Kevin Gillespie redefines the restaurant experience

After a bout of doldrums, when only a handful of exciting restaurants opened in each of the last few years, 2013 is fizzing with activity. And among the new crop, Gunshow stands out as one of the most promising, perplexing, interactive, and utterly ballsy restaurants Atlanta has ever seen. Three chefs—including owner Kevin Gillespie, whose flaming beard draws the eye like a male cardinal—scramble in an open kitchen, artfully composing dishes on small plates. Then they take to the floor. Rather than ordering from a menu, guests choose their feast as the chefs themselves circulate their creations. Meals often take on the qualities of both performance art and reality television.

And like any enthralling drama, a surprise plot twist occasionally pops up to confound and tickle the audience. On one recent night the kicker was beef Wellington, rolled toward the table on a cart out of the mists of 1950s dinner parties. How many of us have even had the proper version of this butt of jokes, this symbol of fogey Continental corniness? A log of tenderloin is covered with duxelles (essentially mushroom paste) and then wrapped in puff pastry and baked; most who attempt the recipe find the meat cooked to well-done and the dough drooping into a sodden mess.

But not this beauty queen. The meat blushed rosy under taffeta pastry, ringed by an inner layer of pureed mushrooms lightened to a mousse. Joseph Ward, the cook who tackled the beast, sawed off a generous slice onto a white plate with frilly blue etchings. He dolloped the beef with béarnaise sauce heady with tarragon and surrounded it with potatoes and smoked mushrooms cooked in beef fat. My table of food lovers shook our heads, marveling at how flawlessly he pulled the whole thing off. (I learned later that Ward cooked the beef sous vide, for starters.)

And then, like other gems before and since, the dish disappeared at week’s end. Will it return? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s part of thirty-year-old Gillespie’s blueprint. He’s been mulling over how to rejigger the restaurant experience for several years. His ascent to the finals on season six of Bravo’s Top Chef in 2009 resuscitated business at Woodfire Grill, where Gillespie was then executive chef, and which he and two partners had bought the previous year from the original chef-owner, Michael Tuohy. Gillespie’s whirlwind success was encouraging, but he felt increasingly restless in the codified fine-dining format: the formality of the coursed service, the separation between the cooks and the guests. How could he buck the system while still serving high-caliber cuisine?

He toyed with the idea of opening a barbecue joint, and he wrote a cookbook, Fire in My Belly, that was a James Beard award finalist this year. Gillespie finally left Woodfire in January to open Gunshow, a fifty-four-seat corner space long vacant in the Glenwood Park development just off I-20, between Grant Park and East Atlanta Village.

He chose a brilliantly deviant name, and its political associations are unavoidable. I mean, you half expect to find a poster of Charlton Heston on the wall, hoisting an antique rifle and bellowing his “cold, dead hands” line. But its origins are strictly sentimental: Gillespie wanted to honor his father, who worked seven days a week to support his family in North Georgia. On the occasional Sunday afternoon when his dad was free, he would take young Kevin to a gun show for some bonding time.

The restaurant itself is astonishingly spare: The kitchen stretches along the back wall, with a massive walk-in cooler sitting in plain sight on the far end. Handsome burnt-maple tables are often connected, communal-style, by baseless tabletops secured with C-clamps. Gunshow has the transient feel of a pop-up, save for the name emblazoned on the dropped wall over the kitchen. The letters are so mammoth they’re visible from the street through the floor-to-ceiling windows—no outside signage required. Harsh overhead fluorescents bear down mercilessly. Blanche DuBois would not approve.

