Atlanta's food scene had a lot to be proud of in 2009, not the least of which was having three contestants on the ever-popular Top Chef. While Hector and Eli certainly made our city proud, it was Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill that stole our hearts. He proved that people from the South really are more genteel and nabbed the fan favorite award while at it. Why, his beard even has its own Facebook fan group. I recently had the chance to sit down with the man himself, and this is what transpired…
Kathleen M: What is it that made you come to Atlanta? Why are you still
here? Other chefs tend to “get big” and leave for bigger pastures like Chicago or NYC.
Kevin Gillespie: Growing up here, south of the city, I feel a very strong
connection to being in the South, Georgia in particular. I reached a point when
I thought I would move away and move away forever. And then I moved away and
all of the great qualities of Atlanta really became apparent when they were no
longer there. The city had a ton to offer and I was neglecting that to a
certain degree. So I wanted to come back to make an impact in the city I was
from. I felt like the food that I now wanted to cook at this point in my career
really made the most sense because it was an outpouring of everything about me,
how I was raised, where I worked, and my life experiences: and that makes more
sense in Atlanta than it does anywhere else. I wanted Atlanta to have a
restaurant and a restaurateur that was focused on making something that was
unique to the city and not trying to emulate NYC or Chicago. I wanted to make a
restaurant that was appropriate for Atlanta, that spoke to Atlanta. That’s why
I’m here, and that’s why I plan on staying.
KM:Do you think that there’s anything that Atlanta’s missing in
the food scene?
KG: Atlanta is missing quite a few things. I think that, to make
a very broad generalization, in other cities the best restaurants are
patronized by the people that live in those cities. Atlanta, a lot of times,
restaurateurs rely on people visiting from other cities to populate their
restaurants. I think we need to make a stronger commitment to supporting our
local places and going in and saying that we want people who are invested here:
the people who are willing to spend the time and money to make restaurants that
help our community. We could use a little bit more diversity in the type of
food we have, to a certain degree, especially when you talk about real dining
options. What Atlanta does have that other cities can’t boast is that we really
long storied history that gives the opportunity to build for ourselves what we
want for our city. Other cities have a very clear idea that are projected,
while Atlanta is still in a limbo where we can decide what we want to be. We
should embrace our newness and move forward and try to make this city something
that isn’t looked at as just somewhere in the South. Atlanta is a rare place
that has a cosmopolitan urban environment that coexists inside the deep South,
and we should embrace both of those things and create something that’s more genuine
than it is right now.
KM: Local food movement: how does Atlanta compare?
KG: Atlanta has ups and downs. Coming from the NW, it’s hard to
say that Atlanta is doing well in that department because out there people are
really truly committed to that movement. However, what I think that Atlanta has
that some cities don’t is that it’s a little easier to get in and out of the
city. There’s really no excuse to not be using local product. We have a lot of
great farmers who are doing a great job and are dedicated. I think we’re doing
okay, I think we could get better, I think by getting better it will become
more commonplace in restaurants. It should be embraced by everyone and not just
looked at as an option for the most elite restaurants in the city.
KM: What are some of the hidden gems in Atlanta?
KG: Buford Highway is littered with places that are really great
and you’ve just got to take a leap and go in some places. Yelp does a really
good job of people being like “look, I know it looks like a total hole in the
wall but you should go check it out.” One place that I think is really great is
OTP (in Marietta), and Indian restaurant called Vatica. The people that run it
are great people, it’s like if you had an Indian grandmother it’d be like
eating in her house. It’s so homey and genuine: you don’t get to pick what you
eat, you just go in and they serve you. It’s wonderful, one of those places I
can’t tell enough people about. I like Carver’s Grocery a lot: as far as
Southern food is concerned, in my opinion, Atlanta is struggling a little bit
in having really good home-cooking
and I think that place does a great job.
KM: Where are some of your other places to go? I promise I won't stalk you… too much.
KG: I go to both of those places a lot. I like Holeman &
Finch a lot, and Restaurant Eugene. Both places are really great. I eat a lot
of ethnic food, so pretty much you can find me in any number of pho restaurants
on Buford Highway. I like Antico
Pizza a lot, I think they’re doing a great job, unfortunately now it’s so damn
busy that it’s hard to get in there. I spend the majority of my time at
Woodfire, of course, I don’t really get a chance to get around as much as I’d
KM: Since Top Chef, what's changed? Are you recognized on the street?
KG: Definitely a lot of people recognize me, and so many
well-wishers, even with it being over it hasn’t waned at all. The restaurant is
incredibly busy, obviously a lot of those people are coming in because of the
show, but at the same time it’s nice because there are a lot of people who just
genuinely want to be there. And on the street, it’s cool when people come up to
you and compliment you: that always feels nice to have people behind you like
KM: What made you decide to apply for Top Chef?
