Atlanta born-and-bred Kevin Gillespie, former executive chef at Woodfire Grill, has been working for the last few months on building out his new restaurant in Glenwood Park. Set to open in April of 2013, Gunshow will be Gillespie’s vehicle for creating, in his words, “just whatever food we thought would be delicious that day.”
For those who don’t know where Glenwood Park is, it’s between East Altanta Village and Grant Park/Reynoldstown, south of I-20 and north of Glenwood Avenue. It’s a small community with some first class food and drink options: drip coffee, where I met Kevin, was used in the movie Hall Pass. Across the street, kitty corner-style from Gunshow, is The Shed at Glenwood, which was used in The Blind Side. There are a couple of bars not used in movies (yet), and no one place is more than a couple of minutes’ walk from the another.
“This is the neighborhood that I live in,” Kevin says, “and when I began this idea of ‘I’m gonna make a restaurant that truly does feel like an extension of my home, where I have this ability to be very personal’, I looked at a lot of locations and just came back to here. It just didn’t make any sense to do it somewhere that’s not where I live, and I thought I should build it in my own neighborhood.”
Kevin says that the “drive to the same two mile corridor in the city of Atlanta to eat dinner all the time” is an annoyance to him and his family and friends. “It doesn’t feel like we’re a very grown up town when we build all the restaurants in one spot,” he says, and that played into his decision to build his restaurant where he lives. “I knew it was gonna be a leap of faith and some people were gonna tell me I was crazy for it. But I wanted to have the restaurant that I would want, in my own back yard.”
Gunshow has been the source of a ton of media speculation — from myths about what it would and wouldn’t be like, to a backlash against the name in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012.
I asked Kevin how frustrating it had been to be on the defensive before the doors are even open. “It has been very frustrating for me. The name portion has been very frustrating because I feel like I’m being attacked for who I am as a person, for my own personal history.”
If you haven’t heard anything about Kevin’s personal history, here’s the very condensed version. Despite growing up in a trailer, Kevin was offered a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology out of high school. That’s where they train actual rocket scientists. He turned it down to go to the Art Institute of Atlanta and become a chef. It’s an ethic of hard work he comes by honestly: both of his parents worked long hours to make sure the family was fed and clothed. On the rare occasion his dad would have a day off, father and son would head to the local gun show. It was cheap, it was interesting, it was knowledge you had to have if you were growing up on the land in rural Henry County.
The name Gunshow isn’t about guns at all. It’s about family. It’s about memory. It’s both pride and humility in knowing that people you respect helped shape who you are now.
“I think it’s very easy for people who are not a part of this to say ‘change the name, change the name, change the name’. They don’t understand that changing the name, in my mind, is the equivalent to me going to my parents and telling them ‘I’m unwilling to tell your story. I’m unwilling to talk about who you are, I’m not proud of where I’m from. I’m embarrassed by the fact that I grew up in a trailer park, I’m embarrassed that neither of my parents graduated high school. I’m embarrassed by the life that I lived, and so I’m gonna keep pretending to be someone I’m not, because that’s what I have to do to be successful in my career.’ And I am un-f*cking-willing to do that. It’s been very hurtful to me to read those things, personally hurtful.”
It’s easy to be moved by Gillespie’s passion, and his pride in his heritage. He’s the guy you root for in a movie who does the right thing just because it’s the right thing, even if it’s painful.
“There’s a very popular idea that people who grew up in a situation similar to mine had a really tough go of it, and that would in some way or another give me a harder lot in life to be successful,” says the chef. “I don’t believe that and I feel like I want to pay homage to my parents who constantly reminded me that the one clear path to success in life is through hard work and remembering where you came from. And so that’s what that name embodies to me, because that name represents my father who worked seven days a week my whole life just so that we would have clothes.”
If there’s anyone still offended by the name, Kevin doesn’t want to get into an argument about it. “One of the beautiful things about this country, the one that I’m accused recently of not being sensitive to, is that you have the right to be who you wanna be, and you have the right to tell your personal history and your story. And maybe it’s an okay thing that once in a while we build restaurants that mean something to the people who built them and are running them.”
