American chef's independent spirit fires Southern cuisine

By Dorene Internicola

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

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)