This week’s Restaurant Stories column is a profile of Kevin Gillespie — the Woodfire Grill chef who’s making a splash on “Top Chef” and, more importantly, shaking up things on the Atlanta dining scene.
One day, about eight years ago, Kevin Gillespie received an envelope from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Not just any envelope, but the fat one, with a letter of admission addressed to the Henry County High School senior.
Once Gillespie got over his shock, he hid the envelope. Hid it from his parents, friends and college placement counselors so he could rethink his ambition to become a nuclear engineer.
Gillespie eventually ’fessed up and told his parents he didn’t want to go to MIT, despite the nice scholarship thrown in for good measure. He wanted to go to the Art Institute of Atlanta and study cooking. His mother — who may be eligible for sainthood — told him it was good that he knew what he was meant to do early in life.
It looks like she was right. Gillespie is now the chef and a partner at Woodfire Grill, the Cheshire Bridge Road restaurant that became an instant leader in Atlanta’s nascent farm-to-table movement when Michael Touhy opened it in 2002. Gillespie is also a new television star, playing himself on the Bravo TV reality series “Top Chef.” Week in and week out, he has been one of the top performers in the cooking competition, and he seems to possess the combination of skills, imagination and competitive spirit to go the distance.
With his round cheeks and full red beard, he cuts a distinctive figure that Internet wags liken to Yukon Cornelius from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Even as he competes on a national stage, Gillespie is quick to point out he is an Atlantan — born, bred, schooled and trained. After graduating from the Art Institute, he began working at the two Ritz-Carlton hotels. His paying job was downtown at the hotel restaurant, but he spent much of his free time in Bruno Ménard’s kitchen in the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, absorbing what he could from the acclaimed five-star chef.
Gillespie worked for about a month with the city’s other great chef — Guenter Seeger — at Seeger’s, but decided that neither the 108-hour work weeks nor the $300 paychecks were what he bargained for. Moving from the highest quality to the highest volume, Gillespie joined the opening team for Two Urban Licks. He saw nights where more than 1,000 customers were served. “That wasn’t for me,” Gillespie says.
He quit on the spot, all the while thinking, “My wife is not going to be happy about this.”
Lucky for him, word got around Atlanta and reached the ears of Touhy, who asked Gillespie to try out for a job at Woodfire Grill. There, something profound clicked.
“In other restaurants, they were writing the menus and then buying the food,” Gillespie recalls. “But Michael always took into account the quality of the food he was purchasing. The only option for producing good food was starting with perfect product. From Michael, I learned about the responsibility of the restaurateur.”
Gillespie worked at Woodfire Grill for the next 2 1/2 years, first learning from Touhy and then, gradually, challenging him. Gillespie wanted to marry some of the approach he gleaned from the Ritz-Carlton and Seeger’s into the casual, market-driven menu at Woodfire Grill. “We butted heads a lot over technique,” Gillespie says.
As Touhy recalls, the only disagreement was over portion size. “I would tend to put more food on the plate,” he remembers.
Still, Gillespie felt it was time to move on. His next stop was Portland, Ore., where “local” and “sustainable” weren’t catchwords but, Gillespie says, “the mentality of the way Portlanders look at life. It’s militantly seasonal out there.” In Portland, “everyone’s menu sounds like a farm-to-table restaurant” in Atlanta.
When Touhy was thinking of removing himself from the day-to-day operation of Woodfire Grill, he called Gillespie and offered to make him chef, paying for his move back to Atlanta if he’d take the job.
But as chance would have it, Touhy himself was approached about a new job on the West Coast. He decided to leave the city, and a new management team — Bernard Moussa and Nicolas Quinones — worked with lenders to take possession of the restaurant. Gillespie met with the new owners and made the pitch that Woodfire Grill could and should try to compete with refined restaurants like Bacchanalia and Craft. They liked his vision.
Now, they are one year into the new Woodfire. By raising the prices and presenting a better edited and more formal menu, they were hardly in step with recessionary dining. But interest in “Top Chef” has brought new faces to the dining room, which was buzzing on a recent Friday night.
What these new customers find is food that tastes proudly Southern but isn’t that sloppy, wet kiss of more-is-more Southern cooking. For instance, Woodfire might be the only restaurant in town that has a boiled custard on the menu, but it’s made with celery and topped with pickled green beans. Local bobwhite quail are roasted in caramelized honey, topped with a spicy peach preserve and set atop roasted farro. Fantastically tender roast scallops nest on a saute of teeny-tiny lady peas in a smoky bacon jus. Quinones offers canny wine pairings from the restaurant’s deep cellar (i.e., a grassy New World sauvignon blanc with that boiled pudding).
Whether or not he wins at “Top Chef,” Gillespie has seen his vision for Woodfire Grill come to fruition. It is sophisticated in a way it never was before, and something else: 100 percent Atlanta.