Kevin Gillespie almost lived in New England. After receiving a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Atlanta native planned to follow his father’s footsteps into engineering. But after visiting the Cambridge campus and testing a few classes, his plans changed. “I came home with two realizations. The first was that I would be the stupidest person at MIT. Everybody there, frankly, was a genius. And second was that I would be the coolest person at MIT,” says Gillespie, 30. “That was maybe the final straw that made me take the dive off the deep end and decide that I’m going to be a chef.”
Perhaps it all worked out for the best. After a stint on “Top Chef” and partnerships in other restaurants, Gillespie is preparing to go solo at a place called Gun Show in Atlanta. His debut cookbook, “Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking,” a book of Southern recipes, was recently named a finalist for a James Beard award.
Q. What has been the reaction to the book?
A. Across the board, people who have bought it have come to me and said, “The recipes work, the writing is engaging and fun, and I finally feel like I have a cookbook that I can trust.” One of my biggest missions was to give [readers] the confidence to be able to go back into their kitchen and make really wonderful food. For a lot of people that confidence was starting to wane. Celebrity chefs and the food TV thing have convinced a lot of people they don’t have what it takes to be great cooks and I think it’s exactly the opposite.
Q. What was the inspiration for a chapter titled “Foods We Thought We Hated”?
A. As a chef at a restaurant you constantly face this battle: How do you cook food that’s going to excite your guests, that’s going to be new and fun and an interesting experience, but simultaneously, how do you do that working around people’s aversions and supposed dislikes? So that chapter was written using the most common ingredients that people come into my restaurant and tell me they dislike. These are all dishes that were designed to be used in that situation where somebody says, “I hate Brussels sprouts,” and you say, “I understand, let me make you this one Brussels sprouts dish that might change your mind.” I think that’s an incredibly empowering moment when something that you thought you hated, all of a sudden you don’t. I find that to be a very rewarding experience for both the person eating the food and the person cooking the food.
Q. After a brutal Boston winter, I’m looking for recipes to help it feel more like spring. What have you got?
A. Some of my favorite things are right around the corner. There’s an asparagus, morel mushroom, and country ham frittata that I really love. It’s a very classy dish, full of flavor, and for me, asparagus is one of those first beacons of spring. That says to me, OK, we’re going to see some green vegetables in our near future. So when asparagus first hits the shelves, and I’m not talking about the stuff from Peru, I’m talking about the fresh asparagus that’s in season from this country, I get really excited about it and I want to use it in everything. Another one I think is really great for spring is a sauteed wild salmon dish that’s done with some fresh peas and mushrooms. It reminds me of springtime because that’s when wild salmon is in season, that’s when you get those fresh peas and the fresh little small onions, and to me that’s what spring is all about.
Q. Easter is coming up. What dishes from the book would suit holiday tables?
A. One of the things that’s in the book that I think would be a really helpful recipe is a basic pan-roasted lamb chop recipe that’s in the world classics section. I think of lamb and I think of Easter. But I also know people can get really daunted about cooking lamb at home because at the store it can be pretty expensive; they don’t want to bring it home and ruin it and be out a lot of money. So I think that’s a pretty straightforward dish that anybody can pick up. There’s also a side dish that’s sort of a reinterpreted version of your classic green bean almondine but it’s made with sugar snaps. It’s much brighter and fresher tasting and it isn’t that boring cafeteria version that’s just green beans with a couple sliced almonds on it. This one really takes it to another level and punches up the flavor a lot. It would be beautiful on any Easter table.