Top Chef talks about the creation of his Atlanta restaurant

Radical design for Top Chef’s restaurant unlike any before

Kevin Gillespie has had the kind of early career that young chefs dream of. Well before he was 30 he got handed the keys to one of Atlanta’s best restaurants, Woodfire Grill. Soon thereafter he landed a spot on the television competition “Top Chef.” By the time he finished the season as a finalist, he had become a national celebrity. Invitations to participate in glamorous European culinary events and world cruises came flowing in.

Woodfire Grill was soon booked months in advance. Fans came to gawk at Kevin Gillespie: The flash of their cameras illuminated the dining room as much as the flicker of firewood in the open hearth. A cookbook contract was signed, investors came calling, Gillespie’s beard had its own Facebook fan page, and rumors began to fly around Atlanta about where he would go next.

Now this Henry County native is 30, and the restaurant he has decided to open for his second act promises to be unlike any the city — or the country — has seen before.

First order of difference is the location in Glenwood Park, a planned residential/retail community south of I-20 and far from the scrum of Westside dining trendsetters.

Then there’s that name: Gunshow. It may sound aggressive to some ears in light of the current national debate on gun violence. But Gillespie has already finalized the permitting and he’s, well, sticking to his firearms.

Yet when Gillespie begins talking about his concept for his restaurant — how the space will be configured and the food served — that’s when things really start sounding like a dive off the dining deep end.

“I, for good or bad, have been blessed with an overactive brain,” he says, “and so I’ve put a lot of thought into how can I make this restaurant work better than the restaurants where I worked previously. What I would add, and what I would take away.”

Among the take-aways: Traditional menus. Guests ordering food. Doors concealing any space save the restrooms. The kitchen pass. Walls.

Among the add-ons: Waiters circulating through the dining room with food for the taking, such as plates of foie gras torchon, whole legs of venison ready to slice and giant pots of just-made risotto. Modular kitchen work stations set on casters that can move about. A walk-in cooler set in the middle of the small space. A chef’s table that redefines “close to the action.”

“From a visual standpoint, you’re not really going to be sure whether we’re cooking in the dining room or you’re eating in the kitchen,” says Gillespie. “The only problem is nothing like this exists yet.”

Raw potential

Two questions leap immediately to a listener’s mind:

1. How did Gillespie dream this place up?

2. Who can build such a restaurant and actually make it work?

The grand idea, Gillespie says, came over much time and reflection. If there was an “aha” moment, it came two years ago during a conversation with his parents.

“My father said he never felt comfortable dining at Woodfire Grill,” Gillespie says. “As he put it, ‘I never felt like the restaurant wanted someone like me there.’”

Gillespie knew immediately what his father meant. It wasn’t a class thing, it was about how people like to eat.

“I started thinking about the length of time it took to dine at Woodfire. That’s very foreign to someone who doesn’t go out to eat a lot. That was the first thing.”

The second thing was the expense. Not that Gillespie’s father ever paid for a meal at the restaurant. But like many of us, he has trouble coming to grips with the notion of a $12 salad.

The third thing is what Gillespie calls “menu anxiety”: that feeling that you may order something too small, too big, too rich or too spicy despite the fancy verbiage on the menu.

Gillespie thought about the types of restaurants that don’t require diners to wait for long stretches between courses, don’t feel like a poor value and don’t lard the menu with disappointments and surprises. Two kinds came to mind: Brazilian churrascarias (such as Fogo de Chaõ) and Chinese dim sum parlors. At both the food comes to you, yours to choose or wave away.

Gillespie is not the first chef to look to dim sum service for inspiration. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco has earned many accolades for its beautiful small plates of food, which pass through the dining room on rolling carts. San Francisco Chronicle dining critic Michael Bauer calls it “a brilliant idea for a chef-driven restaurant. A chef can prepare what he wants, and the waiters hawk it.”

But Gillespie is, as far as he knows, the first to marry this style of service to a room that doesn’t separate kitchen and dining room.

