Since appearing on Top Chef’s sixth season back in 2009, Chef Kevin Gillespie has become one of Atlanta’s most notable culinary masters. Going into 2012, Gillespie is busier than ever; in addition to his work at Woodfire Grill, he’s working with Morelli’s Ice Cream, preparing to release his first cookbook, and planning on the launch of a new restaurant. I recently talked with Gillespie about all of this, along with his inspirations when it comes to cooking and more.
What originally inspired you to become a chef?
Well, I grew up in a big family, where my parents, all of my father’s siblings and his mother all bought land around each other and everyone lived essentially on the same street, so we ate meals together almost every single day. So that’s like thirty people eating together every day. It sounds creepy and cult-like, but it really wasn’t. Because of this, no one really learned how to cook but my grandmother, who still is the one who cooks for everyone. It occurred to me at a young age that someone else was going to have to take over and cook, so since none of my dad’s generation wanted to, and none of my cousins seemed to care about it, that’s originally what made me decide that maybe I would try my hand at it. [It was] at a really young age—9, 10 years old—and I found that I loved it.
It’s been a few years, but you certainly made a claim to fame by appearing on Top Chef. How does your participation on the show still impact you today?
Well, you know, it made a lot of changes in my life, and I honestly would’ve never expected that going into it. There are the obvious changes; it made the business busier, you know. It helped people recognize where our restaurant was and made it where more people came in on a more frequent basis, and that still continues to be the case today. But I would say that the larger impact it made was what it did personally for me. It opened a lot of doors, giving me the opportunity to pursue a lot of things that I really wanted to do: writing books, doing more television, doing more advocacy. Thankfully I was able to capitalize on that immediately, and that still stays the same today. So I think it’s changed my career a lot. I don’t think I would’ve ever expected to be in this position today, certainly not before I did the show and even during the show, I don’t think it really occurred to me.
You have a book coming out this fall, Fire In My Belly.
Yes. It’s my very first cookbook. It’s part cookbook, part memoir. There’s a lot of writing in it. I wanted to make sure that we had a book that appealed to a lot of different people. If you’re the kind of person who likes to look at cookbooks for the pictures and stuff, it’s loaded with really beautiful photography. Or if you’re a person who really likes food writing, then it has a ton of that, and if you really want to cook from this book, we have gone a really long distance to make sure that this book is useable. We cooked every day, myself along with a professional recipe tester. She worked with me, documented what I did, replicated my recipes on her own, and then, if they worked, then she gave them to two home cooks to replicate, and only if all four of us produced the same end result did it make the final cut. So I feel confident that these recipes are really going to work for people in their homes.
And if I understand correctly, you have a second book that’s in the works as well.
Yes. It’s supposed to publish in 2014.
What can we expect in that book?
Well, the idea, when we first discussed Fire In My Belly, was turning what is now Fire In My Belly into one book and the remaining part of my original idea into a second book. So we started with enough content to write two books right out of the gate. So what you’re going to see out of the second one is to take the concepts of Fire In My Belly, the learning tools in that, the ideals, the ways of constructing a dish, and we’re going to try to apply that to more complex dishes, and also to discussing this idea of how you make a whole meal, how you don’t just make one thing, what you serve with it, how you make multiple dishes, how you manage your time, and any number of other things that are an attempt in the long run to teach people where the differences lie between professional chefs and home cooks. They’re really not incredibly drastic. It’s a few key things, and if you can learn those, it’ll make you a better cook pretty much immediately.
Along the lines of cooking, what is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Well, you know, from a protein standpoint, my favorite is usually pork. I think that pork is the most versatile of the meat proteins, at least. On the other hand, my most favorite things in general to cook with are actually vegetables. I really like exploring the different textures and flavors of vegetables, and the way they differ from what I think we stereotypically think. A good example is a turnip. When I was a kid, we pretty much only ate turnips that were cooked to death and mashed up and stuff like that, and they were not really my favorite thing. And then as I grew to be an adult, I realized that they were amazing raw, they were amazing marinated, that you could roast them and create a different texture, that they had all of this different capacity as a vegetable that I never knew about, and I think that’s one of the really great things about strengthening your vegetable cookery, is that you tend to see a million different things you never thought of before.
Now with your restaurant, Woodfire Grill, one of the things you like to tout is that you use local, sustainable, organic ingredients. What led to that decision?
It was a long time coming. The long explanation is that, when I was working at the dining room and working under this classic French brigade, which is where I learned to cook, it was really driven into your head that technique was the most important thing, that you really hone your techniques and your skills. That is true, it is extremely important that you have strong technique. But it occurred to me over time that strong technique was not a replacement for exceptional, quality ingredients. You needed to have both. So I went to work for Michael Tuohy, who was one of the first people to spearhead the idea that you buy the best things that you possibly can. In doing that, in taking that trip to work for him, I began to build these relationships with people, and it occurred to me that one of the most important things about buying the best quality foods and buying locally was that you were supporting real people, like people you knew personally, and those relationships were just as important as the relationships between myself and my guests who come into my restaurant. I wanted to foster that way of believing about things, the world, almost, as it were, in every aspect that we took on, and that included purchasing the products that we use under that demand, and it does two things. It creates a better end result, because we’re really cooking with the best and the freshest, but the second is I think it connects people to the world they’re part of. People who come and eat at Woodfire Grill are going to experience something that’s really very particular to the region that we currently live in, and I feel like that connection is something that’s slowly escaping us over time.