There have been some people who have been rational and inquisitive about the name, who have had conversations with Kevin about it. He says, “I respect the people who were candid with me about their feelings about it because I feel like that’s all I’m asking for, too. That you give me the respect to have my opinion and I give you the respect to have yours.”
“There are a lot of restaurants that have weird names that I’ve thought ‘that doesn’t sound like a restaurant name, that seems weird’ but its not my story to tell, it’s theirs, and so I never question it.”
So that’s the name. There were other things that were circulating about the restaurant, too. Like the idea of blurring the roles of the front and back of house.
“This part doesn’t bother me,” Kevin says, “it makes me laugh because I think it’s really funny that so many people have an opinion on how this isn’t gonna work and I’m assuming…this is just an assumption and I may be very very wrong about this, but I’m assuming that a lot of those people who have voiced an opinion don’t actually run a restaurant for a living.”
He’s probably right. He compares it to Saturday and Sunday in the fall in his house, when he can be found with his friends and family “yelling at the TV about the poor coaching choices. Turns out I actually don’t coach professional football, and so, although I’m entitled to my opinion, I might not know as much as I think I know about some things, and I should probably defer to the professionals on this.”
But to clarify that he’s not simply amused at the maelstrom of confusion around whether your server will actually be the sous chef and the hostess will also be your sommelier, he says, “Maybe the part that I had accidentally left out in the early descriptions is that this restaurant still has all of the same amenities and service points that any restaurant does.”
They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel at Gunshow, more like trying to add suspension so that everything goes smoothly. When planning how the restaurant would work, Gillespie and his team talked about whether a particular role was best for the restaurant or best for the diner, and whether that was the right focus for the role. “We’ve basically taken that total lot of responsibilities and realigned the pegs slightly so that people who can affect whatever the responsibility is the most are the ones responsible for it.” If that sounds vague, Kevin gives an example: “I’ve always thought that it was an ineffective system that the person who took the order determined the timing at which the dish came out, when it would be ‘done’. Our process is much more similar to what we do every day in our homes, when the person cooking says ‘Dinner’s ready’ and the other person says ‘Okay, let’s eat.’ As opposed to have a third person, impartial, thrown in the middle at your home, where you go ‘Dinner’s ready’ and they go ‘I hear you, but I’m not yet ready to tell this person that its time for them to eat dinner. I can see that they’re sitting there patiently waiting, but I need to go do something else first, and when I come back we can serve dinner.'”
“It’s not nearly as weird as people think it is going to be, it’s actually very intuitive. There are dishwashers. There are hosts. There are servers who will take your drink order and talk to you about the food, and ensure that you’re having a good time. You know, all those things that servers always do, or should always do. But now they don’t have to do the part where they’re running back and forth to the kitchen where they’re asking ‘Does anyone know where my food for table 73 went?’ They’re not doing the other part that has distracted them from their real purpose: to serve the guest.”
One of my favorite trends over the last few years is that kitchens are starting to be placed in plain view of the dining room. I’m curious to know whether Gunshow will have that open feel.
“Probably to the largest extent you’ve ever seen before. I don’t want to exaggerate, but there’s really very few walls in this space. The only things you can’t see are where we wash the dishes, because I assume no one wants to watch that; and where people go to the bathroom, because I just decided no one wants to watch.”
We’ve all had the experience where you order, and you wait. And you wait. And when you ask your server about it you’re told the kitchen’s really backed up. Gillespie’s had that experience, too, and his open design should eliminate those moments where “you kinda wonder if that’s a crock of sh*t or whether they forgot to ring your order in. I feel like that [excuse] would have a lot more legitimacy if you could say ‘Wow, they’re really busy as we can all see by how many people are in here and how fast they’re working.'”
The kitchen at Gunshow promises to be highly visible in the dining room. “In fact if you really felt hell-bent on it you could walk from the dining room to the kitchen without anything impeding your progress. The walk-in cooler’s in the dining room, all of our storage is in the dining room, whether you want to think that we’re cooking in the dining room or you’re eating in the kitchen, whatever, doesn’t matter, but that’s the idea behind it, and it was for that sake of total transparency.”
Gunshow opens in mid-April 2013 and is taking reservations now.