Kevin Gillespie discusses Fire in My Belly

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Kevin Gillespie‘s first cookbook, Fire in My Belly, came out earlier this week. Back when we announced that Gillespie would be leaving Woodfire Grill, I mentioned that the cookbook was a part of a plan for Gillespie to reinvent his career: leaving the restaurant that he made his name with and opening up a new one, Gunshow, that intends to be radically different from the table-linen fine dining experience at Woodfire.

That big restaurant news shouldn’t overshadow the accomplishments of this cookbook, though. As Gillespie explained to me, the two years of work that went into testing and developing recipes for the massive, 356 page book were painstakingly thorough and biographically driven. Gillespie speaks about the book with the kind of youthful passion that reminds you just how much he’s accomplish despite being barely 30 years old.

Gillespie is currently on the road doing a nationwide book tour for Fire in My Belly. If you can’t catch him at one of those dates, the interview below should give you some insight into his work.

When did you start working on the book? Let’s see, I gotta’ timeline backwards here. It was due December of last year so I started working on it basically the December before that.

December 2010? Exactly. It took almost exactly one year to write the book properly. Properly write the book. We knew from the very beginning that we wanted the book to be able to embody an entire year so that we could truly express seasonality. And so we slated that full amount of time for recipe development.

Where did you do the testing? We did almost all of it at Woodfire Grill. We would get up super early, and I mean like 4:30 in the morning, and come to work and be there at about 5 a.m, and start doing the recipes and then we would work to about 10 on the book and then clean up and start the regular day on the restaurant work. It was a really long year, to say the least.

Did you have like your sous working with you on it? I did. I had my chef de cuisine E.J., who’s been working with me for years. He was there almost every recipe session. I’d give him a few off, periodically I’d just lie to him so he wouldn’t come in but for the most part he was there. And then Gena Berry was our recipe tester, and she was there every day. Because the way that we did it — rather than — I never knew what I was making on any day that we came in.

What E.J. and I would do is that we would order products from our farmers, just like we do for the restaurant. And we would come in super early, and we would just take stuff out of the cooler — whatever was truly in season at that moment, whatever looked best — and we just sort of set it upstairs. And then Gena would come in and she usually had an assistant, and I would just come up with the dishes there. I’d sorta draft out an idea and we would start cooking. Every time I’d cut up an onion, she’d take it and put it on the scale and say, “Ok, it weights this much” or “1 cup.” I wasn’t focused on how much of this and how much of that. I was focused on creating the dish the way that I would cook it based on — I wanted to express that once you reach a point, cookery is not about knowing a cup of this or an ounce of that. It’s about being able to be instinctive enough to know that that’s enough or that’s not enough. And so the only way to capture that was for me just to do it naturally and her document the quantity.

Once that was done and I made that dish, then she would take the recipe that she had just written and she would reproduce the dish. If her’s and mine’s matched, then it was given the thumbs up to go to home recipe testers to try it. If their’s matched ours, then we said “Ok, the recipe works.” If there was a breakdown anywhere in that chain, we went back to the start, to me, and said, “Ok, what happened to their dish. Ok, this happened. All right. Well, then somewhere in here we didn’t acknowledge something that I did.” And then we would go back and redo it or scrap it entirely.

That’s incredibly thorough. It was because I remember when I was young, and I wanted to learn how to cook and I had the books from all the famous chefs at the time, all the people on television. And some worked and some didn’t. And it was a really frustrating moment for you because I didn’t know whether I was the variable or whether the recipe was variable. I can say confidently at this point that it was a little of both. But I can also say that I’ve seen many recipes in really great books that missed something, and they just don’t work. And that was frustrating. I didn’t want anyone to ever take my book, sit down with it, and try to make something and be able to say, “Well the book just doesn’t explain what I need to know to be able to make this happen.”

Right. You shot pretty wide with your recipes, too. It’s a pretty broad book.  It is because, you know, once again I just didn’t want to pigeon hole this book into being something — the reality is that as a cook, I’ve been thrust into a movement that I care a lot about. But that does not encompass everything that I believe in as far as being a cook. I have a tendency to cook professionally a style of food that fits into the modern southern movement, but as a cook in the world, I appreciate food from all over everywhere, and I wanted a book that really hit on that subject matter. I was tired of reading chefs books that made it seem like we were so much better at what we do than regular people are.

I think that the difference between a home cook and a professional has more to do with hours logged in the kitchen than anything else. I don’t think that we’ve been bestowed some amazing gift that you can’t get for yourself if you’re willing to do it sixteen hours a day for a decade. You know? I mean, there’s no mystery as to why I’m better at this. I do it all-day, every day.

