When Brightline starts its express train service later this year—with stops in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami—its CentralFare food hall in its MiamiCentral station will be a huge draw for South Florida foodies. One of the main attractions will be Monger, a new restaurant by Bryan and Michael Voltaggio.
The culinary duo famously appeared on season six of Top Chef, where Bryan placed second and Michael took home the top prize. They’ve since opened their own eateries, with Michael showcasing his perspicaciously playful take on fine dining at Ink in Los Angeles and Bryan marrying seasonal ingredients with technical prowess at Volt in Frederick, Maryland. They recently teamed up for the first time for the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House at the MGM National Harbor in their native Maryland.
Choosing Miami for their second collaboration was an easy decision, as they have family in Florida and visit frequently. More importantly, the brothers were intrigued by the opportunity to be at the center of the city’s changing landscape. Conceptually, Monger is unlike anything either Voltaggio has tackled before. Three kitchens—representing a fishmonger, a butcher, and a greengrocer—anchor the 10,000-square-foot restaurant. Diners curate their meal, mixing and matching proteins, starches, and vegetables. “Guests don’t always want to be told what they’re going to eat,” says Bryan. “This creates an experience you can come back to more often because you can try your way through the menu in different ways.”
Michael and Bryan sat down with PBI to discuss Monger, open kitchens, and culinary influences.
PBI: The Monger concept seems to celebrate all the modest, unfussy aspects of preparing food. How does the restaurant’s design enhance this message?
BV: When you walk in, you’re going to see all these different kitchens. It’s an environment where you feel like there is an abundance and many experiences throughout the space.
MV: It’s a full-service restaurant. You sit down at the table and order your food. But each kitchen has a glass case in front of it that’s specific to that kitchen. If you want to go up and look at the ingredients we’re working with, there’s a sneak preview where you can imagine what your meal is going to be like.
Sounds like a twist on an open kitchen.
BV: It’s a more open kitchen. You’re seeing more of the raw ingredients and the preparation from start to finish. And you’ve had a hand in how it’s all going to be garnished, sauced, and served, which is like the shopping experience. It’s inspired by a ’50s grocery store, as far as decor is concerned, so you essentially could walk through the restaurant and point and shoot and get what you want.
Is it liberating to give the guests that much control?
BV: Yeah, because having a restaurant is more than just being creative with food. It’s also about creating a level of hospitality where people feel welcomed.
MV: It also makes a lot of sense to be a part of something like CentralFare with this concept. CentralFare functions as one big restaurant with a lot of things going on inside. The only way this venture would have made sense would be with a concept like Monger. We’re not just tenants in the building; we’re partners with the entire project. We want to tell people about the other kiosks and restaurants, and we want the other restaurants and kiosks to tell people about Monger.
It seems like the menu is going to be pretty loose, but what can diners expect from the flavor profiles?
MV: I don’t want to say we’re going to use local ingredients and blah, blah, blah, but we really are. There’s a lot of interesting, seasonal seafood that comes out of the water down here, whether it’s spiny lobster, hogfish, or snapper. But, certainly, we’re taking a more global approach to seasoning so [that we’re] doing something different with the ingredients that are already down here as opposed to trying to cook the cuisine that’s local to Miami. I’ve traveled and cooked all over the world. I’ve been all through the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe, and those influences are very much a part of my cuisine and of Miami, too.
What kind of experience can people expect from the chef’s table?
MV: That’s one we’re still arguing about right now. That’s going to be more of a surprise element. It’s a place for us to have fun, but that experience could be curated to the specific needs of the guests who are going to be utilizing the space, too. The chef’s table is the closest table to the kitchen, so that’s important to us. Hopefully, the guests aren’t there to give each other PowerPoint presentations on medical supplies or whatever, but want to come together to experience as much of the restaurant as they can. It gives them a front-row seat.
How do the cities you live in impact your culinary styles?
BV: I’m in a town more than a city. I live north of D.C., west of Baltimore, and for me it’s about mid-Atlantic regional cooking. It’s a cuisine I’ve grown up with. It’s really reflective of the ingredients around me and our proximity to the Chesapeake.
MV: Mine is more driven by the different ethnicities in Los Angeles. It’s very similar to Miami in the sense that [it’s] a large city with many different cultures. The idea of going out to a Mexican restaurant, a Cuban restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a Japanese restaurant—you can draw influences from all of that [but] you don’t have to be labeled as that type of restaurant anymore. We draw influences from all of those cultures and you’ll see that in the menu here.
