When Kevin Gillespie almost won “Top Chef” a decade ago, he was able to save his then stumbling restaurant, the Woodfire Grill, because so many fans flocked there to try out his dishes.
His circumstances are in 2020 are entirely different. He now owns multiple innovative and successful restaurants in Atlanta, such as Revival and Gunshow, and barely survived renal cancer two years ago. He joined Bravo’s “Top Chef All Stars” hoping to inspire others who have also been through tough times.
At the same time, all efforts to use the show to market and publicize his restaurants went down the proverbial drain as soon as COVID-19 forced all Atlanta restaurants to shut down in March just as the “Top Chef” season was starting. The timing could not have been worse despite the fact Gillespie has persevered and made it into the top four, outlasting 11 other talented chefs to date.
In an interview this week, Gillespie admitted that promoting the show aggressively seems inappropriate given the pandemic, the broader economic fallout and the protests against police brutality. Yet many folks on social media have found the show a comforting reminder of life before COVID-19, he said.
But over the past three months, he has had to largely place “Top Chef” on the back burner and focus on issues such as keeping his business financially afloat, setting up protocols to get his restaurants back open safely and generating tens of thousands of meals for families in need, including his furloughed employees.
Gillespie jumped on board to help "I'm a Father F1rst” and the Atlanta Public Schools with their new Meals of Love program to provide meals to hungry children.
“We were already planning to help out and COVID just sent us into overdrive,” Gillespie said. “We immediately brought back staff members. Last month, we produced 25,000 meals. We’re creating a tremendous amount of food to feed the community rather than for sale for guests. A vast majority of the Meals of Love recipients are African American, and they have been hit incredibly hard by the virus. This is my small way of contributing to the healing process.”
He developed a 10-day rotating menu for Meals of Love including chicken parmigiana, Creole-blackened tilapia with red beans and rice and meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans. “This is largely served to children so we aren’t pushing the envelope,” he said. “We just want it to be nutritious and filling.”
Gillespie said even after the virus passes, he plans to work with Meals of Love for perpetuity and adjust his opening hours to ensure staff can make those meals as well.
Currently, Gillespie plans to reopen his restaurants in phases. First up this weekend is Revival and Communion in Decatur with outdoor seating and pick up. He expects to open the outdoor areas of Cold Beer the weekend of July 4th. Gunshow does not have outdoor seating, so he is delaying that opening until late July or August.
Gillespie came into “Top Chef” during last year’s taping hoping to last as long as he could while telling as much of his story about his cancer recovery as possible and how it changed his approach to life.
So far, after 12 episodes, he has largely accomplished that goal — with a surprise elimination episode 8 and a not-so-surprising return episode 11 after winning “Last Chance Kitchen.”
Overall, doing“Top Chef” a second time in his 30s was a lot tougher, he said, than when he was in his 20s.
“The whole competition was significantly more difficult,” he said. “The competitors were much more seasoned this time around. Everybody knew how it worked. They knew generally what strategies to take and how you should approach each challenge. They’re all very good cooks.”
While he admitted to being a bit rusty in the kitchen after stepping back from day-to-day cooking post cancer recovery, he felt he had done a good job up to this point.
“I think for the most part the food I prepared matched what the challenges were asking for,” he said.
The toughest challenge for him when he had to create a dish inspired by works of art. “Taking a visual art movement in its tremendous complexity and translating it into a dish struck me as a silly idea,” he said. “So I didn’t put much into it.”
He also said contestants were all older, so the atmosphere at the house when they weren’t competing was far more sedate than it was his first round.
“We would have booze fests and people would pass out” during his last go around, he said. “A lot has changed in our world and the industry. We don’t glorify that behavior anymore. Things felt more professional in the house. We also had less time in the house. They had us doing one challenge after the next. So we didn’t have as much time to just relax and catch up.”
Among his favorite competitors were Melissa King — a favorite to win — and Gregory Gourdet, who was eliminated this past week: “Greg is a person who is so even keeled, almost zen. He was so centered and calm. So was Melissa.” And he often gets asked about Brian Malarkey, the most colorful character among the chefs.
“He is very funny in real life,” Gillespie said. “He’s the quintessential Energizer bunny. He woke up before any of us. I’m an early riser, and he beat me.”
Gillespie was also glad to Bryan Voltaggio was around. They became close friends during their season of “Top Chef” and agreed to come on “All Stars” as a combo. “It’s nice to have somebody like that around. It takes away some of the anxiety,” he said.
Over the first seven episodes, Gillespie became a clear front runner, winning three Quickfire challenges and three elimination challenges.
But then he hit a roadblock during the show’s famed Restaurant Wars, when two teams create themed pop-up restaurants.
Strategically, he said he did not want to be the team captain because the captain often goes down with the ship if he or she loses. But his “Country Captain” concept ended up becoming one of the restaurants.
“When my concept was picked, you could see me grimace,” Gillespie said. “I didn’t want to give them a bad idea. I wanted to give them a good one that they didn’t think would work for Restaurant Wars. But I did too good a job. It was too cohesive.”
On the show, it seemed like he asked for way too many dishes and that gummed up the logistics. But he said the restaurant itself was not ready in time, so they didn’t have time to do a dry run. The staff was not up to speed on how to serve the food, and he’d sometimes have to make dishes multiple times because wait staff would send food to the wrong place. That caused them to fall behind. He was also not able to get all the ingredients he needed at the market, forcing him to make some compromises.
But when it came time for the judges to assess who should go home, Gillespie did not throw anybody else under the bus. “In real life,” he said, “the leader of a restaurant has an obligation to shoulder the burden of the flaws and mistakes of his team. I didn’t think at all to pander to the judges or fight to stay. It made no sense. My concept lost.”
The good news for Gillespie is he had a chance to come back on the show via the Web series “Last Chance Kitchen.” “It plays to my strengths,” he said. “I am better at Quickfires than most chefs are. My track record shows that. Thinking quickly suits me. I am often a better cook that way.”
On the most part, he found “Last Chance Kitchen” more fun than the regular competition even though the producers forced him to do multiple challenges in a row to get back onto the show.
In fact, the final three challenges in “Last Chance Kitchen” featured Gillespie facing off against three of the chefs who were still on the show trying to keep Gillespie from getting back into the competition.
He chose Malarkey first because Malarkey was such a loudmouth. (He beat Malarkey.)
He then lost to his buddy Voltaggio. “We had talked about cooking against each other mano-a-mano. I picked him for that reason,” he said.
Then he had the remaining three cooks decide among themselves, and Gourdet volunteered. Gillespie beat him and was back in.
“I was excited and extremely exhausted,” Gillespie said. “I was working on fumes at that point. I didn’t have any physical energy. I was starting to feel sick.”
Fortunately, his reward for getting back onto the show was a trip to Tuscany, Italy.
“It was really fun,” he said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places. The people and the qualify of the food were incredible. But I don’t speak Italian. That was challenging when we went shopping.”
During last Thursday’s episode, the final five chefs had to create dishes with the very rare and expensive regional white truffle, priced at around $3,000 a pound.
Gillespie ended up in the bottom three, not because his dish was bad but because it didn’t highlight the truffle enough. He said he didn’t realize the judges in this case would have preferred a simple dish with some truffle on top.
“I’ve never worked anywhere that could afford the real white truffle,” he said.
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