I wanted to write a book from a professional that showed my professional life, that showed my personal life, and one that just said, “You know what. I’m just not going to bullshit anybody here. Let’s just say what we wanna’ say about things.” If I don’t like something, I’m just going to say “I don’t like it.” Or, you know, I think there’s something to be able to admit that I’m a professional that has a restaurant that serves very fine food, but I like ramen noodles and hot wings, too. It’s food. You know, I love food. As a cook, I love food, and that’s not — I didn’t say I love only the finest cuisine. No, I just love food in general. And so why not write a book that expressed that? It seemed more real.

Like those dueling ramen recipes that you have from you and E.J. — you have that sense of what actually is going on in the kitchen there. It’s common now in cookbooks to have the intro essay or the intro to the beginning of the chapter, but almost every recipe is some sort of like tieback to your family or an experience in your life. Well, for me, every dish that I cook has to be put in context for it to be relevant. I’m not much for simply doing something for the sake of doing it. Every dish that I cook at the restaurant and in my life has a story. The story might be real simple. It might be that my wife loves so-and-so so that’s why I make it. Or it might be so much more than that. And for me, any time someone has tried to explain something to me in life — to learn to do this or learn to do that —, if it could be accompanied by an explanation of why, that always seemed to give it more of an ability to solidify in my mind. So, before you ever see the steps to how to make this dish, I mean I want to tell you the story of where it came from or I wanna’ go ahead and say, you know, just point out that the direction this is going is here so if you can get your head wrapped around that. I think that people know where it came from before they ever read it helps explains a lot of things.

Then there was a secondary reason behind it, which was that I didn’t want this just to be a cookbook, I didn’t want this to be a collection of recipes. I knew that this was my opportunity, finally, to say what I wanted to say and to try to give people a better insight into who I am. The reality is that I was on a television show that was wildly popular and people have begun to know me, but they know a very specific set of things that they’ve seen. They know edited footage. And it’s not to say that’s inaccurate but it is to say that it’s very shortsighted. There’s so much more to me than that. And the reality is that there’s not a day that passes now that people that I don’t know come up to me and introduce themselves to me and they feel like they know me, and I am constantly in these moments where I’m engaging with people on a very personal level, and I wanted an opportunity to give even more for people. When they take this book home, I think that when they read it, they will actually know me quite a bit better than they did from just watching me on Top Chef.

One of the things that stood out to me is this chapter of foods you thought that you hated. And there’s like a number of anecdotes that—please correct me if I’m wrong—but makes you sound like a bit of finicky eater as a kid. Absolutely. I think I was like most kids, and I was like just most Americans or people in general. I think there is mythology surrounding chefs that we somehow or another were born into this world with an advanced palate, and we came out of the womb only appreciating the things of — the progress of Joel Robuchon or the attempts of Paul Bocuse. And it’s just not true. I came out as a little kid who didn’t like things that were green and squirmed at the things that seemed slightly abnormal. It took me trying to — it took me wanting to grow out of that to grow out of it. You know, I had motivation. I chose to do this for a living. So, it was either keep disliking these things and limit what you can cook and what — how you’ll be as a chef or learn to at least wrap your head around them and hopefully grow up.

I just think that’s something people can sympathize — emphasize maybe is a better term. Not a day passes without someone telling me about what they don’t like at the restaurant, and it doesn’t bother me when they say “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like that.” If anything, it challenges to try to find something for them that will change that. I think it’s an extremely empowering moment when you try something you previously thought you hated and you get to let go of that. I hated Brussels sprouts my whole life, and now I can say that I hated all the ones I had up until now, but I know that I don’t hate Brussels sprouts. I just don’t like what I had before. That’s huge. I want to provide that for people because I clearly remember all of those moments. They obviously meant something to me that I’ve been able to remember them and catalog them over my lifespan — the day I stopped liking this or that.

That timeline is very specific. It was huge for me. It means a lot, and I wanted to start with that chapter because I think it does a couple things. The first thing is that I think it sets the tone for this book being different. I don’t know that anybody else that has started a book out with a bunch of recipes that are going to be controversial. The most controversial recipes of the book start at page one. And two it gives it a sense a humanity. And I don’t mean this as a slight against The French Laundry or Eleven Madison Park but it’s not a tome of precise restaurant cookery. It’s never meant to be that. I cook professionally. It’s what I do for a loving, but I’m a person who cares and loves food and I think there are a lot of us out there that do that, and I was talking to them more than I was talking to anyone else.

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