How do your personalities play off one another’s in the kitchen?
MV: Bryan has an edit button, and that’s important for me because I don’t. Bryan’s a lot more business minded than I am, too. In most cases, a lot more mature and grown up. I get sort of ADD when it comes to the creative process because I want to try so many different things, and Bryan is very good at streamlining that process and focusing on the good stuff.
BV: We’re our best edit. We’re our best barometer of whether we’re doing something correctly or not. You work in a kitchen a lot and [often] people are like, “Oh, yes, chef. Your dish is perfect.” Well, Michael’s not going to tell me that.
MV: We’re not afraid to insult each other.
BV: We work on different coasts. We have different upbringings as chefs. We’ve worked in different areas of the country. Bringing that together is a lot of fun. Once you get us together on a plate, you get a bigger experience. It’s a new chapter, a new opportunity for us to be creative.
How do you view the intersection of art and food?
MV: It’s very easy for me. In order to get to the artistic part of it, you have to understand the fundamentals of the craft. The food, the cooking part of it is what we’re doing; the artistic part is how you evolve the cooking. There’s a lot of different levels of cooking, and I think it’s much like any industry [in that] you need to specialize in a certain area. Look at fashion, for instance. There are people who manufacture fashion and people who create it. Once somebody has created a certain type of cut, it often starts in high fashion and then goes down to a mass scale and becomes a little more institutional. We want to be in that one percentile. We want to be part of the creative process that’s inspiring a much bigger development. We feel almost responsible to continue to be creative.
You both appeared on season six of Top Chef. What most surprised you about that experience?
BV: The fact that you felt like you were almost in jail. We didn’t know what day it was half the time. You had no phone. You literally were stripped away from every mode of communication to the outside world, which I thought was great for us because at least we knew each other. We had someone to relate to. But it was hard, too, because you’re basically leaving your world behind. But the benefit of that is you’re only focusing on the food. I went back and did Top Chef Masters, and it was kind of nice to set everything aside for a moment, go away for five weeks, and just cook. It’s almost a vacation into your vocation.
MV: It also made us a part of Miami and the entire country, for that matter. It’s not like we’re coming from another city and opening up a restaurant in Miami and nobody knows what we’re all about. We’ve already shown people through that medium what we’re all about. Now there’s more of a responsibility and there’s a nervousness, certainly on our side of it, to make sure we deliver and live up to those expectations, because everywhere we go there are people lined up with criticism. It makes us work that much harder to show people we want to be a part of the community and that we’re not just a brand based on TV.
Let’s end with a few rapid-fire questions. What’s your favorite ingredient?
Least favorite ingredient?
MV: I don’t have one.
How do you like your steak?
BV: I like mine medium-rare to medium.
MV: Yeah, maybe.
BV: It’s a fine line.
BV: Old Bay
MV: Piment d’espelette, which is a little pepper from the Basque region. It’s not too hot, but it’s just hot enough. It’s not cayenne hot, but it gives you some spice.
BV: A chef’s knife
Hot or cold?
BV: I like room temperature, actually. I like my cold things really cold, but I like my food not too hot. I believe you get more exposure to the nuances of the dish. If you think about eating a hot soup and you can’t actually eat it then you don’t get to taste it properly.
Wine or beer?
BV: That’s tough.
MV: I think you’re more beer and I’m more wine.
BV: It depends on the situation.
Coffee or tea?
Both in unison: Coffee
Favorite dish your brother makes?
BV: Egg yolk gnocchi at Ink
MV: Probably his hanger steak
Favorite comfort food?
MV: Ice cream
MV: I found a pizza box in the back of his truck.
BV: I do love pizza.
Favorite pizza topping?
BV: Pepperoni. I love pepperoni on everything, not just pizza.
MV: I have to go with the cheese.
BV: I mean, you can’t have a pizza without cheese, that’s just a given. Pepperoni just adds another layer of flavor.
MV: Maybe an egg cracked on there sometimes.
Favorite South Florida bite?
MV: Stone crab claws. I have to give love to the stone crab because that is very specific to South Florida.
BV: I’m still looking, but I know there’s plenty. I’ve had a lot of great bites along the way. I love the food here. I want to still immerse myself in more and find out more about it, but that’s the exciting thing about being here is that I get to do that.