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Kevin Gillespie talks Top Chef

Ask anyone from Atlanta about Bravo’s Top Chef show, and the name they’ll mention is Kevin Gillespie. The guy with the pig tattoo and the red beard finished overall fan favorite, and runner up in the competition.

Ask the soft-spoken Atlanta native about Top Chef, and this is what he says: “My expectation of what I would get out of Top Chef was very low. I had never seen Top Chef before I went on Top Chef, and frankly I was in a position at Woodfire Grill where I was fearful that we were gonna lose that restaurant because of the economic times.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, the young chef did everything he could to improve business at the Cheshire Bridge restaurant. “I knew we needed something. We needed some big catalyst that was gonna push us over that edge and keep us in business, and so I tried everything, and the last thing was Top Chef.”

All Kevin expected was that Woodfire “would have some sort of push when I came back that would keep us at least in business for a little while longer, because I didn’t want to lose that restaurant. It was a pride thing more than anything. I didn’t want to lose Woodfire because it was mine and I just wasn’t okay with that idea. It hurt me to think that my first time out where I’m the guy in charge, we closed the restaurant.”

But something happened on the journey from Top Chef Las Vegas to its finale in California. “What I found was that Top Chef did something very interesting for me,” he says. “I believe that this came about, not because I believe that this would happen naturally for anyone on Top Chef, but just because of the fact that I tend to be very introspective, is that I found a great deal more confidence in myself, and I found confidence in cooking the food I knew in my heart, less cooking the food that I had been trained to do, and that was a big change.”

It was a change that was the catalyst to Gillespie eventually leaving Woodfire and creating Gunshow. A restaurant on his terms, that reflects who he is, and where he comes from.

Top Chef came knocking again when it decided to do an “All-Stars” season (which was won by Richard Blais of HD1, Flip Burger, and The Spence). Gillespie refused. “I guess I’m an oddly sentimental person, I don’t really feel like replacing the memories of Top Chef that I currently have with ones that are oddly similar but somehow still different. I don’t have any regrets about the first go round, I don’t have anything that I would have done differently, and so I don’t feel like doing it again.”

Viewers of this season’s Top Chef in Seattle noted that there was a distinct lack of drama at the end, with the final four chefs all getting along really well, all of them being focused but…likable. It’s not something that Bravo are known for, preferring instead to ratchet up the drama whether it exists or not.

Gillespie says that’s why he won’t do any Top Chef spin-offs. “I feel like they have dialed up the drama a little too much sometimes, and for effect and I don’t support it. I know that it hurts me too not go on the show, I realize the publicity I could get, and this is my non-violent protest [against the drama], I guess. Yes, I know it’s harming me but this is what I believe in so I stand up for what I believe in. I don’t buckle on things like that.”

Since the second season of Top Chef, Padma Lakshmi has been its primary host, overseeing the end of dozens of hopefuls’ culinary aspirations. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Friars’ Club would find time to roast her sooner or later.

When they did, Kevin Gillespie was tapped to be roast master. But that wasn’t how his involvement began. “They reached out to me and said ‘Would you like to come to the roast?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And then shortly thereafter they said ‘Would you like to roast her?’ And I said ‘Ehmmm yeah, okay I could do that.’ And then shortly thereafter they were like, ‘Cool, why don’t you just run the show?’ So I don’t know we jumped from point A to point B to point C, but lo and behold I became roast master.

Kevin says that people would ask what it took to be roast master, and his answer was always “About six emails.”

He says that being roast master was an “awesome experience.” In part it’s because he was “on the other side of this thing dishing it out for once,” and so the decision to accept the offer to be roast master was something of a no-brainer.

Jeff Ross, author of “I Only Roast the Ones I Love,” which discusses the art of roasting, says that roasting is “brutal honesty face to face.” Similar, perhaps, to being judged on a popular cooking TV show, except without the restraint and with the goal of eliciting a laugh.

“I have nothing against Padma, I think she’s a wonderful woman, and I have nothing but respect and a strong fondness for her. But it was just too much fun to pass up and she took it like a champ because there were some brutal hits,” Kevin says. “Some of those guys laid it on. I don’t know if I could have taken it with such a smile, but she was great.”

And what of Tom Colicchio? The restaurateur has been a judge since the first episode of the show. “Somehow or another I think they must have invited Tom [to roast Padma] as well, and I’m staring to believe now that it was always intended that it would be the roast of Padma and Tom, because they bashed him just as hard as they bashed her.”

So, for some contestants at least, the last dish they served to the judges that sent them home was revenge. Possibly cold.