Michael Voltaggio is wasting no time. Just a few hours after the Top Chef winner surprisingly announced Thursday that he was closing his acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant, Ink, on Sunday, he was standing in his soon-to-be restaurant Ink.Well, painting the walls himself.
The plan to shut down Ink and ambitiously open a new spot by the third week of August was nearly as sudden for Voltaggio as it was to everyone else. “How long has this been planned? Like a week,” Voltaggio told Robb Report.
But creating a new vision for his flagship restaurant had been swimming around in his head for a while. Although the switch from Ink to Ink.Well is happening quickly, it’s a culmination of the star chef realizing his own evolution and acknowledging how L.A.’s dining scene has changed in the six years since he opened the restaurant he’s now shuttering.
Voltaggio is probably best known as the chef who used modernist techniques to propel himself to victory in Top Chef’s sixth season, defeating his brother, Bryan, in the finale. He also worked under modernist master José Andrés as chef de cuisine at Andrés’s Beverly Hills restaurant The Bazaar. There, the duo made unexpected and whimsical dishes such as foie gras wrapped in cotton candy and popcorn dipped in liquid nitrogen. He brought that sensibility to Ink when he opened it in 2011.
Ink has continued to be one of the city’s best, but Voltaggio admits to having grown restless with it. After opening Steak House with his brother, Bryan, at MGM National Harbor in his native Maryland, he returned to Ink and revamped the menu within the past year.
With that revamp, he signaled how his approach to food had changed. “I create a dish first—then I figure out if a technique works,” Voltaggio says. “Before, I would employ a technique and then force a dish into the technique, and it could ruin a dish.” Having grown as a chef, he wants to deploy those modernist techniques more strategically. “I still loving freezing things and turning it into snow and rocks and powders. But you don’t have to both combine a weird technique with a weird flavor combination on top of it in a dish to make it exciting.”
It’s not just his own personal evolution driving the decision; it’s influenced by what he sees customers wanting now as well. “Diners in L.A. are changing, and it’s not for better or worse; they’re just different,” Voltaggio says. “They want more control and flexibility in their experience. And the social aspect is becoming more important to them. They want something more communal and casual.”
He’s been inspired by the vibe of talented chefs opening more relaxed places with lively atmospheres. “I have fun at ABC Kitchen. I love Wildair. And République is a great place to come and go throughout the day,” Voltaggio says. “There’s still the feeling at Ink where the perfect song is playing and people are vibing with each other, that it feels great. But that’s usually on the weekends. I want to see that seven days a week.”
So why not just revamp the existing Ink space and relaunch his concept there? Well, the physical space itself was prohibitive. “The last ink, I forced that into a sushi bar, and we never really had a bar area,” Voltaggio explains. “I didn’t realize how important it was to have a bar where people could come and meet and mingle and just drop in and grab a seat. People couldn’t do that at Ink because our small bar was always full.”
When the opportunity came recently to take over the space where the restaurant Hutchinson used to occupy, he jumped at it. He plans to move most of his staff over to the new spot. The space will accommodate a larger bar, and his menu will have more approachable items like a burger.
Despite this change happening so fast, he hopes this will be an enduring restaurant in the city’s fast-moving culinary scene. “I would love to one day have a restaurant that’s an L.A. institution,” Voltaggio says. “So that one day when my back is shot and my liver is cooked from standing in front of a stove all day, I can look and see that I’ve made something that lasts.”