Kevin Gillespie returns to ‘Top Chef’ March 19 inspired by his cancer recovery

Originally posted Wednesday, March 18, 2020 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

After finishing third a decade ago on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” likable Atlanta restaurateur Kevin Gillespie made it clear he would never go back.

But never say never. After renal cancer required the removal of his right kidney two years ago and led to an excruciating recovery, Gillespie’s viewpoint changed. When Bravo invited him to join the second “Top Chef All Stars” edition last year, he said yes.

“I wouldn’t be where I’d be without ‘Top Chef’,” said Gillespie, who spoke to the AJC March 11 at his ambitious 10,000-square-foot Atlanta eatery and bar Cold Beer, which opened last year off DeKalb Ave. on the Beltline. He also runs successful local restaurants Gunshow, Revival and Gamechanger at Mercedes Benz Arena. “I needed to prove to myself that although I was older and fatter and more tired and had kind of felt a little like damaged goods, I may still have it in me, that mental and physical toughness.”

Gillespie, 37, will be competing against 15 other "Top Chef" contestants for $250,000, none of whom have won before. Two of his fellow rivals finished in the top four his season in 2009: his friend Bryan Voltaggio and Jennifer Carroll, who also competed in the first "All Star" show won by former Atlantan Richard Blais nine years ago.

In the first episode airing Thursday at 10 p.m. on Bravo, Gillespie is well represented, his ability to make pithy, amusing comments irresistible to the producers.

During the first “Quickfire” challenge in the first episode Thursday, Gillespie and the others have to prep three artichokes. Gillespie, who now runs an operation with more than 120 employees, says: “At this point in my career, I like to call this PFTS: People For That [expletive.] I’ve got people for that!”

But don’t worry about Gillespie. He doesn’t choke, so to speak.

Credit: Kevin Gillespie -- (Photo by: Nicole Weingart/Bravo)

Credit: Kevin Gillespie -- (Photo by: Nicole Weingart/Bravo)

Gillespie said his attitude joining “Top Chef” a decade ago was very different than how he feels about it now.

At the time, he had taken over the Woodfire Grill off Cheshire Bridge in 2008 and the restaurant was struggling in 2009 after the economy cratered. Once he began showing up on “Top Chef” in August, 2009, fans flooded Woodfire and saved the operation. (He sold Woodfire in 2013 and it closed two years later.)

The fame also allowed him to travel the country at food festivals, write a cookbook and open several new well-received restaurants.

But being a full-time chef had taken a toll on Gillespie’s body. He had back surgery in late 2016 and at a checkup a year later, a doctor noticed a small polyp in his kidney.

In the spring of 2018, Gillespie felt discomfort in his body and decided to go to the doctor. He thought it was possibly a urinary tract infection. It was far worse: a Bosniak cyst had consumed almost his entire right kidney in just a few months.

The doctors scheduled invasive kidney removal surgery 10 days hence, informing him to “get my affairs in order,” he said. He already had a plan in place in case he retired, leaving his company Red Beard Restaurants to his employees. But he never thought he might need it at age 35.

All that logistical work meant “I didn’t have a chance to dwell on it,” he said. “I wasn’t scared until I was in the hospital with three or four IVs in me. Both my hands were completely loaded with stuff… I got freaked out. Fortunately, they gave me stuff to calm me down and that’s all I remember.”

Credit: Atlanta chef-restaurateur Kevin Gillespie recently underwent surgery to remove a cancerous kidney. Initially, Gillespie was reticent to share his medical journal publicly. But on the day of surgery, May 24, Gillespie posted this photo on his Instagram account with these words, “It’s go time. I’ve shaped my hat in the style of the Pope for good luck!! #seeyouontheotherside.”

Credit: Atlanta chef-restaurateur Kevin Gillespie recently underwent surgery to remove a cancerous kidney. Initially, Gillespie was reticent to share his medical journal publicly. But on the day of surgery, May 24, Gillespie posted this photo on his Instagram account with these words, “It’s go time. I’ve shaped my hat in the style of the Pope for good luck!! #seeyouontheotherside.”

His recovery did not go smoothly.

“There is a solid three months of my life I don’t have a strong memory of because I was on so much medication, not only to treat the cancer related problem but the enormous amount of pain,” Gillespie said. “My surgical site got infected so I had to fight an infection on top of it. It was a mess, really bad.”

He also discovered he was allergic to opioid pain medication. The side effect: “Your heart stops a lot. They had to resuscitate me a couple of times in the hospital.” Alternative options were muscle relaxers and mental blocking medicine which is why his memory was so fuzzy during that time.

“My wife said I didn’t make a lot of sense a lot of time,” Gillespie said. “I probably had some Hunter S. Thompson moments.”



His restaurants did well while he was out of commission. “I was happy they did well but it took a blow on my pride and sense of self worth.”

Gillespie said he made major changes post recovery. He no longer grinds it out several hours a day in the kitchen cooking customer meals. “The doctors told me not to do that anymore,” he said, for health reasons. He began sleeping and eating better and exercising regularly. Today, he is more a manager, a mentor. He still cooks but in a teaching and creative capacity.

“You have to start using your brain as a chef, not your back,” he said while also delegating greater responsibility to his employees. Up to that point, “I was really bad at ignoring the trip and only focusing on the destination, then being dissatisfied with it and setting a new destination. My personal ambition has been the best and worst thing about me.”

He said once he decided to go back to compete on “Top Chef” last year, he didn’t want it to just be about his ego and business, which was the case in 2009. He said his recovery was facilitated by strangers who wrote him hand-written letters about their own stories surviving cancer. It was inspiring when he was feeling depressed and alone. He wanted to pass that message forward on “Top Chef.”

“I set a goal for myself,” he said. “I said, for me, it’s to make it to the finals because I want to be in as many episodes as I possibly can to talk about this journey I’ve been through. I don’t just mean cancer but anyone who is struggling. It became the Kevin Gillespie mission… that out of really horrible things come really great things.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic began causing major disruptions for restaurateurs, Gillespie had planned to cook his “Top Chef” dishes at his various restaurants for the week after each episode using social media to spread the word. In a social media post on Tuesday, March 17, he announced that his restaurants would be closing until further notice. The plan now is for him to create those dishes from “Top Chef” for patrons to take home, along with “a daily menu of whole meal replacements that will be available for pickup or delivery.”

Immediately after his interview with the AJC March 11, he found out the NCAA Final Four had been cancelled at Mercedes Benz stadium and quickly calculated that it would cost his company $200,000 in revenue from Game Changers. He is now in a situation like many restaurateurs figuring out how to keep his operation financially afloat.

The “Top Chef” lift he was hoping for may end up being delayed. But as his wife Valerie said, “so many people are going to be at home, hopefully more of them will be watching the show.” The season typically runs more than three months so it’s possible if Gillespie makes it far in the competition, he may still benefit from the exposure.


“Top Chef All Stars: LA,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, Bravo, starting March 19

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