When Richard Blais made his now legendary run on “Top Chef” Season Four, it captivated Atlanta audiences in a way basic cable rarely does: We became enthralled as a community.
This season, we have even more reason to tune in. Three Atlanta chefs, all of them fairly prominent, compete in the sixth season premiering Wed., Aug. 19: Pura Vida’s Hector Santiago, Woodfire Grill’s Kevin Gillespie and Eno’s Eli Kirshtein. Anyone who cares about food and restaurants in Atlanta has most likely eaten in at least one of these guys’ restaurants. And while none of them may be as well-known as Blais (who riled up the passions of foodies long before he was on “Top Chef”), they each bring a set of strengths and challenges to Las Vegas that will be fascinating to watch.
I spoke to all three chefs last week, and while they aren’t allowed to talk about what happened on the show in any detail, I was able to find out a little about how they went into the competition and what their strategies were once they arrived.
Santiago is probably the best known of the three, having helmed Pura Vida in Poncey-Highland since 2001. The South American-infused tapas spot has long been known as one of the most creative kitchens in town. The restaurant earned the AJC’s Restaurant of the Year award in 2005. But for the purposes of “Top Chef,” will Santiago be able to break out of his comfort zone enough to wow the judges? Or, if he decided to stick with his signature style, will South American and Spanish cooking give him enough leeway to handle the range of challenges presented?
Santiago says that the clock, rather than his style, was what made the show difficult. “My food tends to be very complex. If anything, I maybe had to cut back," he says. "I usually tend to go a little crazy. If I want something crunchy, and then that something crunchy takes half an hour to prep ... . So I made my food, but I had to simplify.”
He also says the judges were hard to gauge, and he worried about the level of spice in his dishes. “I think they do have certain tastes, but I will say Padma [Lakshmi] is difficult to read. Gail [Simmons] is a lot easier to read — she likes a lot of spices and a lot of textures and whatnot. And Tom [Colicchio], you just never know, either. It’s not easy.”
Kevin Gillespie has just started to make a name for himself in Atlanta as the executive chef at Woodfire Grill. The restaurant's previous owner and chef Michael Tuohy sold the restaurant and moved to California in August 2008. Woodfire Grill is still very much associated with Tuohy’s vision. Gillespie knows “Top Chef” is a chance for him to define himself in his own right as an Atlanta chef worthy of the limelight. “What I wanted to show was that I can do food that has a modern edge to it, but it still centers around being extremely seasonal and being extremely local,” Gillespie says. “That’s what the difference is now with Woodfire. We’re definitely more of a contemporary restaurant than we were previously.”
Eli Kirshtein also describes his style as drawing from modern technique but also staying true to locavorism's ideals. “Stylistically, I have run with the term ‘techno-organic,’” Kirshtein says. “It’s about getting really beautiful ingredients and sourcing out really cool stuff, and then cooking it very simply but with a little modern flair to everything.”
As chef at Eno in Midtown, Kirshtein is probably the least known of the three Atlanta chefs. He was part of Blais' team on and off for six years (Bravo would not let Kirshtein speak about how much Blais was or was not involved in the selection and audition process) and also sports a cheftastic spikey faux-hawk. The 25-year-old seems primed to provide some of the personality for Season Six, both on the plate and in the image department.
I asked all three chefs what they did to prepare for the season. Kirshtein says he spent time practicing "Quick Fire" challenges and memorizing recipes. Santiago did some preparing along those same lines, but Gillespie says, “I did absolutely nothing. Sometimes when people study for a test, they overstudy, and they pack their mind full of stuff that they can’t use once they get there. What I did was remember that the key to my success needed to be that every time that I stepped foot in that kitchen, that I cooked food that I believed in and food that I would be proud to serve at my own restaurant.”
The three Atlanta chefs all knew each other before the show, and I wondered what the dynamic between them was — whether having friends on the set helped or hindered them. I got very different answers. Kirshtein made the point that “A lot of [the other contestants] were trying to make these really important friends and important life associations quickly. And I think it was a lot easier for me and the other guys to nourish that just knowing each other and knowing a lot about each other already.”
But Gillespie spoke about how hard it was to compete against people with whom he has connections. “To begin the show with friends, then you’ve already started in a certain way with a disadvantage. You want these people to hang on, but you don’t want them to hang on. It’s a very difficult dynamic emotionally to wrap your mind around.”
For Atlanta viewers, the most important question is, how will these guys represent our city? And when I asked Santiago about his relationship to the other Atlanta contestants, he gave me some insight into what we might expect: “It was almost like we put a dream team sort of thing together. It was like, 'Let’s go. Let’s put Atlanta on the map.' Because all of us, we wanted to win individually, but we also are excited that three of us are here. We’re going to get a lot of exposure for Atlanta. Pretty cool.”
Editor's note: Besha Rodell is married to the pastry/sous chef at Eno.
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