Take Five with “Top Chef” Contestant Kevin Gillespie, On the Impact of TV Fame

Chef Kevin Gillespie of "Top Chef'' grills up succulent pork belly in South Carolina last weekend.

Only four remain.

As Season 6 of Bravo TV’s wildly popular “Top Chef” show winds to a close, Atlanta’s Kevin Gillespie still remains standing. Executive chef and partner of Woodfire Grill, the poised 27-year-old has held himself above the dramatics and hi-jinks exhibited by some of his other competitors. He makes no apologies for his food being simple. Indeed, his longevity just shows that food needn’t be fussy to be spectacular.

I caught up with Gillespie this weekend when I was invited to attend the third annual “Tyler Florence’s Palmetto Bluff Lowcountry Celebration” at the serene, sumptuous Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina.

Clearly a fan favorite, he was mobbed by well-wishers as he manned the grill, where he was turning out smoky pork belly served with pickled apples and a pureed peanut sauce. Talk about a succulent dish with true Southern twang.

Kevin's grilled pork belly with pickled apples and a zippy peanut sauce.

Everyone wanted to ask him if he ended up winning “Top Chef.” But he remained mum. You’ll just have to keep watching to find out how much farther he gets.

Q: Kevin, how did you get involved with “Top Chef”?

A: They came to me about it. I had to really think about it. I had not really watched the show before, and I feared TV would cheapen what I was doing, that it would add this novelty aspect to it.

Q: How has being on the show changed your life?

A: It’s made the restaurant significantly busier. We’ve had a 330 percent increase in revenue. We didn’t even think that was possible.

The celebrity part is crazy. I was surprised how much people like the show. People really care, and it’s nice to see how much they want to see someone who believes in food succeed. I think it’s also spurred a lot of people to be interested in something they had long forgotten. Television has given people like myself a vehicle to say what they think about food. You have to use it as a vehicle to help shape young people.

Q: Do you like the way you’ve been portrayed on TV?

A: I had a generous portrayal. They didn’t create a person who didn’t exist. I’m not a person who talks negative about others. I’m very purposeful. I think it’s given me credibility on the show.

Q: What surprised you most about doing the show?

A: The level of talent on the show. I looked at other seasons and thought I might be a shoo-in. But there are so many good people this year. You really had to show up every day to do your best.

Q: What was the most difficult challenge?

A: The Bocuse d’Or challenge. It was the one I really wanted to win. (He did.)

I chose to make the simplest thing. People mistakenly believe the Bocuse d’Or is about pomp and circumstance. But it’s about good food. It’s about flavor and execution. I think the dish I made embodied the spirit of the Bocuse d’Or the most.

Q: Are the personality conflicts on the show just dramatics?

A: Part of me thinks it’s a dramatization. But everything you see happened. You have to keep it in perspective, though. You have to realize the level of stress, how long everyone has been under it, and how there’s no outlet for it.

Kevin demonstrating his pork belly dish on stage at the South Carolina food festival.

Q: Your favorite ingredient to cook with?

A: Pig. We should celebrate pork fat for its versatility. We should cherish it, and not put a halo of guilt around it. My Grandma eats it everyday and she’s 100.

Q: Which of your “Top Chef” competitors would you most want to cook you dinner?

A: (laughs) That’s a tough one.

Myself and Jennifer (Carroll, chef de cuisine of 10 Arts by Eric Ripert in Philadelphia) share more in common in how we approach cooking. Jen and I both believe in simplicity.

The Voltaggio brothers (Michael of The Dining Room at Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, and Bryan of  Volt in Frederick, Md.), though, approach things so differently than I do. It would be so engaging to sit down to that.

More: My Q&A with Napa Valley Chef Michael Chiarello of “Top Chef Masters”

More: Other scenes from the “Palmetto Bluff Lowcountry Celebration” in South Carolina

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