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Chef Michael Voltaggio is known for pushing boundaries with his cooking, which helped him win Season 6 of Top Chef and open a very successful restaurant in LA called Ink. From Biggie to The Beatles and Tom Waits, his Guest DJ set reflects his tumultuous youth, his time as a line cook and now as a restaurateur. Ink is celebrating its one year anniversary this month.
1. Juicy- The Notorious B.I.G.
2. Take Me Home, Country Roads- Toots and the Maytals
3. If I Ever Leave This World Alive- Flogging Molly
4. House Where Nobody Lives- Tom Waits
5. Let It Be- The Beatles
AL: Hi, I'm Anne Litt. And I'm here with Chef Michael Voltaggio. He's known for pushing boundaries with his cooking, which helped him win Season 6 of Top Chef and open a very successful restaurant in L.A. called Ink. But today, we are here to talk about music. We'll be playing excerpts of songs he's selected that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. I know you started with The Notorious B.I.G. Tell me about this song.
MV: I definitely grew up a little bit hip hop, I think. I think this song was like the transition for The Notorious B.I.G. to go from sort of a hustler in the street to building a brand and building a business and taking care of his mom.
You know there's a reference to "I got this car for my mom”… you know, not forgetting where you came from and how you got there. I think in a lot of cases, like, the street smarts that I had to develop as a kid are lessons that have transitioned me into a better businessman.
Up until his death, he was striving for something bigger than what he experienced as a child and that's more or less how I think this song relates to me and what I do today.
Song: Notorious B.I.G. -- Juicy
MV: I was around drugs and gangs and violence and, you know, one of my best friends was murdered when I was very young and all that sort of stuff.
I could have made the whole list hip hop, but I think that just would have been easy. But for me, this is one song that I think -- whether you listen to hip hop or not -- it's a success story. And it's one for people that weren't handed anything. It's one for people that had to go out and work for it. It's a little bit cheesy in the sense that like I've got, you know, the money green leather sofa and all this kind of stuff. I think it comes from a place of humility. But at the same time, there's a sense of pride in the fact that, like, I came from here and I made it to here. And I think that's what this song means to me.
AL: That was "Juicy" by Notorious B.I.G. It's one of Chef Michael Voltaggio's song picks on KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Now next up, we're taking a left to Toots & the Maytals' "Country Roads".
MV: So this band was actually recently introduced to me by my Chef de Cuisine, Cole. "Country Roads" is a song that we all know, and I'm a big fan of cover songs if they're done really well. It makes you feel good, like when you hear it, you have to sing along. It's a song that we're all familiar with because that song, regardless of who wrote the original and who plays it, everybody knows it. So it's one of those songs.
And, in fact, the first time that I heard it, I was like, ‘Wait.’ I was singing it and then I was like, ‘Wait a second, this is different than the original song that I'veheard. And I really like this.’ I love country music and the fact that the lyrics again have some truth to them usually. I mean I don't drive around listening to country music on a regular basis, but I feel there's more poetry in the lyrics when you listen to country music.
Song: Country Roads – Toots & the Maytals
AL: Do you feel like Los Angeles is your home? You know, do you think East Coast when you think home?
MV: I mean, I grew up on the East Coast so I definitely have a place in my heart for it. My children are back there and my parents live on the East Coastbut LA, for me, was the first time in my life, the first time I moved somewhere and I was like, ‘I can live here. I feel like I should live here.’
There's this sense of creativity here that really inspires me to want to do something great. And when you're surrounded by people that are creative and sort of have the same goals but they're all doing it in a different way or in a different professional setting, it's inspiring to want to do something great.
AL: That was "Country Roads," the version by Toots & the Maytals on KCRW's Guest DJ Project. I'm Anne Litt. I'm here with Michael Voltaggio, and next up we've got Flogging Molly "If I Ever Leave This World".
MV: For me the list was more about not choosing five of my favorite songs, but choosing songs that have definitely impacted me in some way -- whether it be emotionally or physically or whatever it is, or professionally. The Flogging Molly song -- I have two kids back east and when I came to LA, I came out here by myself sort of starting a new life out here. And I felt like I was leaving a world that I created back east and going to another world.
The lyrics when you listen to them, it's like, "I'll leave the world but then I'll come back and be by your feet at night," and things like that. So, for me, it's more of making sure that although I left something behind not to forget that I've got two beautiful daughters and for them not to worry. Like I'm still here in that same world and I can be in that world. I'm accessible to that world but, you know, I'm in Los Angeles.
Song: Flogging Molly – If I Ever Leave This World
MV: It's got a good tone to it and it's fast and it's upbeat and it's a little bit edgy and a little bit rock and roll. But it's a song where, lyrically, if you listen to it, I think it could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some people might think it's, you know, death related. But for me it was more about leaving one world and going to another but not forgetting to go back and be a part of that world that you came from.
AL: We heard Flogging Molly, "If I Ever Leave This World." It's one of Michael Voltaggio's song picks. He's our Guest DJ today. I'm Anne Litt and next up, Tom Waits' "House Where Nobody Lives" which is, I'm going to say, on the darker side of the songs you've chosen. Talk about this one.
MV: So for me this song, as a business owner, definitely stimulates the creative process about what's really important about what I do. Anyone can build a restaurant. And this song talks about a house where nobody lives and so I picture this decrepit, lifeless house where there's no soul in it. And it's not because it's not decorated fancy, but it's because there's no people in it.
There's no life in the restaurant if there's no people in it. It doesn't matter how big and outrageous and fancy and nice you build the restaurant. The soul is in the people that fill it. And so, for me, that song speaks to that emotion of wanting to be surrounded by good people and thriving off the energy that those people bring to the space that you're in.
Song: Tom Waits – “House Where Nobody Lives”
AL: You seem to me like a guy who really listens to the poetry of the song. Tom Waits is such a powerful performer, does that play into it at all?
MV: Yeah, absolutely. The first time I heard his music, you know, he's an artist. And I'd like to think, professionally, I'm an artist as well. I heard this soulfulness behind his music and, when you taste a dish in somebody's restaurant -- you know, anyone can make it look pretty and package it the right way -- but you can really taste, I think, somebody's soul in a dish when you eat it.
And so, for me, hearing Tom Waits for the first time was like tasting a dish where you could close your eyes and it didn't matter. You were just focusing on the smell and the taste of what you were putting into your mouth. And that's the same thing with his music, like you could just close your eyes and justlisten to the sound of his voice and feel somebody's soul behind it.
AL: That was Tom Waits', "House Where Nobody Lives". It's one of Michael Voltaggio's song picks. He's here as our guest DJ today, and your closing song is the classic, "Let It Be" by The Beatles.
MV: This song for me is actually part my daily life. Even as a young line cook, when I would get in the weeds -- and that's what we call it when you are really far behind, and you have to dig your way out of it -- instead of listening to all the yelling and screaming around me, I would play these lyrics in my head and I would sing them to myself, just "let it be, let it be, let it be" and just get through it get through it get through it.
And let all the wisdom and everything that surrounds you just help you like get through this experience and let everything around you be and just focus on one thing and get it done. And so, for me, when I would get weeded I would just be [singing] "let it be, let it be" and do that in my head, and just…block everything else out, so that I could get through that moment. And so, this is my "in the weeds" song, you know, as a line cook.
AL: "Let It Be" by The Beatles. Michael, thank you so much for coming in and doing KCRW's 'Guest DJ Project'.
MV: Thank you very much it was a lot of fun.
AL: For a complete track listing, and to find these songs online. Go to kcrw.com/guestdjproject and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.