Kevin Gillespie’s revival: To thine own chef be true
Celebrity chef Kevin Gillespie squints in the spotlight.
The former “Top Chef” contestant has a brand. He has a following. He plans to lend Decatur some of that brand when he opens Revival, hopefully by this summer. It isn’t another restaurant with Gillespie’s name attached, he said. He hopes it will be something special.
But the notoriety that made his career wasn’t what he was seeking. He isn’t as deft wielding the contradictions of being a famous introvert as he is wielding a knife. Gillespie tolerates fame because it fuels his dreams.
Gillespie always just wanted to be a chef. It’s what he’s wanted to be from the time he was a boy growing up in Locust Grove, Ga. He’d watch cooking shows on PBS and follow his grandmother Geneva – he calls her “granny” – around the kitchen. His parents were taken aback when he told them he saw cooking as a career path.
“People weren’t just saying chef a lot back then, so I think they were a little bit surprised,” he said.
Surprised but not opposed. They fed his passion, taking him to visit a culinary institute while on vacation. That was beginning. The journey is far from finished.
On a recent Wednesday morning he set aside time for an interview at Gunshow, a restaurant he opened in 2013 that never wants for attention. Gillespie, 32, wore a vest over a short-sleeve flannel shirt, displaying a network of interweaving tattoos along his forearms.
Tattoos are a family tradition he’s carried to extremes.
“My first one was on my 18th birthday,” he said. “My dad took me to get it. All the men in my family have the same tattoo. … So it’s like a coming of age sort of thing, and then I just kept going. Everyone else has like one or two. My family is from Scotland on both sides and very proud Scots, and so we have our coat of arms, our clan crest as it were. And it’s tattooed on my back. … Some of the women do as well, actually.”
Gillespie speaks with an unflinching earnestness, a disciple of his own culinary sensibilities. He has receding red hair and a red beard groomed neatly so that it’s almost a point. He’s stocky and not quite six feet tall, looking like he could have easily wandered down from the Appalachian Mountains where his grandparents grew up.
Family plays a big role in Gillespie’s life story.
“My family all lives in the same sort of … we jokingly refer to it as the Gillespie compound,” he said. “Basically my family all bought the land connecting to each other, so they all live surrounding one another in one big giant circle. My granny’s at the center of it and then all of her kids bought and built homes around it, and so we grew up with a centralized meal period taking place at my granny’s house.”
Following the call
Gillespie grappled with the idea of a culinary career throughout his formative years. While his family was supportive, they made it clear he’d have to carve his own way.
“Poverty was a very real thing for us, so my parents told me from a very young age that if I wanted to go to college I had to make that happen on my own,” he said. “I worked really hard in school and was accepted to a very prestigious university, and that was the plan. I was going to go there. I had my way paid by another company here in the state. At the end of high school, in the 11th hour moment, I told everyone I wasn’t going to do it. My heart was in cooking and in food and that I was going to try that.
That prestigious school was MIT where he planned to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering. He didn’t freely offer that information and it doesn’t appear in his official biography.
“I generally don’t put on record, because I don’t like to boast about it. I think it’s a bit boastful,” the celebrity chef said.
He began his formal education at the Art Institute of Atlanta and eventually became the chef de cuisine at Woodfire Grill, working for chef Michael Tuohy.
Tuohy remembers his protégé as a young man with a gift.
“I knew before I hired him that he was a bright person and had a great attitude, and I didn’t know how talented he was until after I brought him on and started working with him,” Tuohy said. “He’s a super talent with great passion and has always had it.”
Gillespie’s path took a brief detour to the West Coast in 2006. He got the idea from a conversation with Tuohy about a new Italian restaurant that had opened in Atlanta.
“He had gone and he said, ‘It’s fine, but they don’t understand Italian food,'” Gillespie said. “He said if you want to understand the cuisine, you have to go to its epicenter. You have to live it and breathe it. It’s not about the recipes. It’s about the ideology, about the way that they view the totality of it, and you can’t learn it from afar.”
