On Tomatoes with Chef Kevin Gillespie, Gunshow

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Kevin is a thinking man’s chef. Every which way you could think about food, he’s thought about it. And then some.  That organic intellectualism came from his Georgia mountain homeplace, where his close-knit family ate the food they grew. His family's ways of cooking, and his strong sense of identity as a Southerner, inform everything at his Atlanta restaurant, Gunshow. The acclaim the food has gotten is as real as Kevin's Top Chef status, seen on the Bravo network. But when you're not distracted by the cooking, let yourself be distracted by the stories he tells, of places, ingredients, and people.    

What’s your favorite way to eat a tomato?   Honestly, my favorite way is just to eat a raw tomato. There are some vegetables or fruits that are rarely improved by cooking and I think the tomato is one of those. So for me, a sliced tomato with plenty of salt on it is just about as perfect as you could make it. 

Is there a variety that you are most excited about right now?   Every year I have this debate with myself about which one is my favorite, and it honestly comes down to that year's growing conditions—that determines how the tomato comes out. There are a few varieties that I tend to lean towards. I really love Cherokee Purples. I love the acidity of the Green Zebra, but that one is super temperamental; it can be a little mealy.  I also really love those small, sun-golden tomatoes – salad tomatoes. Those are delicious. They are so sweet but yet they are deliciously acidic and sometimes your best all-around for flavor.  

In Georgia, what months out of the year are tomato months?
  We tend to stick to the seasonality of everything we use. The thing with tomatoes is that their success has everything to do with how the weather is. Unfortunately, this year, we only had one round of tomatoes from our farmers, the weather just didn't cooperate. Normally, tomatoes are something we might see at the end of May—but we might not see them until the end of June. And then we’ll see them all the way through September. This year that hasn’t always been the case, but usually that’s the trend.  

On your menu this past summer, what dish allowed the tomato to shine the brightest?   We really got kinda skunked on tomatoes this year, so we haven’t had a chance to showcase them for my new restaurant, Gunshow. In the past, at Woodfire, we did a really good job with our seasonal tomato dishes. My favorite was when we served the cold, or room temperature, tomato—just raw, as I mentioned—well-seasoned, in conjunction with a Southern cream corn, which is hot. I think the hot-to-room temperature, and the savory cream corn that also maintains sweetness, really shows off the best attributes of the tomato.  

You mentioned your new restaurant Gunshow. Can you talk about the concept behind it?   Gunshow brings the execution and commitment of the stylized dishes you find in fine-dining and eliminates the pretension and pomp and circumstance that goes along with fine-dining. We wanted to create an ambiance that was more convivial, more communal. We chose to serve things dim-sum style, so rather than sitting down and making an order from a menu, you sit down and dishes come out of the kitchen as they are prepared so as that dish is ready, it leaves the kitchen and enters the dining room with the person that actually prepared it. The chefs themselves stop by the table, tell you what they made, and you decide if you want it or not. All the food is served by the person that actually made the food. Whether it’s the chef or the chef’s assistant, you are being served by the person who has a personal connection to that dish.  

What inspired that concept?
  We tried to catalogue what we thought were the successes and failings of my former restaurant, Woodfire Grill, and fine-dining in general (and more importantly). When we took that list of things we felt we could improve upon and we started to tweak them one by one, we realized that trying to affect a total change on the restaurant by manipulating one thing or other was not very effective. So instead we went back and tried to think about restaurants that serve really high-quality, exceptional food but they did it in a way that did not allow for any misconception, any pretensions. We thought about these Brazilian steakhouses, some have produced better meat than your highest-end steak houses. They do it in a fun way, but they actually execute on an extremely high level. We thought about places like Yank Sing in San Francisco where every time you go there, it’s mind-boggling how you can end up with 14 dishes in like five minutes on your table. And every single one of them is done incredibly well. So we felt like we could learn from that more than anything and put our own spin on it. If we're crafting excellent dishes and putting our personal connection to it on display, then we are taking pride in our work, and we wanted to make sure that when you were here, you realized that you were part of our workspace. We went with more industrial-style finishes to remind people that they are part of the work and that we create a dining experience exclusively by our work. The rest of it lands in the hands of the diner. I believe that people in the chairs, out in the dining room, create the ambiance, not me. They decide how the meal is going to be, because they bring the people they want to surround themselves with, and they eat the food that they want to eat. To me those are the two largest contributors to ambiance. Not what you want to hang on the wall.  

