Bravo’s “Top Chef” saved Kevin Gillespie from financial ruin. Business had been so slow at Woodfire Grill that there were nights last year when just a couple of diners – and sometimes none at all – came in.
“I can’t tell you what it feels like to work all day tweaking and getting things ready to share with people and then have no one show up,” he said. Trying out for the show was a last ditch effort to save the restaurant he’d bought with two partners.
“We’re sitting there, literally, praying that Bravo would call,” he said. “We kept borrowing money, scraping by. We wouldn’t have lasted six more months.”
The day Bravo announced he’d be featured, reservations suddenly surged, and the crush hasn’t let up. Not a single diner has canceled – even when icy weather made the roads a mess recently – and Valentine’s was hopping. (A quick check on OpenTable.com found the next 8 p.m. table isn’t available until March 4.) He probably could squeeze in a few more bodies but caps reservations at 200 daily, choosing quality over quantity.
“Everyone who has come in that restaurant, I feel like he’s had a positive experience,” Gillespie said. “I feel like we’re making better food at the restaurant now. I want to do it with heart and soul.”
Buzz checked in with Gillespie, a finalist voted “fan favorite” on the popular culinary reality show, in the kitchen of his home Monday afternoon. He demonstrated the preparation of a recipe called “one dish hog dinner,” made with cabbage, potatoes and fatback.
“It reminds me of being a kid,” said Gillespie, who grew up in Henry County where his family still lives (all on the same street) and took most of his meals at his grandmother’s table. “My Granny and my family are from the mountains. They are extremely frugal. This is something they would make when there wasn’t much meat available.”
Now that his “Top Chef” run has ended he’s enjoyed getting back into the groove at the restaurant – and has plans to open another one. Details are still coming together, so he couldn’t reveal some of the specifics, but it’ll be a barbecue restaurant that he and his partners will operate while maintaining Woodfire.
“I’ve been very vocal about my thoughts on barbecue,” said Gillespie, whose love of pork was evident throughout his Bravo stint. “We’re going to build ourselves a barbecue restaurant. It’s something I think is missing in this city.”
He’s also working on a book, and says that while he’s sort of sad that it took national television exposure to make his restaurant a local success, he’s grateful for the opportunities newfound fame has brought. (He’s also gotten used to people taking his picture while he cooks their dinners, so snap away.)
“There are plenty of people who are just there to see the famous chef,” he said. “But those people are coming back.”
While he grew up watching cooking shows instead of cartoons, he doesn’t have much to say about current culinary television, by the way. He doesn’t own a TV.
It’s been a tough time for restaurants everywhere, so we asked Gillespie, a big fan of Linton Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene, his thoughts for the future of dining.
“I’ve been hoping to say goodbye to fusion for the last decade,” he said, discussing trends he thinks will (or should) fade. “I’m really over tapas. I’m critical of all the molecular gastronomy.”
For now he wants to continue honing his craft and becoming a better chef, businessman and writer.
“I hope I don’t become jaded by the celebrity,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m quoting from ‘Star Wars,’ but I want to use it for the greater good. I’m a person driven by my convictions more than anything else.”
- Jennifer Brett, firstname.lastname@example.org