Of course I watched Top Chef this season. Atlanta was well-represented with three “cheftestants”: Hector Santiago from Pura Vida, Eli Kirshtein from Eno, and Kevin Gillespie from Woodfire, who all participate in Les Dames d’Escoffier’s “Afternoon in the Country” at Serenbe each fall. Sweet, affable, bearded, tattooed, bacon-loving Chef Kevin quickly became the frontrunner for “fan favorite” as he blushed and grinned when judges announced he was the winner of the first challenge.
He went on to win the majority of challenges throughout the season, but finished third in a tight race with the super talented Voltaggio brothers. Woodfire, which had been quiet since previous owner Chef Michael Tuohy left us for California, immediately became Atlanta’s darling and now has reservations booked eight weeks out. Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled when Chef Kevin was scheduled as the third chef in the Serenbe Southern Chefs Series (following the great Nathalie Dupree and Linton Hopkins), and I got my name on the attendee list before we released info to the public (a smart move; this workshop sold out in mere hours).
The set up for the two-day workshop was like this: A small group of 12 (a mixture of ages, men and women) gathered in Marie Nygren’s gorgeous kitchen for hands-on meal preparation, then we sat down and ate that meal together. At the beginning, Chef Kevin announced the menu saying, “We’re going to cook what I cook at home.” I wondered if it would be inappropriate to ask if I could come live with him as he told us we were preparing pork shoulder, root vegetables, collard greens, mashed squash, and banana pudding for dinner that night, then a “lighter” meal on day two of chicken salad (with homemade tarragon mayo), cauliflower soup and baked apples.
Chef Kevin moved between stations on the center island and counter, explaining each dish and talking about why he chose it for us to make, the ingredients and what we’d be doing with them.
At the collards station, he said, “There’s a debate over whether collards are fit for human consumption.” Apparently, we Southerners are the only people who eat them with any sort of regularity, and the rest of the world uses them for animal feed or some such nonsense. This was news to me; I was thinking about my Grandmother Martha, aka “Tutu,” and the tons of delicious collards she prepared for me over the years when Chef Kevin said that his “Granny” certainly didn’t buy that argument at all. We were the first people outside the Gillespie clan to see this secret family recipe for collards, which made me feel oh-so-insider. I will give a hint — the collards have coffee in them. Best ever. (My apologies to Tutu, but if she were living and tasted these, she’d totally start putting coffee in her collards, too.)
We paired off into teams and Chef Kevin continuously bounced between us, sharing a chopping trick here and a mixing trick there (we all need a Vitamix in our lives, apparently). He gave nuggets of culinary wisdom and philosophy like, “Sometimes the only thing that’s needed to make something delicious is you caring about what you’re cooking.” He described a few dishes as “an absolute study in simplicity,” citing Granny’s love of pure Southern cooking.
The chef, who turned down a scholarship to MIT in favor of a culinary career, is a great teacher — he instructs with reason rather than rules. “I’d rather you take these ideas and dishes home and be able to make them your own rather than follow a recipe exactly,” he explained as we looked over his recipes with lists of ingredients but no method. Throughout the class, he rarely measured anything and tasted things often, always instructing us to do the same; “add more until is tastes like this” and “wait until it looks like this.” In the case of the mayonnaise we made on Day 2, he had us gather around the Cuisinart to decipher the sounds we should be hearing at various intervals: “Hear that thump, thump, thump? That’s the protein binding to the lipids. When it’s ready, it’ll sound more quiet, like the blade is passing through water.” This method made preparation so much more intuitive and enjoyable, rather than stiff and stressful. I understand how to make a few new dishes, and for me, this is much more valuable than just having a few new recipes that will intimidate the heck out of me and sit in my dusty recipe box forever untouched.
It was “Story Time” when we sat down to eat together at Marie’s table. After the audible “ohmigod” and “this is so good” groans subsided, we asked Kevin everything from the respectable (“Where do you buy your pork?”) to the puerile (“What’s Michael Voltaggio really like?”). And he seemed to have a blast answering and indulging us. We learned some good scoop in the process: He buys pork from Gum Creek Farms, and he’s a self professed “coffee nerd” and prefers Counter Culture, Intelligentsia and Stumptown. He gave us great dirt on his new barbecue restaurant all the Atlanta foodies are buzzing about: It will be located in the same area as Woodfire and will open in late summer or fall; it’s a prix fixe with changing side items; they have a set amount of BBQ to make each day and when they run out, they’re out (so hours will be based on demand); the name is a nod to the city of Atlanta. The latter, which he couldn’t divulge, prompted a side discussion — we came up with possible names including “Dirty Q,” “Q-Lanta,” “The Pink Pig,” “Fatlanta BBQ,” and “BBQ too Busy to Hate.” I’ll blame our giddiness on banana puddin’.
A quick confession: I took a three-day intensive cooking class at Cook’s Warehouse specifically to make sure I didn’t look like an idiot in front of Mr. Top Chef. I was a little nervous that my lack of culinary skills might make me the slow one in the group, and who wants that moniker? But this is why Chef Kevin’s workshop -- and all of Marie’s Southern Chef Series workshops — work: Yes, the food and the preparation are center stage and you learn some great dishes and tricks of the trade during the two days. But it’s more about the experience — the camaraderie of the small group and the star chef, out of his or her kitchen, sharing what they love about food and giving you a glimpse into their passion. I think I easily speak for the group when I say that the experience is truly, truly special, and I feel fortunate to have been there.