If we could just go back to the tomato for a little bit – you were at the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) event at Chef and the Farmer where Vivian served her now-famed tomato sandwich. People might think it’s a bit ballsy to go vegetarian with your main course. You run the risk of sinking a meal because people are expecting a protein as the main event. What did you think about her sandwich and her decision to serve it at the SFA lunch?
  First of all, the dish is really exceptional and it shows how if you have great stuff already, your job is not to stand in the way of that. The sandwich proves the point that exceptionally high-quality ingredients sometimes require you to spend more time thinking about how you're going to simply emphasize the natural quality, rather than how you're going to change it. I think that vegetarian food can be very successful with the right mentality. With vegetarian cuisine, we – us meat eaters –too often think about vegetarian dishes as the meat version, substituted with something else. We try to think “Well, I really like this dish and I’m sure we could just do it with mushrooms.” And that is a really ineffective way of looking at vegetarian cuisine.  When you look at the world cuisines – Thailand, India, China, Japan - places that have vegetarian or vegan cuisines, they make incredibly robust, successful, and satisfying vegetarian dishes because they start from the ground up, just thinking about making something great. I think Vivian did a really good job of that — she set out with the task of making really a good dish with tomatoes that was vegetarian. She wasn’t trying to make a dish that is normally done with meat and substituted tomatoes. I think it was a risk only in the sense of perception. More than anything it was a calculated risk, because when you serve something like that and it does, in fact, have a ton of flavor and it does, in fact, have this incredibly satisfying quality, it leaves people speechless because they are so surprised, more than if they had been given a meat or fish entrée.  

You yourself are a member of SFA. Can you tell us about it and how you came to belong to it?
  Five or six years ago, my friend Angie Mosier, who has long been involved, encouraged me to look at it. I wasn’t aware of what the Southern Foodways Alliance was, so I started to do research on it and realized that their most important mission was the preservation of the history and culture that identifies us as Southerners; so much of that surrounds food. Food has been an incredibly important part of our society for a very long time, but we ran the risk of losing that culture if we didn’t think to ourselves, “we need to keep this in place.” So I felt a passionate need to reach out because I come from a long line of proud, born-and-bred Southerners. When I first began working with the organization, spending time at their events, it wasn’t “hey, let’s get together and go eat somewhere.” They were preserving stories and the overwhelming, lasting impression that food leaves on us. It was more than good dishes, it was the people we ate that dish with and the events that make us who we are, as Southerners.  The moments that we think of as important to our history are surrounded by food. So I’ve been proud to do what I can to help, whether it be through fundraising or in events. It’s always a good time, and it’s time spent with people who are really excited about sharing our history with others.  

Could you elaborate on your own Southern history and how that personal identity informs your food?
  My family — my grandparents, my father, and all of his siblings — was the center of my life growing up. My whole family lives on one street, my grandparents purchased all of this land that is connected. So I grew up with my grandparents, all of my aunts and uncles, all of my cousins, and we all lived as one family. We cooked and ate every meal together, and that was an extension of where my grandparents' families were from. They are from the mountains of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, where that ridge runs through the three states in fairly short order. For a long time, those societies relied on one another and you really kept your family close. Although my family has now moved out of the mountains and is located south of Atlanta, that mentality hasn’t changed. As children they always told us where our traditional family unit was from, and we constantly went back and visited our other cousins and our great aunts and uncles. Food was sustenance, we all enjoyed it, but food was also the backdrop of our close-knit family unit.  

That’s not something you hear very often anymore.
  It’s very rare. As a child, I was almost unaware I was part of it, I thought it was kind of weird that we all hung around each other all the time. Sometimes I idealized my friends and their families who went out to eat all the time. They seemed to do things that were more fun and interesting. Now, as an adult, I realize that although we obviously did not have a life of privilege economically, I was privileged to actually know my family very, very well, and I had this incredible support network. Plus I ate really great food my whole life. We grew a ton of it, if not most of it. And I think it’s helped me as a chef because I’m able to recognize the quality of ingredients. I also appreciate the importance of the story. What is the story behind this — not just this dish, but what’s the story behind this ingredient? What makes you excited about it? I think that that passion and that storytelling can make or break dishes and I have relied on that curiosity for pretty much my entire career; it’s certainly something we depend upon tremendously here at Gunshow.  

Our show has been called a reality television show and I know that you’ve had your own reality television experience, could you talk a little bit about that? How real was it?
  It seems to me is that reality TV is made up of two very distinct styles. There’s reality TV that is documentarian, what we used to call a documentary, where we watched the events of someone's life unfold. The film crew is simply an observer. Then there is reality TV that is "sculpted." That doesn’t mean it’s scripted. There’s a difference between the two. But "sculpted" TV brings realities forth that we can predict. The analogy I like to use is this: I don’t have to tell you that if you hold your hand over a flame, you’re going to jerk away and go, “Ow!” But if I want to watch you say “ow," what easier way than to produce the flame? I don’t have to tell you to do it. I just have to put you in a position where I know the outcome. So a lot of the reality TV that we watch these days is sculpted in this manner. And the difference with what you guys are doing is that you are following Vivian's life. You are trying to be a part of this journey. You are not trying to choose the journey for her.             

Gunshow
924 Garrett St., STE. C 
Atlanta GA 30316
http://www.gunshowatl.com/

Southern Foodways Alliance
Center for the Study of Southern Culture
P.O. Box 1848 — Barnard Observatory
University, MS 38677
http://www.southernfoodways.org

Un Kyong Ho grew up in Cincinnati, OH and now lives in Cary, NC; Follow her on Twitter (@unkyong53).

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