By Kevin Gillespie with David Joachim (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012)
Chef Kevin Gillespie’s passion lies in serving people quality food every day. At Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, Kevin’s focus is on incorporating fresh, organic, and sustainable ingredients into all his dishes. His creative approach to food has won him many accolades, including being named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year four years in a row, as well as one of Forbes magazine’s 2011 “30 Under 30,” which highlights tomorrow’s brightest stars. Taste of the South readers may know him best from his appearance on Bravo’s television series, Top Chef, in 2009, where he was not only a finalist but also the fan favorite. His first book, Fire In My Belly, mirrors his cooking at Woodfire Grill with recipes developed specifically for home cooks.
The food you serve at Woodfire Grill is sometimes described as “modern Southern cuisine,” but you don’t like that term.
I’m not wild about it. It’s taken me a while to understand why I feel that way. My issue with that term is that it implies you’re abandoning tradition in favor of being avant-garde and changing things for the sake of changing them. When people take a modernist approach to cuisine, they often leave behind a lot of the strong staples of cookery that have sustained human beings for hundreds and hundreds of years. Southerners have a strong sense of tradition and history; it’s not something we’re interested in abandoning. For me, “modern Southern” is not the right term. I think “progressive Southern” is much more appropriate.
You were born and raised in the Atlanta area. In your cookbook, you tell us that when you left the South for Oregon, you thought you would never come back. What brought you back home to Georgia?
I came back to Atlanta because I was ready to come back. When I left Georgia, I was in my early 20s. I had lived here my whole life, and I was ready to see a different part of the world. I assumed, like a lot of young people do, that the grass is always greener on the other side. And although I loved Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, I felt a disconnect there. I come from a place where people are so concerned with your personal history and the history of the region. That sense of place was so strong in me that no one in the Northwest could understand it. It was very challenging to cook the food that I believed in and to be the person that I wanted to be there. I realized that there were so many wonderful things about Atlanta, about the South, that I had overlooked my whole life because they were right in front of my face. I wanted to come home, and it just happened to coincide with the opportunity at Woodfire Grill.
Owner Michael Tuohy was executive chef at Woodfire Grill when you started working there; you described his cuisine as “ultra-simple California cuisine.” After he left, you proposed taking Woodfire Grill in a more Southern direction. How did the new owners feel? How did the customers react?
I believed it was a necessity. When I approached the new owners about it, I simply told them that if we wanted this restaurant to move forward, we had to take ourselves out of our comfort zone and do something new. We did lose some customers, but we gained many more. We found a younger crowd—people who were much more interested in the story of a chef who was actually from here and who was proud to cook here with the ingredients that grow here. Although there was some trepidation in the beginning, we quickly realized that it was the best choice we could have made.
You were 25 years old when you took over as executive chef at Woodfire Grill. And now you’re just 29. You’ve received many accolades for someone your age. How do you handle that?
I came straight out of high school knowing that I wanted to be a chef, and I have pursued it aggressively ever since. Once the notoriety started to come around, it didn’t suit my humble nature in many ways. My mother, my grandmother, and the men in my life have taught me always to remember that it takes other people’s efforts to make you great. Sometimes when these awards roll in, I wish I had the opportunity to say, “I appreciate your award very much. Thank you for recognizing me. Now I’d like to recognize the people who make me who I am.”
That’s great. Almost everything in life is accomplished through a team approach. If you took one person out of the equation, it wouldn’t be possible.
Yes, life is a collaborative effort. I’m not the one-man show that people like to believe I am. If there’s a place where I have succeeded, it’s that I foster great relationships with the people who work with me every day, and for whatever reason, I attract their loyalty. They’ve stayed by my side through some really tough times. That is probably my greatest accomplishment.
The recipes in your cookbook are not from Woodfire Grill. You developed them for home cooks. Why did you do that?
I didn’t write this book for my peers or for myself. I wrote this book for the people that I care about—for my wife and for my sister and for my mother. They are the people in my life who I want to be surrounded by good food. They are all home cooks. I wanted to encourage people to love food and be better at cooking it. You can aspire to greatness in your home kitchen. You don’t have to be a professional cook to make great food.
To write a Southern cookbook, it seems you have to have had a great grandmother. How did your grandmothers influence you?
That’s true. I think it’s because the generations have changed. My generation is not focused on the same things as my grandmothers’ generation. Cooking used to hold such an important place in people’s everyday lives; they never took it for granted. Nowadays we take it for granted because food is available at a moment’s notice anywhere in this country. I’m not implying that nowadays we have life easier. We just have life different than they used to. Growing up, it was inspiring to me to have my Granny and my Grandmother around. Without their influence and their focus on how important food was to our family, I would not have grown up with that deep-rooted sense of importance that food has for me.
Fire in My Belly is wildly personal because I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve never been good at pretending to be anything other than myself. When it was time for me to make this book, I just knew there were things that were important to me that I hoped were important to other people. As long as it was my name on the cover, I was going to pour every ounce of myself into this. I wanted the book to be representative of who I am as a person. My hope is that people will read this book and know a little bit more about me as a person, not me as the guy they saw on Top Chef.