As someone who works in Atlanta, you could probably tell that there are a number of trends that have come through Atlanta in recent years. I mean, it seems like we can’t go a week without hearing about a new burger restaurant that’s opening up, for example. What would you like to see more of in Atlanta, and what would you like to see less of?
You know, what’s interesting about the burger trend…at first, I was really excited about it, because I thought we were taking a step in the right direction with something that I want to see. I want to see chefs and food professionals begin giving more credit and paying more attention to the foods that we eat every day, and not having to rely on exclusively the highest-end fine dining restaurants, to really meticulously break down the food they’re serving and critique it on an internal level. What I mean is, if we’re all constantly eating more traditional American foods, foods that are considered everyday foods, my belief is that those everyday foods need just as much care put into their making as anything else does. I don’t feel like the difference between a fine-dining restaurant and a more casual restaurant should be the quality of the food. I feel like it should be the impact, the overall experience and how it’s conducted. And so I hope that people start doing that, whether it’s in burgers or fried chicken, or salads or pizza or whatever. I feel like that trend is one that could certainly improve, and I hope to see some proof.
On that same idea, on the other side of its coin, what I’m not fond of is the kitschiness, the thing that comes in and people try to overdo it. I will use hamburgers for an example, and I don’t mean to pick on anyone who has done this, because I think a lot of these people have done some cool stuff and they’re all my friends. But what I do dislike is this idea that we’re going to try to transform something, like a hamburger, into fine dining. And I don’t think it was ever meant to be that. I think that the pursuit of cooking great food is good enough, and it doesn’t have to be that you turn every food that we eat into fine dining, and that you turn everything from fine dining into casual food. Everything has sort of already been relegated to its place, and if you want to make it great, just make it great. People will know that.
In addition to your work with Woodfire Grill, you also have a hand in Morelli’s Ice Cream. What led to that collaboration?
It was a partnership we set up in order to help me to do one thing and help them do another thing. For me, I wanted to learn how to make ice cream. I wanted to learn how to use ice cream as a platform to experiment with testing peoples’ boundaries to a certain degree. What I mean by that is, I think people are more willing to take a dive and experiment when it’s sweet, with desserts, than they are with savory foods. That’s always been my belief, that you can give someone an ice cream sundae, and have stuff that they would never think to put on an ice cream sundae, but they’ll still like it because it’s an ice cream sundae. It was fun to play with that, to see what peoples’ response was, because one of the things that I love most about ice cream is that it’s fun. You can’t take yourself too seriously with it. You can want to make it great, and I think that we do, but at the same time it’s supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be something that you do because you’re having that enjoyment in life. It was great.
For them, it brought a different perspective into it. Donald [Sargent] and Clarissa [Morelli] began making ice cream, and that’s where they started, in the food business. Where I was able to help them was, if they wanted to make a flavor, but they had no idea how to extract that, like “How do I get this flavor to really show up in this ice cream?” That’s where my expertise came in. In all the years that I found how you intensify something’s flavor and how you get something else to show up, how you layer flavors, and so…I think it was a mutually welcoming experience for both of us to work with each other.
A few years ago, you discussed plans to potentially open up a new barbeque restaurant. Is that something that’s still on the table?
Yeah, it’s absolutely still on the table. It looks like what’s most realistic for me is to expect to see a new restaurant from me in the first quarter of 2013. We’re targeting February 2013. The reason for that is, when we first started working on this barbeque concept, we all had different ideas of what we wanted to do, and we couldn’t quite find a location, and…long story short, negotiating that and discussing it burned up a lot of our time, and all of a sudden we realized we’re on the cusp of me having to be gone for months at a time on a book tour, and quickly realized it was going to have to be put on hold. So since then, I’ve sort of revived it and taken it under my own wing, personally, and I hope to see something happen with it in the very near future. But definitely not in 2012.
One final question: what would you say is the best cooking advice you could give someone?
Oh man, there’s so much important cooking advice you can give to someone, but I think that one of the biggest things that’s really hard to explain to people is that you should and can, and it’s okay to, make mistakes. That’s the only way any of us learn and progress as cooks. I have made millions of them in my career, and what you hope to gain from a mistake is knowledge of what not to do so it points you in the direction of what to do. Food is not the end of people’s existence, in that if you make a dish that isn’t great, people die. You just have to make something else sometimes, or you have to go out to eat because your dinner didn’t work out. That’s not the worst thing in the world. What I think is so much more tragic than that is people who are afraid of cooking because they’re afraid of making mistakes. If you want to be a good cook, there’s only one way to do that, and it’s to get in the kitchen and cook through the hard times and otherwise. You’ll get better.