Atlanta restaurateur Kevin Gillespie, who was surprisingly ousted during the May 7 episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef All Stars,” will be back this Thursday after fighting his way back into the competition via an online only “Last Chance Kitchen” series.
On the episode that aired earlier this month, Kevin accepted responsibility for his team’s loss during the signature “Restaurant Wars” competition with grace and humility. But the owner of vaunted Atlanta restaurants Gunshow and Revival still had a shot to get back in with “Last Chance Kitchen.”
He did not disappoint.
On the episode released May 7, Kevin first defeated Nini Nguyen in a challenge inspired by childhood. He created a ham fat-roasted trout that Tom Colicchiopreferred over Nini’s Asian-infused fried chicken.
The following week, he battled Lee Anne Wang over a three-part egg-infused challenge. Lee Anne ran a brunch place, so Kevin felt like he was at a disadvantage.
He managed a better over easy egg than Lee Anne, in Tom’s estimation. Tom then gave the edge to Lee Anne over Kevin for a basic french omelet. But Tom kept Kevin after he chose Kevin’s deconstructed eggs Benedict over Lee Anne’s Hawaiian-style version.
With two victories under his belt, Kevin had to battle through a gauntlet of four challenges to make it back on “Top Chef.”
He first faced off against Karen Akunowicz in a 30-minute challenge focused on a dish with tea flavor.
Kevin on the episode admitted he had never really worked with tea as a cooking ingredient.
But proving his cooking elasticity, he was able to conjure something tasty on the fly using Moroccan mint tea and a hibiscus tea component.
“It’s a very loose interpretation of a North African dish,” Kevin told Tom. “Super loose!”
In the end, he created a roasted tuna with a hibiscus and mint tea broth with apples, pistachios and tahini.
Karen’s dish was a poached cod in lemongrass and ginger tea with tumeric ginger broth.
Tom liked both but had to choose one: “There was one dish that was a little better how it got the tea flavor into the dish.”
He selected Kevin.
But the producers didn’t want to make it easy for him.
They brought back the five remaining contestants from “Top Chef.”
Tom told Kevin he had to pick three of them for three separate challenges. For Kevin to get back onto main show, he had to beat two out of three.
Kevin’s first opponent: Brian Malarkey, a colorful chef who has a hard time editing himself when creating dishes.
Malarkey (who unlike most of the other contestants largely goes by his colorful last name) got to pick the type of ingredient: shellfish.
Tom selected what they would cook: risotto, a notoriously difficult dish to cook under pressure, sending home many a “Top Chef” contestant in the past.
Kevin created a saffron and crab risotto that he felt confident about. “I genuinely don’t think I’ve made a mistake in this dish,” he said in the episode, calling it “simple, classic.”
Malarkey also thought his tarragon, fennel and lobster risotto was top notch.
Tom said their dishes were very similar, but Kevin’s was better.
At this point, Kevin needed to just win one of two more challenges to get back in the game.
He selected his good buddy and gifted high-end chef Brian Voltaggio as his next opponent. Voltaggio had never won a solo Quickfire challenge.
Brian opted for “stinky” ingredients. “They pack a lot of flavor,” he said.
Tom wanted a soup.
Kevin created a spicy vegetable soup using almost every ingredient on the table including salted black beans, anchovy paste, canned sardines, bonito flakes, dried shrimp, blue cheese, fish sauce and green cabbage.
“I’m doing a standard Kevin Gillespie bastardization of several cultures all in one pot,” Kevin declared.
Later, he added: “I’m probably easily making the weirdest thing I’ve ever made in my career.”
As he described the dish to Tom, the eliminated chefs who were watching applauded and laughed at Kevin’s audacious “kitchen sink” approach.
In the end, Tom liked both dishes. But he preferred Brian’s smooth, creamy curry delicata squash soup with scallops, fish sauce and shrimp paste, topped with a touch of anchovy oil.
So Kevin had to win the last challenge. Rather than pick his opponent, he decided to leave it to the other three chefs to volunteer to battle him. Gregory Gourdet, who almost won season 12 (Boston), decided to take Kevin on.
Gregory selected “fruit and nuts” as the primary ingredient focal point while Tom wanted some sort of dough incorporated in the dish.
Kevin worked on a pear and walnut cobbler inspired by his grandmother. It was risky because he had to bake a dish in a 30-minute window, leaving him no time for a back-up plan if it failed. It did not.
Gregory, who loves working with fruit, developed a cold coconut milk fruit soup with rice balls.
Tom loved both dishes but felt Gregory’s rice balls lacked flavor while Kevin’s dough wasn’t as tender as it could have been. He ultimately gave the crown to Kevin, bringing him back into the competition and a chance to win $250,000.
“The moment is really big,” Kevin said. “It’s been a roller coaster. It’s a cliché, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the highs and lows of the entire experience since ‘Restaurant Wars.’”
This show was taped before the pandemic in Los Angeles.
In an interview before the show debuted, Kevin said he had planned to use the competition as a way to bring more traffic to his three stand-alone restaurants, especially his newer one: Cold Beer off DeKalb Avenue on the Beltline. But COVID-19 shut his restaurants down just as the show was debuting, and he has not announced dates yet for reopening.
Kevin is still considered a strong contender to win the entire competition based on his track record. Before he was eliminated, he had won three Quickfire challenges and three elimination challenges. Until episode eight, he had never even been in the bottom three and up for elimination. Only Melissa King up to that point could match his performance.
In fact, three chefs have come back from “Last Chance Kitchen” to win it all: Kristen Kish from season 10 (Seattle), Brooke Williamson from season 14 (Charleston) and Joe Flamm from season 15 (Colorado).
“Top Chef” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
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