KG: I actually never applied for Top Chef. The producers
contacted me about being on the show, so I’m a slightly different situation,
only because I didn’t really have to put a ton of leg work in to it. Actually,
the first time they called I thought it was a joke and I wasn’t too nice to the
person I spoke to: I’m surprised they called back. For a while I was worried
about doing it, I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do. What changed
my mind was the situation the restaurant was in. We had aquired Woodfire Grill
and had been pushing so hard to make it a better restaurant and it really was
getting better and we were getting better reviews and people seemed to love it, but we were still really slow. I was worried that we would never reach the
point where we had the opportunity to show people what we were doing: I was
worried we would close before that day ever came. So I needed to do something,
and Top Chef seemed to be one of those things that if I did it, I could get
enough time to really show Atlanta what I wanted to have happen. And
that was the main catalyst for signing up.
KM: 2009 was a huge year for you, what do you see in 2010?
KG: I think most of 2010 will be used to try to cope with my
newfound “celebrity,” it’s funny to say it that way. But I have to get used to
this and make sure I turn it in to something productive rather than just be
overwhelmed by it. I have a lot of things lined up, most of which I can’t talk
about. I hope to spend a great deal of time at the restaurant but I’m also
going to spend a little time away and travel. I’m not going anywhere, I’m
coming back to Atlanta, but I’m going to use this opportunity to build a lot
things that I wanted to do in my career. I started out with a very strong focus
on eventually being able to give back to the community I was a part of. I’ve been given an opportunity to be influential in any number of
things and that I should take that opportunity.
KM: If you were to create another restaurant, do you have any
idea what that would look like?
KG: We do, my partners and I have two other sort of ideas
brewing. One that I’ll keep to myself because rumors are leaking out too
quickly about things that we’re doing and we want it to be surprising. On the
other hand, one project that is that in a couple of years we'll open a flagship that will be everything I wanted Woodfire to be. The Woodfire
building isn’t exactly suited to do quite as fine a cuisine as I would like to
do and I think that considering the changes that have been made in the city
recently, like the Dining Room closing, I think it means that the city is
looking for a rebirth of that through different eyes and in a different form.
I’ve been very vocal about being that person who wants to step up to the plate
and make that change. We intend to open another place much smaller than
Woodfire that really embraces that idea: what does fine dining mean and what
does it mean in Atlanta?
KM: The Westside has undergone a huge foodie revitalization with White Provisions. Are there any other areas in town (or OTP) that you see as having the same kind of resurgence in the near future?
KG: I’m really fond of East Atlanta Village. I think EAV is right now what the West End area was about 10 years ago. I think that it has the capacity to really be the next place to be. And maybe we’ll try to develop something over there: I like the feel of that area, I like that it’s young and it embraces diversity. It embraces the fact that it’s not the best area of town, and people are okay with that. People question the purchase of Woodfire being on Cheshire Bridge Road. It doesn’t bother me: I like the kookier places in town. I don’t need them to be quite so cookie cutter. When you build something that has heart and has soul I think it’s going to survive. And that’s one thing that Atlantans are going to need to get accustomed to. We don’t have the best public transportation so we’re used to driving, so why not drive a few more minutes to a different part of town. Not everything has to be in Midtown and Buckhead: there are places worth going that are a little bit more off the beaten path.
KM: Anything else?
KG: More than anything I want people to know that when I bought
Woodfire Grill I had every intention of making it a restaurant that made a
difference, that was critical to the dining scene in Atlanta and that made an
impact. What I mean by that is that I made a commitment to the city. I want to
see Atlanta get better. I want to see Atlanta grow. I want to see Atlanta
embrace change and build something for itself that it deserves. I plan on
investing a great deal of time and money in making that happen. This is
definitely a long term commitment and my stardom has done nothing but propel my
capacity to make those changes happen. At the end of the day, I’m still the
same person, I still cook at Woodfire Grill, I still believe in myself as a
chef, less than any sort of celebrity, but the celebrity has provided the
opportunity to make the changes that I want to make happen. Atlanta deserves
more acclaim for what it does. It deserves to be noticed more. There are great
chefs here and great restaurants and if I can use any bit of the celebrity that I’ve acquired to focus
more attention on the city than I would rather do that. It’s not so much about
me and my opinion as it is about recognizing all of these amazing talents that
we already have here.
It was such fun to chat with Chef Gillespie. If you haven't already, be sure to make reservations at Woodfire Grill soon!