For the first time in many years, Kevin Gillespie is at home.
As one of America’s most beloved celebrity chefs, he has lived and traveled throughout the country. In his still young career, he’s earned “fan favorite” status on cooking competition show Top Chef, co-owned Zagat-rated Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, Ga. (where he also served as the executive chef), and received multiple James Beard Award nominations.
Just this year, before turning 30, Gillespie opened his newly acclaimed restaurant, Gunshow, and moved just far enough outside of Atlanta’s busy foodie scene to get back to his country roots.
“My father made the comment that if I was willing to make a lot of sacrifices—harder than most—and if I was always cognizant to remember where I came from, it would pay off in dividends,” says Gillespie.
The chef, whose giant red beard is nearly a trademark, worked his way to the top, making sacrifices that catapulted him to chef stardom in a cutthroat industry known more for its heartbreaks than its triumphs.
It’s the “remembering where he came from” that hit home only recently. He says that part came crashing down on him when his parents revealed they didn’t feel comfortable in a white-tablecloth setting. “My parents didn’t come to Woodfire Grill,” he explains.
For Gillespie, whose affection for his family is the driving force in his life, the realization stopped him short. “I made the decision that day to give up my ownership and return to make restaurants that people of all different walks of life feel comfortable in.” And so the idea for his newest restaurant was born.
Staying true to his roots, Gillespie named his new dining concept Gunshow. The peculiar name is a tribute to a place and time where a young Kevin bonded with his dad. When his father wasn’t working two to three jobs at a time to support their family, he would take him to this little gunshow that was free.
“In the long run,” he says, “I haven’t forgotten where I’m
Setting Up Shop
While Gillespie grew up just about an hour outside of Atlanta, he claims that’s not the only reason he decided to set up shop in the giant Southern City. “It’s no New York City,” he says proudly, “and it’s not L.A.—and I mean that in the best way possible.”
After working in a number of foodie towns, he says Atlanta is unique unto itself: “You have a cosmopolitan area that can support restaurants, ensconced by an area that holds most dearly food tradition and a connection to this quality.” That mix makes Gillespie believe he’ll continue to have a place in the self-proclaimed Capital of the South. “I respect the traditions and hope to lend my mark to them over time,” he adds.
These days he’s setting that mark high. Reviewed by Atlanta Magazine as “One of the most promising, perplexing, interactive, and utterly ballsy restaurants Atlanta has ever seen,” together Gillespie and Gunshow are making headlines.
Gillespie said in creating this new restaurant experience, he created a list of what he had done really well and what he was unhappy with. Those lists set the mold for Gunshow, where the barrier between chefs and guests is nonexistent—Gillespie wanted to bridge the existing disconnect between the people eating the food and those cooking the food. Here, chefs create dishes using local, seasonally-fresh ingredients before personally delivering them to guests’ tables. There guests must decide—on the spot—whether to accept the offerings or wait to see what the next chef has in store.
Gillespie’s says his favorite part is the reactions he gets when he appears tableside. “They’re shocked that I work at my own restaurant,” he laughs. Upon seeing Gillespie in person, many guests have frozen up or sat, open-mouthed, not believing their good fortune. “I think they think I’m the mayor, not the chef.”
Cooking with Coke is a family tradition in the Gillespie household. His mother served him and his sister Coca-Cola glazed ham and Coca-Cola cake—that’s when she wasn’t drinking it. Today Gillespie questions how best to describe his mother’s affection for the hometown beverage, “I wonder if love is a strong enough word?” He settles on “obsession” before adding that a house rule was to never drink her last Coca-Cola.
As any son would, Gillespie used that love of Coca-Cola to remain in his mother’s good graces as he reconstructed her family pot roast recipe as an adult. “I was bashing her pot roast… well kind of all pot roasts,” he says. “So my mom doesn’t hate me, I added Coke. I knew she would approve of this and see it as not hating, but reinventing.”
The pot roast falls into what Gillespie categorizes as classic dishes that have been around in the food culture a long time, but that “in their modern carnation aren’t very good.” He says what’s missing today is the passion. “They have to be good by virtue that they’ve been around,” he laments, adding that the idea behind pot roasts “is sensible—fresh vegetables and meat.”
The problem, he believes, is in the approach. Today people don’t want to take the time to do it. They want to put it together and leave. To be great, he says you must add TLC.
Learn how Kevin Gillespie adds TLC to his Coca-Cola Pot
Cooking at Home
Gillespie is on a bit of a mission to help the at-home cook. He maintains that as chefs, “We are more the same than people give us credit for.” He believes the differentiator is in the time chefs have to prepare their meals. His advice is to be passionate and have fun.
“People deserve to give themselves more credit than they do in the kitchen,” He adds.
He says you will be amazed at the results when you’re excited about what you’re making and who you’re cooking for. Oh, and he admits he’s even sold a few mistakes to people for money.
It’s that honesty and straightforward approach that’s celebrated in his debut cookbook, Fire in My Belly. There he shares more personal stories that weave into how to make his favorite recipes and incorporates his approach to cooking—as he describes it, “a pleasant coexistence of craft and gastro-chemistry.”
Gillespie is working on a second cookbook set for release sometime in the spring of 2015. In the meantime, he’s getting back to those roots as a working chef, balancing family life and a commute to and from Atlanta. For Gillespie, that’s the only life he wants to lead.
For anxious fans, seasonal recipes, including the glazed vegetables recipe that is paired with the Coca-Cola pot roast, are live on Gillespie's website.