- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2012

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 catalog.

They’ve plunged into their first international venture, a restaurant in Mumbai, 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 officer — 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.”

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