasting, testing,… steady study and toil…cuts and burns…through failures and successes…

      Chef Voltaggio creates something that is, at first glance, visually interesting and appealing, even thrilling… (were it made of glass, Dale Chihuly would charge you $5000 for it…) 

     But then the treat! …a wake-up call, no, a fanfare to the most discriminating palate.

     If you EVER get to Pasadena, and this is reason enough to go, make a reservation at The Dining Room!

     Then tell me your tongue does not know what it’s like to be a gallery in the Louvre!

     I guess I strayed a bit from my original idea of  ‘the creative process’…oh well…and now I’m hungry, to boot !


~ by rkpowers on June 14, 2010.

4 Responses to “PLATE AGAIN, SAM…I mean, Michael!”

  1. I’d like to think that a chef’s artistry is not so much a “complete ‘destruction’ within a matter of minutes” but that, in the END, merely altered.


  2. Wow, I really like how you describe the creative process. Being a graphic designer, I am often asked how I think of something. It’s never a full idea. After 20+ years I have a huge library of pieces in my head; once and awhile they come together to form a complete idea. Sometimes people look at the end product and think, “Well, that was pretty simple.” Hardly. Without those years of trial and error, of looking at and studying others’ work, and saving ideas that might fit together, it would have been very difficult. A well executed piece takes thought and practice. Obviously Michael V, has lots of experience in both.


    • JR, thanks for the comment. I think I read somewhere that a ‘professional’ is one who makes the difficult LOOK easy.Of course, when you make something LOOK easy, then it is expected of you every time! I remember hearing a story, as I was ‘coming up through the ranks’, of a very successful photographer who ALWAYS left some vital element of a shoot undone so that everyone would be wringing their hands and panicking. After a suitable delay, he would then provide the solution, which he knew all along, and would become the hero of the day. His way of not allowing himself to be taken for granted!!! I think it’s hard sometimes for someone ‘outside’ of a project to realize what goes on ‘inside’ and it’s equally as frustrating to try to explain what led to the final product. I love Michelangelo’s (?) explanation of his ‘stone-work’. He said, “I simply remove everything that is not a part of the sculpture”


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