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Kevin Gillespie: Why I Left Woodfire Grill

In September of 2012, Kevin Gillespie announced that he would be leaving Woodfire Grill at the end of the year. The bearded chef with the pig tattoo, who was catapulted into the limelight as the Top Chef Las Vegas fan favorite a few years ago, had helmed the Cheshire Bridge restaurant since 2007. I met him in Glenwood Park, near his new restaurant, Gunshow, to talk to him about his decision to go it alone.

“It was an extremely difficult decision to leave Woodfire, for a lot of reasons,” Gillespie says. “Most of all, realistically, the hardest part about leaving Woodfire was leaving the people I’d spent the last five years working with.”

It’s a familiar, bitter-sweet feeling that most of us can relate to, but in food service, where staff turns over at more than 200 percent annually (most jobs turn over at around 20-30 percent) it’s unusual to keep staff for an extended period of time.

It’s a source of pride for Kevin that his team at Woodfire “had this amazing ability to retain employees for a very long time.” The result of this, he says, is that “you grew not only to respect them as your co-workers, but they became your very close personal friends. I knew that was gonna cause me issues, because it’s like walking away from your friends. It took me probably two years to work up the courage to do that. I had been thinking about leaving Woodfire probably just after year three,” he says, “and that was mostly based around my desire to evolve to another step in my career.”

That evolution was a slow process, but Gillespie had an idea of where he was headed. “I had another project in mind — that project we now call Gunshow — that I wanted to do and it became more important every single day that I do this other thing, but I wasn’t really capable of walking away from Woodfire at that point.”

Those of you doing the math have probably already calculated that he started thinking about Gunshow right around the end of his Top Chef experience.

If you recall the Top Chef finale in December 2009, Kevin, along with the Voltaggio brothers, are surprised by visits from their mothers. Cathy Gillespie tells her son to be “the real Kevin,” something he’d been showing us throughout the season. “I found a great deal more confidence in myself, being on Top Chef, and I found confidence in cooking the food I knew in my heart.”

When he returned to Atlanta, Kevin found that Woodfire had rocketed to the top of Atlanta’s places to eat. “We became very busy. We continued down the path that we had started, that was this evolution of fine dining, trying to make it something that more people could understand or approach.” And busy is good, as they say, but for Kevin that meant continuing “down this path of what everyone likes to call Modern Southern cooking, and I don’t know what that really means but somehow or another that’s what I was doing.” My conversation with Kevin about “Modern Southern” is the subject of another article, and his thoughts on the cuisine of the South are fascinating. “I kept doing that for several years, and I think we did it very well,” he says, “but the reality is that my heart went away from it about year three of being at Woodfire.”

At the beginning of our conversation, Kevin told me that he tends to be very introspective, and he certainly comes across as thoughtful and deliberate, so it’s no surprise that it took a while for him to finally make the decision to go. Any entrepreneur will recognize the position Kevin was in.

“Top Chef became, more than anything, the spark that ignited something that was obviously there for a very long time and it just took a while for me to be able to clearly articulate what I was feeling and try to then put that into practice.”

He envisioned a different kind of restaurant for Atlanta. “What I really wanted to do was to have a restaurant where we stopped focusing so much on what kind of food we made, and we stopped focusing so much on what kind of dining experience we were, and we just made a restaurant that was really good in all ways.”

In mapping out the restaurant that would become Gunshow, Kevin wanted a place that would be “just very fun to go to, very pleasant to be at. Pleasant to spend your money at, that wasn’t so expensive that it hurt you when you left.” He doesn’t want people to leave Gunshow thinking “Gah I wish I hadn’t done that.” Mostly, though, the focus would be on serving “just whatever food we thought would be delicious that day.”

Woodfire Grill has its own heritage, its own reputation, earned through the hard work of Kevin and his team, and now continued by Tyler Williams. And this heritage is one of the factors that led Kevin to decide, “I couldn’t just 180 degree the format of Woodfire. Unfortunately that was just not an option, for a lot of reasons, so I knew [the new format] had to happen somewhere else.

That “somewhere else” is on the corner of Garrett Street and Bill Kennedy Way in Glenwood Park. And its name is Gunshow.