But hey, you do need to see your dinner before you select it. Here’s how it works: The hostess gives each table one menu with general descriptions of the night’s selections. A server fills beer and wine orders. (At some point the team will build a bar and begin serving cocktails.) When the chefs finish, say, six to ten portions of a dish, they dash to customers and, carrying a tray or wheeling a cart, entice with detailed descriptions, perhaps telling a story behind the recipe, and diners decide if they want what’s being pitched. A staffer trails behind the chefs, making a check mark on your menu for each item chosen. When a chef’s food is gone, he hustles back behind the counter to compose his next offering. A choreographed ebb and flow develops between who’s stirring the pots and who’s circulating in the dining room. Some may feel the near-steady barrage of options to be intrusive or disorienting; I find it enthralling. (And this manner of service may soon be a national trend. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco opened last year adopting a similar format, with cooks swerving dim sum–style carts through the dining room. Bon Appétit magazine named it their 2012 restaurant of the year.)

Snacks arrive first, usually potent little bites like Swedish meatballs with sliced green strawberries or deep-fried headcheese coated in crunchy panko and dotted with mustard seeds and slivered pickles for acidic pop. A salad may careen by, perhaps lightly cured trout with sweet corn niblets, ribbons of shaved carrot, and chopped green beans in a limey vinaigrette. As more substantial plates come into rotation, and you grow accustomed to looking the chefs in the eye to accept or reject their labors, you start to discern their individual styles—and even detect a subtle competition among them. Gillespie is Mister Meat. Expect him to be sawing off the barbecued ribs or delivering bowls of pork-skin risotto, which tastes like the rich, distilled essence of eastern North Carolina whole-hog barbecue. Gillespie is also relaxed enough in his own joint to let his inner food dork shine through: He confessed one night that a batch of gargantuan smoked duck legs, with foil wrapped at their bases so we could eat them by hand, was inspired by Renaissance festivals.

Joseph Ward and Andreas Müller, Gillespie’s kitchen comrades, both worked as sous chefs at Woodfire Grill. Ward veers toward modernism: He’ll bring out octopus sidled up to squid-ink risotto veneered with cured lardo, surrounded by drips and dots of sauces. But he’s also the most playful with Americana: Beyond the Wellington, I hope his “West Coast burger”—a variation of In-N-Out Burger’s “Double-Double, Animal Style,” two griddled patties with cheese, grilled onions, and pickles—soon reappears. I may or may not have eaten two in one sitting. Among these antics, Müller plays the straight man. Count on him to hand out a universal favorite like catfish surrounded by Lowcountry boil staples (potatoes, sausage, a chunk of corn on the cob). He hails from Sweden, and I’m anxious for him to ramp up his output of Scandinavian flavors, which are next to nonexistent in our dining scene.

Gillespie’s rule of thumb for the menu lineup is this: If the chefs get bored with any one thing, or if the dish proves overwhelming to continually reproduce, it gets bumped. That certainly takes the “chef-driven” cliche into fresh territory. I don’t want him to grow jaded with his grandmother’s warm, custardy banana pudding with a cap of toasted meringue, but I do wish he’d bring it back more often. It’s not as seasonal as a fried peach pie (that appeared over multiple weeks and more than once needed extra time in the fryer to turn golden and crisp), but it’s a much more gratifying end to a meal.

Gunshow thrills and throws diners off balance in the best possible way, but it is also an evolving experiment. A few tweaks on the top of my list: There’s talk of adding a fourth chef to the mix, and I’d encourage this person to be particularly strong at vegetable cookery, which is woefully underrepresented among the surfeit of meat. Also, the prices can be high, and it’s not easy to keep track of costs during the meal’s flow. I gladly paid $19 for the Wellington; not so much for a crock of mac and cheese studded with beef sausage that cost $13. There also seems an opportunity for the right sommelier to come in and rock the beverage program, which in the restaurant’s early days feels haphazard (though affordable, with the majority of by-the-bottle wines priced in the $35 range, and there’s no corkage fee to bring your own).

Don’t let any of that discourage you from going. Call ahead for reservations, particularly on weekends. Gillespie’s reputation and the restaurant’s game-changing formula make Gunshow the culinary conversation piece of the year, and the curious are showing up in droves.

RATING ** (very good)
924 Garrett Street, Suite C
HOURS Tuesday–Saturday 6–9:30 p.m.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.