He first began thinking about this radical new design during a visit with Allan Benton, a Tennessean who has a cult following for his smokehouse bacon and country hams.

“We were riding together in his truck to get some lunch, and he was telling me about how humbled he was by people wanting what he does. Then he said to me, ‘I think you’re doing a great job, but I want to give you a piece of advice. Remember who you’re doing this for.’”

Gillespie took that advice to mean he needed to open a restaurant where his own friends and family would feel comfortable. “I realized I wanted people to feel like they were coming to my home,” he says.

Despite the many business offers, he knew he wanted to open the restaurant on his own without investors. While “Top Chef” has brought him fame, it hasn’t yet brought fortune, so he has “to reset the bar on the traditional spending to open a restaurant.”

He had his eye on a 2,500-square-foot corner spot near his home in Glenwood Park. Gillespie figured he could furnish it simply in a way that reflected his own function design sense and bring the project home for the comparatively minor investment of around $350,000. (Many restaurants cost more than $1 million to open.) Gillespie saw the small footprint and low budget as “interesting constraints” that would spur creativity rather than create problems to overcome.

The space, which I saw in late February before any construction had started, looks like it was built to be a straightaway neighborhood bistro. The sweet corner door offset at an angle. The plate windows. The brick walls. Squint, and you can practically see booths lined up against those windows, a bar along the back wall, and a traditional kitchen behind a set of swinging doors, spilling flashes of light and cacophony every time a waiter bursts through them.

That’s not what Gillespie envisioned. He saw raw potential.

Movable parts

Gillespie brought in ai3, the Atlanta design firm that has played an outsized role in the look and feel of contemporary Atlanta restaurants. From Holeman & Finch Public House in South Buckhead to Seed Kitchen & Bar in east Cobb, ai3 has displayed a trademark sense of narrative. Its architects and designers show the interactions of bar, kitchen and dining space. They tell the stories of these restaurants visually. But they’ve never before fielded a request like Gillespie’s.

“It was a bit of a puzzle,” says ai3 principle Lucy Aiken-Johnson. “It was a challenge as to how it was going to operate.”

Aiken-Johnson says she was “inspired by the innovation part” but had major concerns. “He operationally was doing something he was unsure about, and we were unsure how everyone was going to respond to it.”

As she often does with clients, Aiken-Johnson invited Gillespie to ai3’s offices for a vision session so the team could hear him speak in his own words. Gillespie talked, tantalizingly, about creating a “sense of transparency” and giving the space a “Lego-like quality” with movable parts that easily snap into place.

It all sounded great, but the more Aiken-Johnson heard, the more she knew this design could never happen in the abstract. They needed boots on the ground.

So on one Sunday afternoon in February, the ai3 team met with Gillespie and a few of his key staffers. They brought along a set of preliminary plans, cardboard cutouts to represent the tables and kitchen equipment, and Post-it notes that they stuck like fish scales on the windows. As they moved about and “used” the space, they could all write down thoughts and concerns. If someone brings a pot of risotto from the kitchen, does another waiter follow with plates, or are they already on the table. How big could the plates be?

Would people stay forever at their tables? Would they all want to talk to Kevin? Would the servers bump into each other without clear traffic channels?

There were more questions than answers at the walkthrough. But the most vexing of all centered around the communal table, which Gillespie wanted to accommodate walk-in customers. It just gummed everything up, so they decided to lose it.

As much as Gillespie wanted the food to come spontaneously from the kitchen, it wasn’t going to work. They decided the dining room needed two rolling carts — one for a large protein, such as that leg of venison, cut to order and the other for plated dishes. They talked about using Queen Mary stainless steel racks (so named because the shelving looks like the decks on a cruise ship).

After nearly four hours, they had a new floor plan. Now is the time to build the restaurant and get it up and running for its mid-April opening.

Gillespie is confident he can make it work, though he’s aware his radically different idea for a restaurant will need some tuning and adjustment once the doors open.

“Basically, we decided to reverse engineer the space,” he asserts. ” That’s good. If the situation merits, we can just move the entire dining room around.”