Catching Up With... Top Chef’s Kevin Gillespie
The Top Chef Season Six finale airs tonight on Bravo. The finalists include a pair of temperamental brothers from Maryland and Georgia chef Kevin Gillespie, who captured our hearts when he jumped into a swimming pool with a silly grin on his face during the second challenge. At 27 years old, Gillespie is executive chef and partner at acclaimed Atlanta restaurant Woodfire Grill. Throughout the Top Chef season, he’s cooked consistently solid and straightforward food, and he’s won more elimination challenges than any of the other chefs. Clearly the fan favorite, he’s said nary a harsh word about his fellow contestants. His beard even has its own Facebook page. Paste caught up with Gillespie to talk about last week’s episode, the Voltaggio brothers, his Atlanta restaurant Woodfire Grill and his mysterious pig tattoo.
Paste: Did you watch last week’s episode? What did you think?
Kevin Gillespie: I watched it at about two o’clock in the morning. I enjoyed watching it. It was fun. It was hard at the end because I didn’t know how emotional Jennifer got about the whole thing. That was really hard to watch because I care about her, and I know how stressful it is to go through the whole thing. So that was the really hard part.
Paste: Were you sad to see anyone else go?
Gillespie: When Eli left, that was hard. But maybe it wasn’t as hard because we were all ready to leave and come back home, so it was a little bit easier to deal with. Honestly, I tried really hard to stay sort of removed from everything as the show went on, because I didn’t want it to be really hard when people got sent home. I tried to sort of keep my distance. But by the time we’d made it to the last little part here, we’d all become so close to one another that it was a much more challenging role to fill.
Paste: Do the contestants taste each other’s dishes?
Gillespie: Rarely do we ever taste each other’s dishes. More often than not we’re so busy we really can’t, and then by the time the challenge is over, it’s over, and we don’t have the opportunity to go back and taste each other’s food.
Paste: You get a little flack for cooking simply. Michael Voltaggio said something like, “That’s the kind of stuff I cook on my day off.” What’s your reaction to that?
Gillespie: Honestly, it doesn’t really bother me that much. I know I get flack for cooking things that are simple, but I think [last week’s] episode really summed up a very critical point in that. Tom made the point that you really have to have a lot of guts and confidence in yourself to be able make things that have three components and stand behind them and be like, “Yep, that’s exactly how it needs to be,” and that’s what my cooking has always been reflective of. When people make comments like that, more often than not I assume that they either don’t understand because it’s just not their way of looking at food, or with Michael last night, more often than not I think that with his situation, what he was saying was sort of a long explanation of his frustrations in general. Because it’s hard when you’re not winning, or when you want so badly to be able to take the whole thing, and you have no real place to vent those frustrations. I think that was one of those times when he needed to say something. He needed to feel a little bit better about what he was doing, keep your confidence level up so that you can perform well every day.
Paste: Do you feel that you’ve been portrayed accurately?
Gillespie: I’ve been happy with it so far. I think I have been portrayed accurately. I think the reason I’ve had a good response from so many people who’ve come to my restaurant or seen me on the street and tell me how much they like watching me is because I am a real person, and throughout the show I’ve made it a point to make sure you can see the real person there. I wasn’t playing up anything, I wasn’t acting, I wasn’t trying to ensure that I looked one way or the other. And I think that made it easy for them in the editing room when they saw that they didn’t need to manipulate anything—they could show me exactly how I was.
Paste: How about the other contestants? Do you think they were portrayed fairly, or did the editing shape anyone’s character?
Gillespie: You could argue both. One thing I like to keep in mind is that they definitely don’t put words in people’s mouths. So if you see somebody saying something, they said that. Now whether it’s taken out of context slightly or if it’s a snippet of a larger conversation, it’s hard to say. But at the end of the day if you’re upset because, “Oh my god I can’t believe they showed me saying that,” you have to remember that you were the one who said it, and that’s something that you just have to live with—the good and the bad. There are times that I say something on the show and I’m like, “I probably should have said that,” but I don’t get upset about it, because it was accurate to that particular moment. I don’t think they’ve shaped any particular characters. Some people would argue to the contrary. They’d say, “Well what about this person seems to look like this all the time?” And I would say, I think that if they look like that all the time, there’s some sort of legitimacy to why that is the case.
Paste: The Voltaggio brother rivalry is a big theme of the show right now. Is that as prevalent behind the scenes as it is on TV?
Gillespie: You know how when you’re in a situation long enough you sort of become deaf to the way the surroundings are? They could very well have been squabbling the whole time, and I began to tune it out. But on the other hand, what you see on the show is concentrated. You see it multiple times within a one-hour television show, where I may have seen it multiple times throughout a 24-hour day. It’s played up on TV, but it’s also not that it’s not happening. It’s just a matter of context of their life. They have that brother interaction all the time, and sometimes it’s very caring and gracious, and other times they’re trying to ruffle each other’s feathers. That’s just the way that they operate with one another.
