SPOILER ALERT: This story features spoilers galore from the most recent episode of “Top Chef.”
After seven episodes of “Top Chef All Stars,” Atlanta’s own Kevin Gillespie was on cruise control to the finals. He had won three primary challenges and had not been in the bottom yet.
Of the final eight chefs, only San Francisco’s Melissa King could boast a comparable track record at that point.
During episode seven, which aired April 30, the “Top Chef” judges chose Gillespie’s Country Captain family-style Southern restaurant concept as one of two for this past Thursday’s Restaurant Wars.
It’s an annual rite on “Top Chef” where two teams create pop-up restaurants within 48 hours.
What would appear to be yet another flag on Gillespie’s journey to victory ended up being a surprising departure, one that he accepted with incredible grace.
Gillespie - who has already opened his fair share of successful restaurants in Atlanta including Gunshow and Revival - gathered a strong team that included King and his friend Brian Voltaggio, who competed with him on “Top Chef” a decade ago during season six. Both made the finals.
His restaurant was up against that of rival Gregory Gourdet of Portland, who finished second season 12 and designed Kann, featuring Haitian woodfired cuisine. Teammate Brian Malarkey relished calling Gourdet’s team the underdog - and it was.
Gillespie at the start chose not to over-manage his team’s dish choices. “I have to be open for interpretation,” he said on the show. [Gillespie was unavailable for an interview.] “I want people to feel like they personally contributed from concept to total execution. I have no choice but to trust my teammates.”
He said his family-style restaurant concept is seldom seen outside of people’s homes and was inspired by his grandmother. But he’s familiar with it because he’s been doing it for years at Gunshow in Atlanta.
Gillespie decided his team should do 12 dishes, quite a few given the time limitations. That also increased the chances something could go wrong.
Once service began, some logistical problems did occur that led to some delays.
“I believe our pacing and organization was not great,” Gillespie said after the fact.
But the major issue in the end was the food. The judges were not as impressed with his dishes as they were when he pitched the concept a week earlier.
“There probably could have and should have been some editing,” Gillespie acknowledged to the judges. “But the monologue in my head the entire time was my grandmother saying you give them everything you can possibly can and give them a few more. That’s what you’re supposed to do with your guests.”
When judge Tom Collichio asked him why they shouldn’t just send Gillespie home since he was the leader, Gillespie responded by taking full responsibility for losing. In retrospect, he felt he didn’t exert enough control over the concept.
“I was raised to stand in front of your mistakes and you own them for what they are,” he said. “There have been times when I tried my best to save my own skin. It’s inappropriate. I couldn’t live with myself if I tried to throw anyone under the bus to save myself. I believe the faults that were made lay firmly on my shoulders.”
Judge Padma Lakshmi then said those dreaded words: “Kevin: pack your knives and go.”
Gillespie, who survived cancer two years ago and nearly died, said, “When you have to stare down your maker and been through the stuff I have, you recognize that’s not nearly as important than doing the right things in life. The right thing in this scenario is tell the truth. The captain did go down with the ship. I admire the captains who did that when they could have jumped in the lifeboat.”
The good news: he has a chance to get back into the competition, courtesy of Last Chance Kitchen, where he has to battle previous eliminated chefs.
In his first Last Chance Kitchen battle, he defeated Nini Nyugen of New York by modernizing a favorite childhood dish. In his case, he impressed Collicchio with a ham fat-roasted trout with creamed corn and tomato salad that was inspired by his childhood camping and hunting.
“I love the idea of going camping out there in the woods and making this dish and clearly refined it,” Collicchio said. “Strong dish.”
Gillespie will have to win one more of these challenges to get back onto the main show and vie for the $250,000 prize and the “Top Chef All Stars” crown.
The fact Gillespie is even on “Top Chef All Stars” was spurred by his renal cancer and the difficult recovery process. Until then, he had no desire to go back to “Top Chef.” Instead, he focused on building his restaurant empire in Atlanta.
But he wanted to tell his story as a cancer survivor to a broad audience and prove to himself that he still can cook even as he has stepped more into a management role at his own restaurant group.
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