FREDERICK, Md. — Bryan Voltaggio stands in his restaurant, Volt, arms folded. He doesn't break a smile, a frown or a sweat.
It's the same modest, soft-spoken persona that became his trademark on Season 6 of Bravo's "Top Chef," which portrayed him in stark contrast to the mouthy arrogance of another contestant — his younger brother, Michael.
Their differences made for great television: Bryan's clean-cut looks versus Michael's wrist-to-shoulder tattoos; Bryan's methodical presentation of sardine fillet on potato and juniper-sauced venison alongside Michael's gutsy cream of dehydrated broccoli and fennel-scented squab with textures of mushroom. If Bryan was smoldering, Michael was a house on fire.
But heat — whether in embers or flame — is what unites them. Dig beneath their apparent differences, and what emerges is much more impressive: their similarities.
"They're more similar," says celebrated chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer, who is a mentor to both Voltaggios. "They were always stand-out guys in terms of determination. They always had great imaginations. They were always pushing the boundaries. They never settled for 'It's OK.'"
In the two years since Top Chef — which Michael, 33, ultimately won — it is this shared passion (and more than a smidgen of business savvy) that has transformed decades of sibling rivalry into a fruitful cooperation. As a culinary Cain-and-Abel turned Osmond brothers they wield potato ricers and flavor injectors for the Williams-Sonoma catalogue.
They've plunged into their first international venture, a restaurant in Mumbai, India, set to open in mid-January, for which they are essentially long-distance executive chefs. And together they have written a cookbook, "Volt ink.", which contrasts their talents in recipes for ingredient families like "mollusk" and "nightshade." Like their other ventures, the cookbook calls to mind the only tattoo they share in common: a lightning bolt with the letters "TCB," for "taking care of business."
"There's definitely this chef branding thing today, and we've fallen into 'the Voltaggio brothers,'" Michael says. "It's not 'Michael' or 'Bryan,' it's 'the Voltaggios.'"
The brand may be new, but its underpinnings began in the womb. Just two years apart, the boys often were mistaken for twins, says their mother, Sharon Mangine, and despite their personalities — Bryan was "cautious," she says, Michael "the risk taker" — they shared a twin-like communication.
"We are more similar than either one of us realizes," Michael says. "Let's start with food: we both tell each other that we copy each other, but I think that's not the case. It's that we have the same thoughts."
Witness the cookbook. Flip past the first photo — two Maryland blue crabs wrestling, one slightly bluer than the other, but otherwise indistinguishable — and you'll find recipes that tell the same tale. A mock oyster made of salsify? Gotta be Michael. Smoked trout with charred pickles and baby radishes? That's Bryan. But you'd be wrong on both counts.
The brothers shared a tumultuous childhood. They grew up in a working class neighborhood of Frederick, about 40 minutes outside Washington. Their mom and dad — a clerical worker and a police office — divorced when they were young, and for a while they lived with their father. When Michael was 15, his best friend was murdered.
They dealt with the turmoil in different ways. Bryan was a jock and a model student, Michael got kicked out of one high school for fighting. But they both sought refuge in the kitchen.
When Bryan was 15, he began working at the Holiday Inn, blazing through the stations to become sous chef at 19. When Michael was 15, he joined his brother there, and for a while, worked for him.
"They worked, they had passion, they were never late," says Michael Aleprete, a chef and their mentor at the Holiday Inn, who would make them do their homework before letting them into the kitchen. "Knowing some of their friends, the friends were punks. The Voltaggios weren't punks."
In the kitchen there was camaraderie. There was order. And there was the promise of control, the knowledge that if you applied certain principles you could control outcomes.
On the line at Volt, Bryan wordlessly submerges coconut pudding in liquid nitrogen, producing a perfect snowball that nestles into powdered lavender oil. On "Top Chef," Michael wowed judges with a deconstructed Caesar salad, the dressing for which released itself from small, self-contained spheres that popped on the tongue. They may apply technique differently — Bryan's dishes tend to downplay the mechanics while Michael's sometimes flaunt them (something he says he's working to change) — but in the end, what brings comfort is the precision, the absolute certainty, of techniques like sous-vide (low-temperature cooking that ensures perfect results) and the ingredient manipulations of molecular gastronomy.
"At the end of the day, cooking is science," Michael says. "To get a perfect result you should control the environment."
But saying that their mastery of technique or ingredients is what makes them similar is too easy, says Jose Andres, chef-restaurateur and disciple of the Spanish avant-garde. Andres has known Bryan since his days at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington. Michael was chef de cuisine at his Los Angeles restaurant Bazaar.
"That they are good cooks is a given," Andres says. "But they are genuinely good, humble guys. Michael, even after his very quick stardom, I told him 'Make sure this doesn't go to your head,' that 'You're not famous because you're super cool, but because television gave you an opportunity. But TV goes away. And the essence of what you are is going to remain.' And they have that very clear. Other people, TV gets to their head."
Outwardly, the differences still loom large. While Bryan has opened his restaurant in a century-old mansion in their hometown, Michael has taken on a slick space in Los Angeles for his new restaurant, ink, where he has partnered with entertainment mogul Michael Ovitz. Bryan is married to his high school sweetheart and is trying to buy a house closer to Volt; Michael, who is divorced, has "Gypsy Soul" tattooed across his chest.
The rivalry viewers saw on "Top Chef" was in some ways the tip of the iceberg. They still argue the way they did 30 years ago. "We fight like children," Michael says, "We get to, like 'I hate you! I'll never talk to you again!' It's pathetic." But only the coldest heart could have witnessed the genuine pain they each felt when Michael won and missed their devotion to each other. Both say that despite the difficulty of that moment, the "Top Chef" experience brought them closer.
"We kind of were forced together and hadn't been since we were maybe 10 and 12 and sharing a room," Bryan says, noting that during taping they literally slept next to each other for six weeks. "Now we're on the phone together almost every day. We have business that's entwined. And we also learned that we are our best resource for each other. We realized we could be stronger and use each other and be more successful if we were resources rather than rivals to each other."
Which is fine with their mom.
"They both ultimately accomplished the same thing," says Mangine, who has printed out and saved every word ever written about her sons. "They just got to it in a different way."