Paste: Which chefs do you most respect?
Gillespie: I really respect what Brian does, because as a fellow business owner I know how challenging it can be to want to uphold a certain standard in practices and the products that you buy and so on and so forth, but also to try and make a profitable business. And he’s done that very well while making very engaging and creative food. I think that Michael is someone who is never afraid of pushing his and everyone else’s envelope all the time. He doesn’t concern with taking someone out of their comfort zone, and I respect that as well. And Jennifer, for me, I think that we share a sense, a certain quality about food that’s closer than me and anyone else on the show, so I respect her on that level—that understanding of food level.
Paste: Which chefs do you keep in touch with?
Gillespie: I still talk to everyone, honestly. I talk to Eli constantly. He and I are friends; we’re here in the same city. I spoke to Brian yesterday, and I spoke to Michael the day before. Michael and Brian and Mike Isabella and Jennifer and Eli and myself all [went to a Falcons game last Sunday]. We don’t spend a great deal of time with one another in public, but we do send an e-mail here, a phone call there, to keep in touch and see what’s going on.
Paste: Walk me through a day of filming. How long do the judges take, and how much time does Tom spend giving feedback?
Gillespie: The days are very long. They are extremely long, and I think that’s probably very typical for television. We wake up in the early morning and get ready at the house before we head off to do whatever we’re going to do that day. There’s a lot of time gearing up and getting ready. Once you’ve completed whatever it is, whether it be a Quickfire or grocery shopping or prepping, there is obviously downtime between things. The complicated thing is you’re trying to get a whole lot of people together to accomplish one task. When Tom comes into the kitchen for his walk-through, it’s certainly much longer than the little tiny snippet you see on TV. Because he does ask a lot of questions, and imagine you’re having a conversation with him. It’s meant to approximate when you’re in a restaurant and the chef is walking around to see how everyone is doing. Sometimes it’s a one-minute conversation, and sometimes it’s two or three minutes. The part that’s most challenging is that once everything is done, once the challenge is completed and you go back to the room, that can be a pretty long amount of time. Standing at judges table seems like an eternity. That’s the only thing I dislike sometimes when I’m watching, that I know that it can’t be any longer, that they obviously can’t show you any more of judges table because the show would run on forever, but it’s so challenging to stand there that entire time listening to everyone’s, including your own, critiques. So that’s kind of a day in the life of Top Chef.
Paste: What was your best moment this season?
Gillespie: I think the best moment had to have been when I won the Bocuse d’Or challenge. That was such a critical moment for me. It’s one of those things where you’re like “Oh my god, I can’t believe I won,” but at the same time you’re terrified because you just won an opportunity to have to go on to something that’s really, really challenging. That was the most impactful moment of the season so far.
Paste: How about your lowest point?
Gillespie: Definitely the Restaurant Wars episode. That’s a good example of what happens when you don’t have organization, and not picking a leader and not really setting ourselves up for success. We sort of set ourselves up instead for this imminent failure.
Paste: What was your favorite dish that you cooked?
Gillespie: I did really like deconstruction challenge. I think the Mole Negro was a very advanced dish, very intricate. Maybe that one was my favorite. But I like a lot of different ones for different reasons—some I like for their staunch simplicity. I like the dish I did for Pigs and Pinot, the terrine, because it’s a three-component dish that managed to win that challenge, and I think that sort of hit home and resonated that I have the capacity to do both. The Mole Negro was an extremely complex dish that I would say rivaled in complexity anything Michael or Brian did this season, but at the same time, I can turn around and do a dish right behind it that strives for simplicity.
Paste: How has Top Chef affected your restaurant, Woodfire Grill?
Gillespie: The business has definitely increased tremendously—over 300 percent increase in revenue. More than anything, the biggest difference—aside from how many people come in the door—is that I think we’ve been given this very rare opportunity to increase our clientele and secure our position within our respective city. And we’ve been given that opportunity through the power of television—people come in because they saw the show, but they leave and come back because of the quality of the restaurant. And that’s been really amazing. It’s something I didn’t expect to happen so quickly, honestly.
Paste: How often are you there?
Gillespie: I do have a meeting here or there and have to pop away sometimes, but when I’m in Atlanta, I’m at the restaurant. I try to be here as much as I possibly can. I want people when they come in the restaurant to see my face and understand that first and foremost, I’m not a television star. I’m a chef and restaurateur.
Paste: Do you go around to the tables and talk to guests?
Gillespie: Rarely do I walk around to the tables. A lot of times people speak to me when they come in because our kitchen has access into the dining room, and it’s wide. There’s nothing blocking you from having a conversation with me. I spend the vast majority of my time there. Rather than walking the room, I want to be there with the food.
Paste: How has becoming a celebrity affected you?
