American chef's independent spirit fires Southern cuisine

NEW YORK Tue Jan 8, 2013 4:59am EST

NEW YORK Jan 8 (Reuters) - "Fire in my Belly" is an apt title for the debut cookbook of U.S. chef and restaurateur Kevin Gillespie, who turned down a scholarship to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology because a career in science just didn't feel right.

"I've always been incapable of pursuing something that I didn't have a connection with, not so much cerebral as emotional," explained Gillespie, whose passions led instead to culinary school and an apprenticeship at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlanta.

Under chapters such as "Foods You Thought You Hated" and "Junk Food," the 120 recipes in Gillespie's book reflect his independent spirit as much as his former restaurant, the Woodfire Grill, and his Southern roots.

Gillespie, who is from Atlanta and was recognized in 2010 by the Gayot guide as one of the top five rising U.S. chefs, spoke to Reuters about "progressive Southern cuisine," non-elitist fine dining, and why a well-executed deep-fried candy bar can be really delicious.

Q: How did you learn to cook?

A: "Everyone learns from their family. I grew up in a traditional Southern family cooking traditional Southern cuisine. Simultaneously my maternal grandmother was well traveled and intrigued by food, so she would experiment with different types of cuisine ... Professionally, I worked almost exclusively under Europeans. Today, my food is a perfect blending of all these things."

Q: You sold your Woodfire Grill restaurant in Atlanta to open a new one, Gun Show, in February in the same city. Why?

A: "I had an elitist restaurant. The Woodfire Grill restaurant, which I had for five years, was very formal fine dining. As I grew as a chef I became more interested in having a restaurant that people in all walks of life can be comfortable in. That's not to say that we'll abandon fine dining, but I wanted a more welcoming space. I think cooking has always attempted to bring people together, not separate them."

Q: How would you describe your cuisine?

A: "My cuisine is reflective of the South, rooted in the South. I tend to prefer the term 'progressive Southern' to 'modern Southern,' which I think is oxymoronic. I'm not attempting to modernize anything. I'm attempting to move our history forward."

Q: Why does your book include a chapter called Junk Food?

A: "There is a place in this world for all types of food. I don't believe that by design one type of cooking is better. I think that by execution one tends to be better. I think that well-conceived and well-executed quote-unquote junk food can be really delicious. But it requires the same thought and passion as your five-star fine dining cuisine."

Q: Is that what led to re-engineer the deep-fried candy bar?

A: "The deep-fried candy bar is rooted in Scottish tradition. The idea is cool but it's poorly executed. No one really tried to make it great. They just made it ... Most people outside of chefs wouldn't spend five minutes trying to make a fried candy bar perfect. It's just junk food, so who cares? I care."

Q: What staples do you recommend to the home chef?

A: "People leave salt out of their food all the time, maybe because processed food has salt embedded in it. When you deal with fresh food you have to come back to seasoning, to salt. Also neutral cooking oil, such as canola or grape seed, (but) not as a substitute for extra virgin olive oil. They have different uses. And good quality apple cider vinegar. For American cooking it's indispensable."

Q: Do you have any advice for the home cook?

A: "The only real time in the kitchen is how long things take to cook. It's not when you're ready to eat or when your (TV) show is coming on. If you try to find faster ways to do something you will end up with a lesser quality result."

My Granny's Pole Beans (serves six)

Pole beans 1 pound, strings and tips removed

Onion 1 baseball-size, quartered

Garlic 1 clove, mashed

Smoked fatback 2 ounces, cut into 1-inch cubes

Salt 1 teaspoon

Dried red pepper flakes ½ teaspoon

Bay leaf 1

Chicken stock about 4 cups

Apple cider vinegar 2 teaspoons

Cut the pole beans into 1-inch pieces and put them in a Dutch oven. Add the onion, garlic, fatback, salt, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, and enough chicken stock to generously cover the ingredients.

Cover the pot and bring the beans to a boil. Cut the heat down and simmer, covered, until a knife goes straight through a bean with no resistance, about 30 minutes. The beans should be quite tender but not mushy.

Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Taste and add salt if needed. Uncover and let the beans cool to room temperature in their liquid. This is where Granny got it right: She'd start the beans early in the morning, set them aside, and let them finish cooking as they cooled down.

It's a slow-cooking method that most folks don't think about today. But the extra time off the heat brings the flavors together like no other method can. Be sure to make this recipe at least two hours in advance so the beans have time to cool in the cooking liquid. Then just skim the fat from the surface and reheat the beans before serving. (Editing by Patricia Reaney and Paul Simao)

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