Kevin Gillespie is a serious chef with a lighthearted mission. He wants home cooks to loosen up and experience the pleasures of cooking.
“So many people get caught up in the idea that cooking every day is hard work, or that going to farmer’s markets is too much effort,” said the burly tattooed chef, who made a name for himself a few seasons ago on Top Chef. “As with life in general, the whole point of cooking is to have fun.”
Gillespie succeeds in his goal to empower home cooks with eminently do-able recipes and approachable technique advice in Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking (Andrews McNeel), his first book, which was released just this week. He will appear at Southern Season in Chapel Hill for a book signing at 3pm Saturday, with a sold-out class to follow at 5pm.
While his TV fame and award-winning Woodfire Grill restaurant in Atlanta gave him the credibility to produce what he disparagingly calls a “chef-y chef” book, Gillespie returned to his roots for the home-style cooking that first inspired him.
As he describes in the opening pages, Gillespie grew up surrounded by cousins on a former dirt road called Sunshine Circle in Locust Grove, Ga. Though he spent countless hours planning his escape from ever-present family and the routine of meals lovingly cooked by his Granny, he now counts those formative years as the foundation of his food ethics and outreach.
“Now, as an adult, I realize how special that opportunity was,” he said. “It’s taught me so much about who I am and what food and family mean to me.”
One of Gillespie’s goals is to get folks to take at fresh look at familiar foods by using them in ways that may seem contrary to logic. For example, the Indian-spiced Not Your Everyday Butternut Squash Soup featured on his website makes use of the tough skin that usually is peeled and discarded. One commenter admitted trepidation: “Will it bite me back or does it soften up enough so that I won’t be applying bandaids to the roof of my mouth?”
“I’m hopefully giving a teaching moment there,” Gillespie said. “I’m trying to tell people, hey this is going to produce really amazing results. I want people to trust that I wrote this book, all these recipes, with them in mind. My objective is to build confidence in the kitchen.”
Gillespie accomplishes this through 120 recipes, more than 350 vivid photos and series of essays that eloquently define his culinary point of view. The handsomely produced book – which miraculously lays flat no matter what page it’s opened to – also includes a useful Seasonal Recipe Index to steer users toward making the best use of peak produce and proteins. “The ideal of eating seasonally,” he writes, “is 100 percent dependent on eating local food.”
In keeping with is food-is-fun mantra, Gillespie also includes stories about certain recipes that seems to reinforce Woody Allen’s quip that “80 percent of success is just showing up.” A humorous example is his Overnight Grits with Tomato-Braised Greens, which Gillespie described as the fortunate result of what at the time seemed like a major blunder.
“It’s a wonderful dish and preparation that was a complete accident,” he said with a laugh. “But it turned out pretty cool so we went with it.”
Gillespie writes that his team was preparing grits for a thousand diners with tickets to attend a Slow Food event. The grits were inadvertently left in a hotbox overnight and turned a curious milky brown color, like iced coffee. Daring a taste, he discovered them perfectly caramelized and “100 times creamier than our normal grits. … People went apeshit for them.”
“I’ve served that dish to many a Southerner and many people outside of the South, and everybody loves it,” he said. “It’s proof of good things that happen in the kitchen sometimes when you least expect it, and it can happen for home cooks, too.”