He realized he couldn’t learn what he wanted to really learn in Atlanta, at least not at the time. He said, “What I wanted to figure out is, how do you build a successful business while not compromising your values that you believe are important?”
Gillespie said Portland offered a glimpse into a scene where people had a connection with where their food was grown and raised.
“We’re talking about a decade ago where local food was still a peculiar word and Woodfire Grill was one of the only people doing it,” Gillespie said.
He went with his mentor’s blessing.
“You can’t hold anyone back, especially when they’re young,” Tuohy said. “I felt it was a good thing for him to do.”
The young chef spent his time in Oregon learning the business side of running a restaurant without compromises.
“When I got up there, I learned that people truly bought into that idea and they understood that balance,” Gillespie said. “It just came with a reorganization of the priorities in that corporate structure and it taught me a lot about the way to view food and the relationship between food and people.”
But ultimately Oregon just wasn’t for him. It wasn’t long before the homesickness crept in and he began planning his escape. As it turned out, his mentor was looking for a change, too.
Tuohy is originally from Sacramento, Calif., and after decades of immersion in Southern culture, he decided it was time to move back home.
“I missed what was happening out here foodwise it seemed like the right time to make that move,” Tuohy said. “The guys that were buying the restaurant gave the opportunity to Kevin to be the chef to run it.”
It was during this time that Gillespie got his first taste of failure. He set about reshaping Woodfire based on his vision, making it more of a reflection of Southern cuisine. What he forgot was that for many years Woodfire was the vision of his mentor and for many customers, the chef’s departure signaled the end of their favorite restaurant.
“We worked tirelessly at that while not doing well financially,” he said. “Unfortunately, what we didn’t do very well was we did not handle Michael leaving the way it needed to be handled. We tried to sweep it under the rug. What ended up happening is he left and people thought we closed. People had no idea there was a transition.”
There were nights with many empty tables. He said one night there were only two people in the restaurant. It wasn’t that the food was lacking. Gillespie notes that he was getting decent reviews.
“But we had an empty dining room and could not pay our bills,” he said. “We were all leveraged out. Lo and behold, in February 2009 I got a phone call from the producers of ‘Top Chef.'”
Gillespie said he was initially reluctant to do the show.
“But I had so much interest in not seeing my first time out of the gate fail,” he said. “What does a 25 year old kid have to lose to a certain degree other than pride and reputation? I agreed to do ‘Top Chef.’ It turns out it was the best decision I ever made.”
What is reality?
Reality can take on a new meaning when someone sticks a camera in front of it. Filming began that year and Gillespie said some things about the show were quite accurate.
“What I believed to have been very real were those times when we were in the kitchen,” he said. “When the clock began and when the clock ended, that was real. That’s not staged. That’s not forced. That pressure. The intensity. That’s the part that is absolutely unadulterated and real.”
Other aspects of the show were the inevitable result of sticking people in tense, high pressure situations.
“We were put in scenarios where they could predict the outcome,” Gillespie said. “Forced reality? Maybe. Scripted? No. But the truth of it is, when you put 17 alpha personalities in a house together and you take away their ability to make personal decisions. … When you put people in that kind of mental duress, people start reacting to minutiae. No one should lose their mind over their eggs being scrambled the wrong way.”
He finished filming the show and went back to work at Woodfire where business was still slow. Then the show debuted in August.
“I was in absolutely no way prepared mentally for the way my life was going to change,” Gillespie said.
The “Top Chef” contestant became a fan favorite, winning quickfire and elimination challenges in front of millions of viewers.
Or, as his mentor Tuohy put it, “He just kicked ass.”
It gave his business a nice kick, too. Suddenly Woodfire was running out of reservations and booked up for months.
“In one night our lives changed and we went to a restaurant that couldn’t accommodate how many people wanted to come into it,” Gillespie said.
The attention also brought its share of headaches. Gillespie said he’s received boxes of hate mail from viewers. He still gets it, he says.
