Fire in his belly: A conversation with Chef Kevin Gillespie

I admit it. I’m a fan of competitive cooking shows, in particular Bravo’s Top Chef. The biggest reason for my intrigue is the opportunity to watch skilled cheftestants create unbelievable dishes under the harshest of circumstances. What these skilled chefs can do is, in my eyes at least, nothing short of magical.

Of all the seasons of Top Chef, one of my personal favorites was season 6. The Voltaggio brothers are, without a doubt, unbelievable. Chef Jen Carroll? A beauty, yet an absolute beast in the kitchen. But, the favorite in my house was Chef Kevin Gillespie (my wife affectionately refers to him as “Fluffy Kevin” thanks to the beard). I had a chance to talk to Kevin recently about how his love for food came about, what drives chefs to do what they do, and a little inside info on how things roll in the Top Chef kitchens.

Kevin Gillespie – Photo by Angie Mosier

Foodie Journalist: Have you always been a lover of food?
Kevin Gillespie: Absolutely. It started extremely young. I come from a very big family and my parents, as well as all of my father’s siblings and their children, all lived on the same street. As a child, I grew up with this huge family and we ate almost all of our meals together. So, I’ve always had a very strong connection to food because I’ve been surrounded by great food since the very beginning.

FJ: So was that part of the reason you decided that you wanted to cook for a living and eventually become a chef?
KG: I think so. I believe that it began when I was a young child, maybe around 5 years old, when I used to watch my granny cook. She was the one who really cooked for everyone else, because she was so used to cooking for a very large family. With her doing all this cooking, though, her children never really learned to cook that well. They never learned that skill set because they never really had to. So, it occurred to me at a pretty young age that she wouldn’t be able to do all that cooking by herself forever, and that somebody else would need to figure it out. So I really just wanted to be a part of that even before I fleshed out the idea of wanting to cook professionally.

When I was a kid, I didn’t watch cartoons. I watched cooking shows. I remember my cousins would get banished from the house for being rowdy and would have to go play outside. But for me, as long as I was quiet, my granny would let me stay inside and watch cooking shows. So I really absorbed all of that kind of stuff from elementary school onward and was telling people that I wanted to be a chef at the same age that other kids were saying they wanted to be firemen or doctors.

FJ: So now that you have become a chef and have experienced success in what you do, what is it that drives you and keeps you wanting to do more?
KG: Well, there are a lot of facets that keep me interested. I love the capacity of food to be this great equalizer among people. I realized at a pretty young age that food had a sort of intrinsic value that was almost hard to define, but that it was important to pretty much all cultures and societies. I really still love that part of the business, maybe more than anything else. But, now I’ve grown as a restauranteur to really enjoy trying to discover what our place is in the bigger scope of things, what our place in the market is. Trying to figure how I can define myself and how my food will define the restaurant. I find that to be really rewarding because it is a challenge. Especially trying to keep your identity while also trying to be marketable.

FJ: Now along those lines, as far as being true to your identity, it seems like there are more and more restaurants who are starting to really talk up sustainability, talking up “farm-to-table”, bringing offal to the mainstream. How do you feel that has impacted chefs and restaurants?
KG: I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand I’m extremely happy. I’ve supported it my entire career, I grew up supporting it. My family has always thought that way, that you should cook what you have. It’s engrained in me that it’s the right way to approach cooking. The only hesitation I have is when the idea to be sustainable and self-reliant becomes commercialized and diluted. You get people suddenly having admiration for this idea or principal that they don’t truly understand or even entirely appreciate. I like that the idea its getting more exposure. I dislike that fact that “farm-to-table” has become a marketing buzz-word.
FJ: Right. So people kind of lose sight of the reason behind it, and just get excited about the marketability of it.
KG: Right, and that kind of stinks. It’s a very circular sense of reasoning and doesn’t really help us. If we just get stuck thinking about, “Well, what does the market want,” the inevitability is that when situations like this come along, there will always be those who try to take advantage of it and that will sometimes set us back a bit.

