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Kevin Gillespie: Between Woodfire and Gunshow

In September 2012, Kevin Gillespie, the former executive chef of Woodfire Grill and bacon-lover, announced that he’d be quitting the restaurant he’d called home for more than five years. Born to parents who taught him that “the one clear path to success in life is through hard work and remembering where you came from,” Gillespie threw himself into a mind-boggling variety of projects.

First came the book tour in support of his first publication, Fire In My Belly. I asked if it was difficult to spend so much time away from home.

The answer? “Really difficult.”

Fire In My Belly

“The book tour took me away from my home for nearly two months and it was a very humbling experience to listen to people who had purchased the book, and had actually read i,t and could talk to you about the stories. It was one of those moments where you feel really good about something you’d done, like you had made something that you’re very proud of. It was pretty great.”

Kevin says that he’d known for most of his life that he wanted to write a book, he just didn’t know when the opportunity would arise. That opportunity came from Andrews McMeel, a Kansas City publisher.

“I started down the path of writing what is now ‘Fire in My Belly’ with no real clue of where it was gonna go. That was maybe the nerve-wracking part for everyone else involved.”

The thing to know about Fire in My Belly is that it’s as much biography as it is recipe book. To understand the recipes, it almost seems as important that we understand the man who created them, and why things are done a certain way. It works. In the best, most readable ways possible, it works.

Nerve-wracking, indeed, to follow someone into a project when they don’t even know what the end result might look like. But that’s exactly what Kevin’s team did. In an interview with Atlanta Magazine in 2012, Kevin discusses going into work early with Chef de Cuisine, E.J. Hodgkinson, for the better part of a year. Together they would develop and perfect recipes; and then Gena Berry, a veteran food stylist and chef, transcribed the ingredients and process.

“I didn’t know what the book would be when it was done, I had no real blueprint for it. I just decided to write a book and whatever that was is what it was.”

Kevin thinks that’s probably the reason “it’s very candid and very fun, but it also doesn’t focus on any one thing in particular.” Which isn’t a problem, except that “when I took this book on tour to talk about it, all of a sudden I was like ‘what are my talking points of this book because it’s gonna make me sound like a rambling lunatic.'”

“We wrote the book with a desire to make it be in my voice at all times,” Kevin says. “Even if that sometimes meant it was crass, it was on purpose because I wanted people who read it to feel like they’d connected with me. I wanted people who knew me already who read it to be able to say ‘That is Kevin. I know him, and that’s him.'”

In the end, Fire in My Belly is a book that changes a little from chapter to chapter, but that just helps the feeling of seasonality. The process of writing it is neatly described by Kevin: “It was fun, it was a little scary, it was long, and it was very tiring.”

The Bacon Show

Everyone who saw Top Chef Las Vegas remembers that Kevin has a way with the hogs, so it seems only natural that the Tasted Channel on YouTube would approach him with a project.

The Bacon Show was “something that came up that sounded like too much fun to pass up the opportunity.” Tasted sent Kevin all over the country to meet and talk bacon with people who cure it, sell it, and make delicious food with it.

In his favorite episode, he visits Alan Benton, a Tennessee butcher.

“I’ve been using Alan’s stuff for ten years, probably, and I had never had a chance to visit him in person. It was like having an opportunity to meet an uncle that you’d never met. He and I understood so many traditions, and I felt like I was talking to a family member the whole time. I just felt so welcome.”

The visit was inspirational for Gillespie, who says, “I was in awe, frankly, of what he does there, because it’s so real; and every day that goes by I become a little more concerned with this idea of integrity and things being real.” Benton’s story strengthens what Kevin calls his “uncompromising inability to pretend to be something that I’m not, because I’m just so intrigued by the story of Alan Benton — so much more than I am by the things that probably get the most press and the most acclaim.”

Both Gillespie and Benton are seasoned bacon-makers, and Benton’s recipe is similar to Gillespie’s great-grandfather’s. “There’s a subtle difference which is more a personal preference in taste with the ingredients or ratios, but the process is almost identical and it was very cool to see that come to life there and feel this bond.”