Gillespie: You know, anonymity is one of those things that’s very often overlooked and underappreciated. Sometimes it’s nice to go out in public and not have people recognize you. On the other hand, it’s definitely been a confidence booster in many ways, because it’s nice to know how much people care about the show and how much impact you have on them—how excited they are to meet you and how excited they are to see you do well. I have so many people coming up to me wishing me well and wanting me to do well for the city of Atlanta. Those are really amazing things that obviously have been brought on by the television show.
Paste: You mentioned on the show that you give up meat for Lent. Tell me about that.
Gillespie: It’s hard, honestly. I try and pick things that will actually be challenging, so I give up meat, and I give up sugar. I try and give up things that I enjoy, because it makes it challenging. But a secondary part of it is that in doing so, I kind of start to build a new appreciation for vegetables, so it’s kind of enlivening at the same time to do it.
Paste: Are you Catholic?
Gillespie: I am Catholic, and obviously there’s rules to Lent on what you’re supposed to do, and I end up having to take what they would call an alternate penances. As a chef I can’t follow the tradition fasting rules, so I do something else.
Paste: Why is it important for you spiritually?
Gillespie: The implication is that you’re trying to live a life that emulates that of Christ, so you’re trying to put yourself in a position that makes your life more strenuous, makes it more challenging. It’s meant to be this outward sort of tribulation that you have to go through. So traditionally in Lent, you would fast—you would cut down how much food you take in and follow much more strict dietary guidelines and try and observe a time of penance, where you’re thinking about your life and what you’ve done and how you can be better at it. So the reason people give something up is because they want to go through that tribulation. There’s time when going through hardship and making your life challenging can build character and make you a better person. I think the end goal of the whole idea is to give you a sort of new perspective on what’s important in life.
Paste: Tell me about your pig tattoo.
Gillespie: It’s actually kind of more like a wild boar than a pig. It’s my entire forearm on the back side of my forearm on my left arm. I got it because my entire left arm of tattoos has some connection to memories that I have growing up in the South, and the pig has so many representations of how it made its way into my life. I thought it’d be neat. I thought, “I don’t really know anyone who has a big giant pig head as a tattoo.” I like tattoos that tell a story, and that’s certainly one that does.
Paste: What are some of your other tattoos?
Gillespie: Opposite to the pig there’s a copperhead snake, and then I have a traditional American Southern belle kind of tattoo—sort of American pinup style—and I have some baroque inlay and stuff like that. And I also have a big skull that says “Dixie” on it. That’s sort of the centerpiece to the ultimate redneck arm of tattoos [laughs].
Paste: Do you have any plans outside of Woodfire Grill, like opening another restaurant?
Gillespie: I have all kinds of things that I would one day like, but I try and take it from a day-to-day basis, and right now the only thing that I can focus on is the quality of what we do at Woodfire Grill and making it better. Once we reach a certain point—and I don’t know what that point is—I’ll feel comfortable enough to branch off and do something else. What I can say is I’ve always been a person that doesn’t want to spread “my empire” too far. So if I do another project, it’ll be right around the corner from where I am now. I don’t want to travel to this city and that city back and forth, and I don’t want to dilute the brand. If I’m going to put my name on something, it’s going to be the same level of quality that we do at Woodfire.
Paste: So you don’t see yourself leaving Atlanta anytime soon?
Gillespie: I don’t know, maybe. It’s hard to say. I kind of let things go as they go, you know, let the chips fall. If I leave Atlanta, I’m sure there’ll be some good reason to do it. But there are no plans in the works at the moment, at least.
Paste: Have you thought about doing a cookbook?
Gillespie: Yeah, I have thought about it. But the challenging part is you can put a cookbook together, but I want to put one together that has an impact—that people really will read. Not just home cooks, but professionals alike. Hopefully that day will come sooner than later, but as it stands right now, it’s not much in the works.
Paste: What’s the best cooking advice you have to give?
Gillespie: The best I have to give is—and it seems so simple—there’s so much to be said for knowing how to season food the right way, and it makes such a difference. There are so many dishes that are mediocre because of the way they were seasoned. I think for the home cook and professionals both, what can oftentimes differentiate you is your knowledge of how to balance flavors—if that means acidity, if it means salt, whatever it means, it can really go a long way to improve the quality of a dish.
Paste: Any rules of thumb?
Gillespie: Imagine you have this invisible line, and you have a left and right side of that line, and you’re always trying to pull flavors back to the middle. Oftentimes when you taste something and it’s very flat, it falls off to the left, and if it’s too acidic or too sharp, it falls to the right. So we’ll try and just balance it back to the middle. You know when you hit that sweet spot, because all of the flavors resound—nothing detracts. That’s not to say that you don’t put acidic components on dishes, but you have to do it in balance. For everything you put in there that’s really acidic, you need something that’s going to mellow it out, and ideally, you just try to bring your dishes back to the center as much as you possibly can.