Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie's new restaurant, Gunshow, opens tomorrow in East Atlanta's Glenwood Park. In the past months, the restaurant has been subject to a lot of hype and discussion due to its nontraditional plans— an ever-changing menu, a lack of transparency between the kitchen and the dining room, and no cocktails, to name a few— and it's without a doubt one of the most anticipated openings of the year. Read on to see Gillespie discuss the food, the wine program, and how he's trying to do away with gimmicks.
On the problems with the typical fine dining experience.
I've spent years and years— I would say my entire career, really— exclusively in fine dining. I lived and dined in a very similar style of service, where guests come in and sit down at a table, and then there's an intentional pause between them sitting down and the server coming over with the menu and the wine list. With the menu, a lot of times, guests dwell over something that very frequently is written in a way that is not necessarily intuitive as far as what the dish is going to look like or what it's really talking about, and that's all part of the process of fine dining. That's all part of setting the mystique. After some time, the server comes back and speaks to you about the menu, and eventually you place your order and then the process starts going, but you're already 30 minutes into dining. That can be really beautiful if you have five hours to eat dinner, but nowadays people need their meals, even high-quality ones, to fit into their lifestyle.
A strange thing about restaurants, in my opinion, is that we intentionally cook food and store it at a certain degree of doneness in order to make sure that when that order does come in, we can try to make up for some of that lost time. That means that we sometimes cook things to a stage of completion and "hold them," meaning that we keep them warm and ready for service. I don't believe, personally, that that is the best way to achieve the greatest end result— I believe that when cooked from raw to finished and served immediately, food will be better. Whether you're at home or with friends or family, the food that you cook every other time you cook in your life has been made like that.
When I set out to build Gunshow, I wanted to find a way to create an experience for the guest that was going to be more conducive to their every day, meaning that it could be faster. We're not going to flood people with food and try to get them out in 20 minutes, that's not the case at all. But I like the idea that you can come in and sit down and be eating very shortly after you sit down; we're getting rid of that pregnant pause, that time that isn't necessarily special to your dining experience.That was one of my main goals.
On serving food when you should serve food.
The second goal was that I wanted an opportunity, for the first time in my career, to cook and serve food at its peak doneness, like I said— exactly when it's ready to be served. I didn't see any other way to accomplish that except to do away with the traditional ordering process entirely. It seems a little strange for me, or something "gimmicky," but it's not. It's the way we have eaten our entire lives. When people ask for me to describe it, the easiest way I can say it is this: You know when you go to your aunt's house for Thanksgiving? It's sort of like that. Everyone eats when the food is ready eat. What that means is you're eating things exactly when they're right.
I use risotto as an example a lot. At a restaurant, when we make risotto, unfortunately we have to cook it, cool it down, and hold it, and then reheat it and let it finish its cooking. Frankly, the end result will never be as great as when you cook it straight through. There are a few places that cook it start to finish, and there's always the caveat on the menu: This is going to take 40 minutes. Neither of those is a perfect scenario. What I would much rather be able to do is make a risotto and when it is ready, bring it over, and offer it to you. That's the whole idea behind Gunshow. Everyone in the kitchen has the freedom to serve their own food, which means they also have the freedom to decide when their dishes are ready and to serve them at their absolute peak freshness, when they're going to be best. It gives us an opportunity to cook new things, things that are otherwise not cooked in a restaurant because they simply don't work.
[See "On service," below, for more.]
On interaction with guests.
It also gives me an opportunity to interact with the guest at a level that I've never been able to before. In a restaurant, if the chef is in the dining room, the chef is not in the kitchen. That's the double-edged sword— people want to talk to you out there, but you also need to cook. I'm really excited about this idea, because it's sort of in between two things. It gives me and the rest of my cooks the opportunity to come to the dining room and interact with the people that are eating their food. To come to the table and say, "I have made this, and I hope you'll like it. Would you like to try it?" And by that same token, after the guests have tried the dish, the cooks can have that interaction with the guest again when they go back out to the dining room with something new. They can say, "How did you like the risotto?" That makes me really happy, because that was my work that I put on a plate, and I got to share it with people.