“I was told one time that parents shouldn’t let their kids watch me on TV. That I should be ashamed that I talk about the importance of food and community and yet I’m this slovenly, obese, grotesque individual that has a social responsibility to be better than he is,” Gillespie said. “I just got a piece of it last week that told me I need to pack my shit up and move it out of Atlanta because I’m a disgrace to the South. I get it all the time, man. It’s hard.”
His wife and friends tell him to shrug it off. Sometimes he can’t let it go. When your life’s work is your career, the critiques cut a little deeper.
Gillespie said doesn’t want to sound ungrateful. He realizes that having a high profile helps far more than it hurts.
“I’ve been given a gift,” he said. “We use my name and my face and my brand – as weird as it is to say that – to ensure these restaurants stay full. I’ve learned to play the game, because there is a game to it. Even when it stings, there are people who would give their f*&!in’ left arm to be in the situation I’m in.”
Gillespie left Woodfire in 2012 to create a restaurant that was distinctly his own. He opened Gunshow in Atlanta’s Glenwood Park neighborhood in 2013, a freewheeling dining concept with an ever-changing menu that puts customers closer to the kitchen. According to the website it was, “Inspired by Brazilian churrascaria-style dining and Chinese dim sum.”
There’s a certain defiance in its aesthetic and its insistence on disruption of the traditional flow of the restaurant.
“I think it’s a really different and creative concept that works,” said Susan Puckett, the former food editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I don’t think it’s contrived. I think it’s fun. I’m just thrilled that he’s coming to Decatur and just the idea of doing his version of a meat-and-three sounds perfect, because he’s a good ole’ Georgia boy. These are his roots.”
Gillespie’s next step will in some ways be a step back, to the dinner table on Sunday where his family shared meals that were not to be missed. There’d be a main entree and plates filled sides that the family would pass around as they ate.
“You would’ve had to have been in the hospital to get out of these meals,” Gillespie said. “It was a priority. It remained a priority forever.”
That tradition became the basis for the idea behind Revival. Gillespie hopes to open in the old Harbour House space on Church Street in June. He said it will be the kind of experience you’d get if you were a lucky guest at the Gillespie family table, one that is deeply personal. It will reflect his belief that one of the key ingredients of Southern culture is in dangerously short supply. He said he couldn’t think of a restaurant in Atlanta that honored the cooking traditions his grandmother kept.
“I couldn’t think of a single place that you could go and it made me really sad,” he said. “It made me really worried. Something that’s really important to Southern culture is our food ways.”
He began cooking up the idea for Revival four years ago and always had Decatur in mind. The city’s sense of community meshes well with the theme of the restaurant, he said. Gillespie admires the way Decatur supports its school system and patronizes restaurants serving locally-produced food.
“That welcoming spirit is something that we felt like Decatur showed in spades, because of all of the things it had done,” he said.
Until recently, he couldn’t find the space for the Revival concept. He had been working on another project, a barbecue restaurant called Terminus City. Gillespie said his plans for open pit whole hog barbecue haven’t been a good fit for Atlanta’s dense development. It’s hard finding something that wouldn’t create a fire hazard, he said. When he learned the Harbour House space was available, he put Terminus on hold.
In addition to Revival, Gillespie also plans to open up a secondary concept in the restaurant’s patio space called Communion Wine.
He says, “It’s our version of an outdoor German beer garden” and he hopes it will be ready in time for college football season. Gillespie said his family is religious and he delights in the double meanings of Revival and Communion.
Nothing about his new restaurant will be forced. Unlike a reality show, it won’t involve pitting strangers against each other for ratings. It will be about something else, something much more real for the head chef.
“I have a hard time with the current world we live in and how detached I think that we are from one another a lot of the time,” Gillespie said. “I like the idea that people will have an opportunity to sit with their neighbors and share something that brings them together. This is not forcing strangers into an interaction they can’t handle. It’s saying, sit around the table. Share some drink. Share some atmosphere.”
Gillespie will save Decatur a seat.