Personal Chef

As I write this, Kevin’s Facebook page says he’s in Seattle. That’s the furthest point from home on his personal chef tour.

His what?

Between a book tour, webisodes for Youtube, building a restaurant, and an animated TV spot we’re about to get to, Kevin apparently had time on his hands. I have no idea how, other than to say he gets through a volume of work that the kids would call “epic.”

So he did what anyone would do: he offered personal chef services on Facebook.

“Let’s say that that was an idea that I had that I thought was very clever. And it turned out to be a gross undersight. My bad. I honestly thought that when I posted that on Facebook that maybe I would book two private parties for some kind of expense account for Coca-Cola or somebody like that.”

Acknowledging that, given his enormous popularity you’d imagine it would be the kind of thing that sold out in minutes, Kevin explains that “what actually happened was that I got 4000 emails in 20 minutes, and it shut my computer down.”

And not just his computer. Basically anything that was connected to his email needed to be disconnected. And then began the process of responding to requests.

“Everyone who sent a response in the first one minute, which was 400 people, they got an auto reply that said ‘there are 400 of you, here’s the deal…'” and went on to outline “the cost, how much money, here’s the parameters, here’s the way this works, and the first 10 people who contact me either with their credit card or wire the money into this account will be the ones I book.”

Everyone after that, he explains, “got an autoreply that said ‘I’m sorry, it sold out in the first minute.'”

“Once I opened my computer and got all this sorted out, it took about 20 minutes to book two months worth of work. And they’re all over everywhere. Unfortunately it means I’m so additionally busy that it’s kind of overwhelming.” Kevin tells me that he has some of these personal chef jobs booked in Georgia, though not exclusively here. He has a trip to Seattle, and a family from the Northeast are renting a place on Sea Island to have Kevin cook for them there.

You might expect that a famous chef can make a ton of money doing this kind of thing for people who can afford it, and you might be right. So is Kevin rolling in the dough?

“Truth be told, and in true restaurant fashion, this [Gunshow] thing is running over budget so I’m probably gonna have to take all this money that I made and put it right back in the budget for the restaurant.”

That’s a “no,” then.

Archer

While Archer, FX’s animated spy comedy, isn’t a show that’s universally liked, it does have a cult following. In recent episodes Anthony Bourdain and Kevin Gillespie have lent their voices and likenesses to characters on the show.

I asked Kevin how he got involved, and it’s a story that begins a few years ago. “One of my good friends is a producer for Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. She and I were talking about me doing a voice, potentially for Dave Willis, the guy who does Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Squidbillies, and Dave was interested in me doing it.”

Kevin did one voice for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, then another, and another. Then he played his animated self on Squidbillies, and then he did another voice for Aqua Teen.

I’m still not getting the connection. “All the guys who make Archer previously had a show on Cartoon Network called Frisky Dingo,” he explains. “They’d come into my restaurant a bunch of times and said ‘Alright we’ve got this part that we need somebody to voice. Here’s what it is, and you can say no…it’s gonna be a stretch and a lot of people probably won’t do it…can you voice this long haul truck driver that’s actually an S&M snuff-film maker?'”

Take a second and re-read that. S&M snuff-film maker. Apparently an “unspeakably rapey” one. And how else would Chef Kevin respond but with a hearty “Yeah, of course I can!” Unlike other voice work, though, this one was more than just a speaking part. “When I was done with the voice they said ‘Hey, can you come back to the studio so we can take pictures so we can animate you?’ And I was: ‘I’m sorry, what’s that?’ And they were like, ‘So we can get your facial features and stuff like that…'”

“And that,” says Gillespie, “is when I realized the character was gonna look like me as well. It was gonna be my head and my voice on a different body, and for a moment I was like ‘I don’t know about this…’ ’cause I could already hear what my dad was gonna say, but I just decided to go with it anyhow, and I had a really good time doing it.” If you’re curious, Eater has those pictures of Kevin Gillespie as an S&M long haul trucker

And that seems to be something Kevin excels at: going with it and having a good time anyhow.