On cooking for everyone.
That was the whole reason I got into this business in the first place— because I love the idea of preparing food and getting to union with people over food. The fact that it brings so many people together despite their circumstances, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. It's the great leveler. And that's the reason I wanted to do it over the years, but then I found myself in an arena of food that did not subscribe to that belief. That served food under a specific set of circumstances that not everyone could enjoy and not everyone could afford and not everyone could be a part of. It began to bother me because I come from very humble roots. I come from a blue-collar family that loves food and loves the time spent at the table with one another, and I felt the food made at the restaurant I was running was in no way representative of who I was as a person.
On the thought behind Gunshow.
When it came time that I could finally afford to do this on my own with no one else's help, I was going to go out and I was going to build a restaurant that would allow me to make magnificent food. Food that easily had a place at any of the finest restaurants. But simultaneously, I was going to have an opportunity to make that food for a group of people that was more varied and make it in a space that more people could feel comfortable in. And I was going to serve it in a way that allowed me to do what I wanted to do from the very beginning, which is to share what I do with people and have that interaction tableside every single day. Like you're in my house. If I could invite everyone over for dinner every night and serve them and somehow make a living doing that, I guess that's what I would have done instead. This is the closest that I could possibly come to that.
On gimmicks and pretention.
It's funny to hear someone feel like that is in any way pretentious or gimmicky because in my mind it's the exact opposite. It's wiping the slate clean, because for years now, what we have done in restaurants is sort of a gimmick. The restaurant in general nowadays is sort of a gimmick, and I don't mean that to insult anyone, because obviously I love the restaurant business and I love restaurants in general. But over many years, we have designed the restaurant to be other than what it began as in the first place, which is a way to share food with other people and make a living do it.
On set menus and sourcing locally.
The way the menu will work is this: When we say we will have no set menu, what I mean is the same sort of thing that we said about Woodfire— that it's hard to run a menu that is set in stone. You're making a commitment to using local product. Gunshow is taking that one step further. We have made a commitment to the restaurant and to ourselves that we will use absolutely no product that we cannot source locally. The only exception to that is if a product that is sourced locally has a more negative impact on the environment than one we can source from further. An example of that is that I would not serve red grouper just because it's local. I would rather serve sturgeon because it's much more sustainable even with transportation factored in.
Because we are taking this local thing to a level that no one else in the city has attempted yet, there's going to be that mystery that I cannot explain for anyone at the moment. I can't tell you what the menu is going to be exactly, because I don't know. I have absolutely no idea. It will hopefully be a representation of both what is in season and regional food that will give us a sense of place. It will be exciting because we will get to see the best of the things that are right around us, and I think that's an exciting story to tell. I hope other people will find that exciting. With that being said, we're not putting limitations on what the food will be.
On no limitations on what the food will be.
Of course people will read that to mean that we're going to make lots of crazy things, but it actually means that if we can make anything amazingly delicious, better than what we have had made before— if we can make, in our opinion, the best example of something that we could ever make, then there's room for it on the menu. That could be chicken and dumplings. It can be the most simplistic of dishes. It could be something that your grandmother made— or it can be something that your grandmother has never heard of before. To be able to have that variable in there, that our one and only pursuit in the kitchen is to make every single thing the most delicious item possible, I think that's a really beautiful thing.
On not having a set menu and not being concept-driven.
My hope is that guests will have the confidence to be able to say, when we come into the dining room with something, "I've never had this before, but it looks delicious and smells great. I'm confident in what they've put on the menu and the ingredients they used," and they will pick it up. And that's the idea with not having a "set menu." I just want to be able to make the best thing possible for everybody every single day. I would rather say, "Unfortunately, we will not always have the same things," instead of, "We will always have the same things, but they are better some days than they are on others." In my mind, it's like the least concept-driven restaurant of all time: Let's just try to buy all of our groceries from people that we know and make things really delicious on a daily basis and make them when they're actually ready to be served and not turn this into a big over-the-top show. To me, the concept is the absence of concept. I know that sounds like a weird way to describe it, but we just want people to get together and enjoy food.
