Three Atlantans to be on Bravo's 'Top Chef'

"Top Chef" — the Bravo television network reality show that puts trained chefs through amusing paces and tests of culinary prowess — announced on Wednesday that the upcoming season will take place in Las Vegas. Not only that, but the Atlanta culinary world is well represented in the cast.

Of the 17 "chef'testants," three helm the kitchens at well-regarded Atlanta restaurants. Kevin Gillespie, 26, is chef and partner at Woodfire Grill on Cheshire Bridge Road. Eli Kirshtein, 25, runs Eno Restaurant and Wine Bar in Midtown. Hector Santiago, 40, is the chef-owner of Pura Vida Tapas & Bar in Poncey-Highland.

Of the three, Santiago is the most established. Atlanta Journal-Constitution dining critic Meridith Ford chose Pura Vida as Restaurant of the Year in 2005. Santiago describes his cooking as "cocina de autor," a term the Spanish use for a new style that stresses personality and creativity.

Gillespie took over the kitchen at Woodfire Grill last year from its founder and longtime chef Michael Touhy in what Creative Loafing restaurant critic Besha Rodell called a "seamless transition." Gillespie calls his cooking "simple and ingredient driven, but also a little surprising."

But if history is any guide, Kirshtein might have the best chance. Before taking over the kitchen at Eno, he was a longtime aide to Richard Blais, the Atlanta chef who made it to the finals in Season 4. Like Blais, he uses new techniques to break boundaries. He calls his cooking "techno-organic." Hardy Wallace, publisher of the Dirty South Wine blog, says Kirshtein "produces some of the best food I've had in Atlanta."

"Top Chef: Las Vegas" will premiere Wednesday, August 26.

The judges' table will once again have seats for cookbook author, actress and megababe Padma Lakshmi; head judge Tom Colicchio, owner of Craft restaurants, including Craft and Craftbar in Atlanta; editor Gail Simmons of Food & Wine magazine; and Toby Young, food critic, book author and all-around dyspeptic Brit.

"Las Vegas has become a culinary destination - some of the world's best chefs and restaurants are here - so it's only fitting that our newest season was the best yet," said Colicchio, in a prepared statement.

"You'll be surprised by the quality of chef'testants we discovered this season. They really raised the bar," Colicchio added.

Magical Elves, the "Top Chef" production company, held a much-hyped casting call in February at Colicchio's Craft Atlanta, where scores of contenders lined up for a chance. A casting director from the company also called many observers of the Atlanta food world (including this reporter) to ask for recommendations.

The three contestants flew to Las Vegas for five weeks of filming earlier this summer. The finalists have been chosen, though the finale has not yet been filmed. All participants have signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Truth be told, the identities of the three local contenders was a fairly well guarded secret in the Atlanta restaurant community, though a couple of local blogs published rumors prior to the official announcement. Let the games begin.

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