FJ: I’ve spoken with cooks and chefs about the type of person that chooses to become a cook. One even went so far as to refer to all of you as masochists. You don’t necessarily make a lot of money. You work in difficult conditions for long hours. What is it that makes someone decide that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives?
KG: [LAUGHS] You know… I’d like to believe that the reason people do this is the same reason that a painter paints even though they know that the likelihood is that they’ll sell more paintings once their dead than while they’re alive. Or a musician toils on the road endless days of the year in an attempt to spread his message through his music knowing that it’s something so minuscule that will suddenly bring them the success they’re looking for. I think that’s its just something that, on a core level, you feel yourself as a craftsman or an artist. And it’s not that you couldn’t necessarily see yourself doing something else from a set of other skills you might have, but that you couldn’t do anything else and feel satisfied with it. This is who you are, who you are meant to be. So you make that pursuit regardless of the reality.
FJ: I’m definitely seeing that to be the common thread amongst chefs. You just feel like this is what you have to do with your life.
KG: Right. I think when you try to apply logic to it, or normal reasoning as to why you become a chef it can become wildly depressing. [LAUGHS] You’re like, “Huh. I actually make less hourly than my dishwasher makes.” That’s not the greatest revelation you’ve ever had! So just go with, “You know, I do this because it’s what I want to do and I get to be me. I could do something else, but I would have to be just shades of me and not be 100% true to myself.”

FJ: So a couple of quick Top Chef questions if you don’t mind?
KG: Yeah.
FJ: Having gone through and been able to get to the finals of season 6 of Top Chef, how has that impacted what you do now?
KG: It’s done a lot. Quite a bit more than I even expected, actually. It gave my restaurant a lot of exposure. It gave me a lot of exposure. It’s made it possible for me to overcome what a lot of chefs never get to overcome which is now I can transition in to a position where my business is doing well, which obviously brings financial benefits. But, the larger thing the show did, which I never expected, was that it gave me a lot more  confidence than I had previously. I always was confident in my cooking ability. But, I think I relied a lot more on replicating what I’d been taught by others. After going on the show and having to be 100% self-reliant, and just cooking the things I understood and believed in, it sent me home with this greater sense of knowing that I could cook great food if I just followed my heart and cooked whatever the hell I wanted to. It was a tremendously empowering experience.

FJ: Obviously, for television there has to be some drama. The easiest way to find drama is to have heroes and to have villains. Last season there seemed to be quite a few amongst the ladies. Is that something that really happens in the moment, or does that come more from editing? Are there really villains in Top Chef?
KG: Well, it’s a little bit of everything. Honestly, the largest piece of it isn’t really either thing you mentioned. The reason there are “heroes” and “villains” has more to do with the stress that we’re put under outside of what you see on camera. It has more to do with the fact that you’re not working on your schedule at all. That’s a stress that I don’t think anyone is prepared for going in to the show. It’s contrary to their personalities since most are alpha type personalities. Plus, I think we as human beings in general want to be able to do what we want to do. So to have to be in that structured and rigid environment where you have very little control, that stress can cause people to react in a way that they probably never would have under normal circumstances. It causes people that don’t have the ability to cope with that type of stress to lash out a bit and seem like they’re “villainous” when in reality they may not be.

FJ: So the last question I have for you relates to memories. People who love food usually have fond memories of something from there past that they really love to think back on. Do you have a particular food memory that you love?
KG: I have a tremendous amount of food memories. I really embrace those memories and I know they’ve shaped me in to who I am. I just finished writing my first book which is available for preorder on Amazon, called Fire in my Belly, and I discuss a lot of these memories. One that I like to think fondly of is from when I was in 5th grade, I was asked to do… well the whole class was asked to do a demonstration. It was supposed to be an exercise in public speaking and being able to describe something that you were expert in. You could do it on anything really, and most of the other kids picked things that probably seemed juvenile or childlike. For whatever reason, I decided that my demo would be to describe how to make crêpes suzette. I don’t know why I chose that. I had never eaten crêpes suzette. I think I had seen it on one of these random cooking shows that I watched as a kid, so I decide I was going to do that. That’s something I’m an expert in even though I’d never ever made it or tried it. So I plunged in to this tremendous amount of research and my mother and my grandmother really made it possible for me to actually make it happen. So when I had this opportunity to do this demonstration and actually serve these crêpes to my fellow students, my teachers and even the principal of the school, and see how much they enjoyed it, that moment was the first time I truly grasped the idea of what serving food to people was all about. I was already interested in cooking, but that was my first glimpse in to what chefs hopefully go through every day, that immediate gratification of guests enjoying your food and letting you know they admire your skill. For me, that was the moment that truly shaped my desire to be a professional chef, and it’s one that I remember clearly even to this day.

Chef Kevin Gillespie is co-owner and executive chef of Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, GA. His first book, Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking, is set to release on October 16, 2012. It is available for pre-order now on Amazon.com.

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