On the physical menu.
You will have the menu in front of you when you come in to dine. When you sit down at the table, there will be a menu in front of you. That menu is one page that will have all the beer and all the wine and all the food and everything we sell. Literally. Beer, wine, food, cookbooks, t-shirts. 'This is everything we have for sale today.' The descriptions will not really be in depth, because it's not really important to make an in-depth description on a sheet of paper when I can explain it to you myself when I come to see you with the dish. The menu might say 'whole-roasted pork with spicy sausage.' That kind of gives you an idea of what the dish is, but not a ton. I would rather have that conversation tableside. Beside the item, there will be the price per plate, and those prices vary between $6 and $20, depending on what it is.When I say 'what it is,' it's not just the ingredients, but also the size itself. The price range depends on size and make-up of the dish.
On the wine program.
The menu will have our wines lists. The program that we're instituting with the wines matches the food exactly: We want to change the wine to match whatever food we have in house, so that you can be confident that whatever you order is going to paired appropriately with whatever we have. We're not trying to go to that full-scale wine pairing idea where it's so cerebral that you just have to trust someone. Instead it's, 'We've selected these wines this week because we feel like they'll go really well with our food. If you'd like a recommendation, here it is, but pick what you'd like. I still think it will work just fine.' And those wines on the menu are priced by the glass exclusively. If you would like a bottle of wine, absolutely, we'll have bottles. We will probably have additional bottles because we'll change our list frequently. So if you want to have a wonderful, extravagant evening and want to do something special, we can accommodate that too, just like if you're in my home. I want to hear what you want and then find the right thing for you.
On how the dining experience at Gunshow.
You're in the driver's seat entirely. If you want something or you see something you like, you take it. If you don't want something, you don't. If you want the meal to go faster, then you go faster. If you want to take it slower, you go slower. I could have one customer with a dish and a glass of wine and another with three dishes and nothing to drink. You can do any of those things, and that was not an appropriate way to be in a restaurant before, which is just not right. Everyone has different a schedule. I understand why we set those rules in the first place in restaurants— because we couldn't do our jobs if we didn't. However, now, with the flexibility that we've been given, we in turn want to give that flexibility back to you. I hope that Gunshow becomes a restaurant where someone can come on Tuesday on their way home from work and have a dish or two and maybe a glass of wine, and then maybe on Friday bring their spouse back and have a really wonderful meal. In that same building, they can have multiple experiences. I hope that we can build something that represents the beauty that is food in all cases. It doesn't have to be exclusively for special occasions. It can be because you want to go out and have a good time.
On feeling pressured to order alcohol in restaurants.
I want there to be no pressure. If you want to drink water, you can drink water. I'm not much of a big drinker, and I go to restaurants all the time and think, 'I want to just drink water,' because I'm so fixated on wanting to taste the food, but at the same time, I know for a fact that they're annoyed that I didn't buy any alcohol. I don't want that to be the case here.
We are not doing cocktails at all, only beer and wine. We have a license to support cocktails and liquor, and in time, if my guests want me to make cocktails, then I'll make cocktails but I'm going to start with only beer and wine for a couple of reasons. The biggest one is that I don't think our space is conducive to a cocktail program/bar— it's too small and too workshop-looking to really have a bar scene. The second reason is that there are three places that you can get a great cocktail nearby, and I want to support those restaurants. I think the Shed is a really great neighborhood restaurant, and if you would like a cocktail before or after dinner, I would rather be able to help support my neighbor then add another cocktail program to the mix. I'm also kind of old-fashioned, and I like my bars to be bars and my restaurants to be restaurants. I love it when a bar is just that.
