Chef Kevin Gillespie
Gunshow - Atlanta, GA
Revival - Decatur, GA
When Kevin Gillespie hesitantly signed up to compete on the sixth season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2009, he did it to save Woodfire Grill, his critically acclaimed but financially struggling Atlanta restaurant. Initially, he felt lost in the TV kitchen without his restaurant recipes and his ingredient-splotched cookbooks. He had to rely on his training, intuition and the simple recipes he learned as a kid growing up on Sunshine Circle in Locust Grove, Georgia, where he watched his granny, Geneva Gillespie, cook each day.
“It was the first time in my culinary life where I allowed myself to cook whatever sprang into my mind and let my heart drive where I was going,” Gillespie reflects. “What came out was very soulful and very personal.”
Gillespie’s honest, genuine cooking resonated with viewers across the country. Suddenly, the modest, tattooed Georgia native was a household name. Fans were flocking to Woodfire Grill to see him and sample his rustic yet modern takes on American food with a Southern accent. Even his trademark crimson beard inspired its own Facebook fan page.
And it wasn’t just the city’s business elite clamoring for a table. There were working class folks wanting to meet him; the ones who had to carefully consider how they spent their money. The same people who had rooted for Gillespie each week in their living rooms across the country.
“The experience unshackled me from all my mentors and all my influences and allowed me to really make my debut as a chef,” says Gillespie. “Suddenly, people were interested in what I wanted to cook.”
Six years later, as Gillespie’s national brand continues to grow, he considers those hard-working people with every restaurant deal he green lights, every product he puts his name on and each cookbook he authors. His 2013 James Beard finalist cookbook debut, “Fire In My Belly,” combined favorite dishes from his Woodfire Grill menu with his own artful interpretations of everyday favorites. His 2015 follow-up, “Pure Pork Awesomeness,” was devoted to Gillespie’s preferred protein.
Later in 2013, Gillespie debuted Gunshow in Atlanta’s Glenwood Park neighborhood. It's perhaps the only restaurant in the city where the dim sum-style menu changes nightly and diners get to interact directly with the chefs creating their dishes, all set to a heavy metal soundtrack.
By 2014, Gunshow had landed on Esquire magazine’s “Best New Restaurants” list, GQ’s “12 Most Outstanding Restaurants” and was lauded in the pages of Bon Appetit. Gillespie was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award Best Chef: Southeast in 2015 and finalist in 2016.
Gillespie returned to television to compete on Bravo’s “Top Chef Duels,” advancing to the high-stakes finale. But Gillespie knew he had really established himself as a nationally regarded chef when the animators behind “Squidbillies,” his favorite Cartoon Network Adult Swim show, called and asked him to play himself in an episode of the animated series.
For his next venture, Gillespie did a complete 180° from the innovative tastes and rock star vibe of Gunshow, quietly converting the former Campbell family home at 129 Church Street in Decatur, Georgia, into Revival, his heartfelt homage to Southern family-style suppers.
The idea for the home-and-hearth restaurant was inspired by a conversation with Gillespie’s mother, Cathy, who had conceded to her son that she and his dad, Kevin, Sr. hadn’t been regulars at Woodfire Grill because the starched white linen tablecloths and fussy wine lists weren’t exactly their style.
I feel like I’m living out chapters of my life through my restaurants,” explains Gillespie. “Gunshow represents the rebellious, more obnoxious, fun and brash side of me. It's the tattoo sleeves and the kid blasting rock music in his room. Gunshow represents total freedom of not being chained down to anything, including our own concepts. But Revival represents this very introspective chapter for me. I felt this need, this ache to pay homage to the people who came before me. I wanted to create a place where my family feels at home.” Southern Living magazine took notice of Revival in 2016, including the restaurant in its list of “The South’s Best New Restaurants.”
For Gillespie, his culinary journey came full circle in January 2016, when he and his staff celebrated his granny Geneva Gillespie’s 90th birthday at Revival where photos of the family matriarch hang on the wall. As family-style platters of fried chicken, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese and his grandmother’s favorite pole beans were passed, along with a cast iron skillet of Geneva’s mother’s cornbread, Gillespie took a minute to reflect. “Having an opportunity to finally be the one cooking for her meant everything to me,” he says. “She’s still the best cook I’ve ever known in my life.”
In April 2016, Gillespie added a German-style beer garden in Revival’s backyard called Communion. “In the truest sense of the word, Communion means ‘to share,’ and that is our guiding inspiration behind the new outdoor space,” he explains. “We love to treat our guests like family at Revival, extending that hospitality to cookouts in the front yard and supper on the side porch. Now, the backyard is our final addition. It's a place where friends and neighbors can meet and share a drink, a snack from our food truck or play a game of horseshoes together."
As his Red Beard Restaurants brand continues to grow, along with his own line of merchandise (including his popular Gunpowder Finishing Salt), and he ponders his next television project, Gillespie never forgets the unique bond he forged with “Top Chef” viewers back in 2009.
Says Gillespie: “Every day of my life someone stops me on the street to tell me, ‘We were rooting for you each week!’ That’s incredibly magical to me, being able to make that connection with people through television. I want to find fresh ways to keep that conversation going. That’s why I cook food for a living, write cookbooks and put restaurants together. It’s my way of being able to express my personal feelings; my way of connecting with other regular, everyday people like myself and my family.”
Even with all the national magazine praise and James Beard Foundation accolades, Gillespie is fiercely protective of one recipe in his repertoire. In a 2015 episode of CNN’s “Culinary Journeys,” Gillespie conceded if a restaurant critic ever goes after his great-grandmother’s sacred cornbread recipe, “I might either cry myself to sleep or punch you in the face.”
“I still feel the same way!” Gillespie says laughing. “In this line of work, you can’t ever be boastful. I’m always up for feedback on dishes. You always need to be striving to get better. But, I get very defensive about our cornbread. It’s the best you will ever have. The way I see it, if you’re the type of person who won’t protect the integrity of your granny’s homemade cornbread, you don’t belong in a kitchen!”