Desserts will also be on the menu you get when you sit down. They sort of fall in the same gamut of things, like maybe one day it'll be my great-grandmother's warm banana pudding, which is a simple, homey dish, or it could be a composed dessert. We have no pastry chef, so we're making desserts ourselves. I know that's going to scare the crap out of people, but I happen to have a degree in pastry as well as a degree in savory food, as do my two sous chefs, who have both for a period of time in their career worked as pastry chefs, so we didn't feel that we needed a separate role.
In the kitchen, there are three stations, basically three different tables where people plate up. There is a very foggy line between front of the house and back of the house. You have a cook and that cook has an assistant who both helps him with prep during the day and cooking during service but also is in charge of helping to carry food into the dining room and to describe it to the guest. Then there's a third person at each station, and they are dedicated to food— I hate the term food runner, but they are dedicated to taking the food to the dining room on the carts and describing it to the guests. So they don't do any cooking, they're just charged with delivering the plates out there and talking to you tableside about those dishes. That makes nine staff members.
In addition to them, there are two front of the house managers. There is Blake Morely who was with me at Woodfire, he was the general manager. And then you have Kayla, my sister, who is the assistant GM. They will be in the dining room talking to guests, doing drinks, coordinating everything. They make it all happen. Then there will be a few more support staff members whose job is to be with you as a guest and help you create the experience that you want to create. That means they're the people that come up to you and ask what you would like to drink. They are the people that will be answering any questions. If you're not sure how this works or you're confused about it, they're there to help guide you through and make sure you get what you want. They are the people, who, if you say, "We don't have a lot time tonight, we've actually going to the movies," are going to ensure that you get what you need in the way you want it done. They're your liaisons to the dining room. And their whole job— rather than taking your order and running around and punching it in on the computer and not being able to pay attention to you— is paying attention to you. I don't mean that they're going to hover over you. They're supposed to make sure that whatever experience you want to have that evening, that you have that experience.
It's not there are no front of the house staff, just rather than the old form of "server takes your order and puts it in the computer without any sort of explanation," I've sort of taken a whole set of responsibilities and redistributed them in a different way, in a nontraditional way.
We will take reservations and we will take walk-ins. If you wanted to make a reservation to come out and dine, and you call ahead of time and tell me that you're vegetarian and this other person is gluten-free, then great. But if you just decide at 6 p.m. one night that you would really like to eat here, then I want you still to be able to come.
I hated the idea that for part of my career, without a month's advance notice, you couldn't come eat my food. With Gunshow, I didn't want to build the suspense anymore. I want people to be able to say, "I love that restaurant. That's really great. I know we don't have reservations, but let's just show up." We are intentionally leaving seats open and not reserving them so we can accommodate more. That doesn't mean you won't have to wait. I'm sure that will be an inevitability, but the fact that we're cognizantly making an effort to say you're welcome here always, not just when you make a reservation, I think that's a step in the right direction.
People judge books by the cover all day everyday, and they judge a restaurant that isn't open by the conversations I've had about it, and I know that's going to be the case. I learned a long time ago, despite my best efforts, that there will always be people I cannot please, and there will always be people that do not like what I do. But that doesn't stop the real me from doing what I do. I hope that people read this, and it produces some excitement about the possibilities of this restaurant, but I also hope they will suspend disbelief just long enough to come into the restaurant and try it and then reserve their judgment for after.
It's funny that the people in this world with something bad to say seem to be able to talk louder than the others. I entered a business where you live and die by criticism multiple times a day. Criticism is something that I am no way a stranger to, but the only time I'm ever bothered by it is if I feel like they got it wrong. Not that they didn't like what I did, but when I worry that they don't understand where I'm coming from. One of the biggest criticisms that I have never been able to live with is when someone believes something that I did to be pretentious, because I can't feel that way. I'm shocked every single day that I'm in the position that I am; I'm humbled every single day that people would ever want to come and share in what I make. The only criticism that cuts through me is that people read me the wrong way.
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