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'Top Chef' fan favorite Kevin Gillespie shares perspective on special diets

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With 15 million Americans diagnosed with food allergies and over 425 million worldwide with at least one special dietary need from diabetes to veganism, it has become an increasingly important issue to understand our food from every angle including at the restaurant level. I've interviewed 10 people to get various perspectives to provide their insights while testing the knowledge, facts, and myths associated with this growing epidemic.

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This is part 3 of the interviews where Top Chef, Kevin Gillespie's shares his perspective on special dietary needs and important information about his industry.

Of the 10 interviewed for this series, Chef Gillespie is one of the most educated chefs on ingredients and can name each ingredient and sub component ingredient in some of his favorite dishes to prepare, without batting an eye or taking a breath. When he described his famous Pork Belly Risotto dish, every last detail of information can be provided no matter how many questions I asked. It sounds delicious.

While he takes true food allergies and special dietary needs very seriously, he is not trying to cater to those needs in his restaurants, instead he focuses on delivering a high standard food experience to each customer, which means every part of the meal has a story and if anyone knows it, it’s Chef Gillespie.

While foodies who happen to have multiple food allergies, like myself, will not be able to eat at his restaurants, without Chef Kevin Gillespie’s approval first, we can certainly take the time to appreciate the insights and vision of food he shares with us as well as his Gunshow restaurant concept.

I previously went to Gunshow in September and I fell in love with the concept of the restaurant. You must call ahead to get reservations, it’s not just the kind of place you can walk up and get a table.

Being that I just stumbled upon this fabulous place and because I have 10 food allergies myself, I simply sat in a corner, picnic style table they had for staff and marveled at the scenery while sipping a glass of wine and reading their inspiration magazines.

Chefs go from table to table “selling” their dishes after just preparing them. There are no servers and there isn't a lot of "fluff" that goes into this dining experience. It's real, right now, dining with no crap.

I observed the people interact with each other and the chefs. I warmly smiled as the chefs prepared meals in the open kitchen and got goosebumps at how meticulous they were yet having fun doing it.

Gunshow is one of those restaurants where you don't really have to order, you just have to wait for some delicious dish to cross your path and decide if you want it or not (as long as you can eat everything, you are golden.)

A real food fanatic would love it there and I highly recommend the experience for those who can.

You may find me peering in the window from time to time wishing I could join the experience, but I'll be eating at the Shed, just down the block where they have safely served me a few times.

Now, let the interview begin.

Background on Chef:

Kevin Gillespie knew he wanted to cook ever since he was a small child. In fact he asked his parents to take him to the Culinary Institute of America on a field trip when he was young. He first started in the kitchen when he was 15 at a small, local restaurant and went on to bigger venues like the Ritz Carlton at 18.

He bought and sold a restaurant he formerly worked for called Woodfire Grill and was featured as a finalist on a television show called Top Chef in 2009. Thirty-one year old, successful Chef Gillespie has a fabulous restaurant in Atlanta, GA called Gunshow and plans to open 2 new restaurants in Atlanta sometime in 2014.

What is your favorite cuisine or dish to prepare?

I grew up in the south so classic, southern, family style is what I still love the most. My single favorite thing to prepare is a Whole Hog on an open pit BBQ.

In choosing one dish to prepare that he loves he says it would be the Pork Skin ‘Risotto.’

Did you attend a professional culinary school or are you self taught?

I went to the Arts Institute in Atlanta but for years and years it was just hobby. I got a scholarship to MIT for Engineering- but I forwent that to attend culinary school with AI in Atlanta.

What do you think the most important thing to know about food is?

In my opinion, it is where it is from. I know a lot of people talk about it, because it’s become a trend. In the ‘hurry up’ world we live in today, we have stopped being concerned how we get the food or the story behind the food.”

Chef Gillespie goes on to reminisce about the pleasure of sitting down and enjoying our food, as we did in traditions of our past and discusses the importance we all need to be placing on that again.

How many hours do you spend training?

At Gunshow I have assembled a team of people that have been with me for a long time, some as long as 8 and 5 years. I've worked for people who have high standards and I carry that with me.”

Chef Gillespie prefers the version of food that tells a story so his training with staff is on sourcing ingredients and how food is handled. He knows the man who delivers his lettuce, Craig Tucker. Gillespie has been to the farm and really appreciates how the lettuce got from the farm to his restaurant. He understands and respects the process.

Gillespie even recalls a day when Craig delivered fresh lettuce to his restaurant. “The staff opened the lettuce and comments were flying around the kitchen about what the smell was coming from the lettuce bins. The root clod was still in tack. Craig said that was what real lettuce smelled like.”

In a world where we have prewashed, prepackaged, sprayed lettuce we often don’t know what produce is really supposed to smell like, much less where it is coming from.

Still today many of us get upset when produce goes bad quickly but we must remember that is a good sign. Gillespie knows when he is ordering that he only has a few days before that product goes bad and loses flavor. “I take pride in the actual flavor of our lettuce so it does not need to have a lot of dressing or things on it. Even a simple salad should taste good. We should not take produce, taste, quality and the story of it for granted.”

What do you think about the rise in special dietary requirements?

“I have mixed feelings about it. Any real food allergy is taken very seriously at Gunshow but I have seen many people misuse the food allergy card.

I have personally seen anaphylaxis shock occur and that is why I take it very seriously, however we have created a ‘boy cried wolf culture,’ and allowed people who just don’t like something to claim food allergy instead.

People who claim they have a gluten allergy and don't are awful because they make a big deal about it and then I look up to see them eating a piece of bread. (See facts about 'gluten allergy' here)

If someone doesn’t like something or doesn’t want something, they should just say so because claiming food allergy has now begin to build distrust and second guessing. I am not trying to force food someone doesn’t like on them. Not liking something is perfectly okay.

I also feel it should be valid for restaurant professionals to be able to say they can’t prepare something because it’s not safe.”

Chef Gillespie makes a great point and says most of the world doesn’t understand that by the time they walk into a restaurant 90% of the meals ordered are already prepared. People expect to be eating within 10 to 20 minutes of sitting down at the table and some dishes just take longer.

The restaurant world can begin as early as 7 AM if they serve lunch, because the cooks need to prepare the majority of the meals and plates ahead of time.

Chef Gillespie says, “Eating at a restaurant is kind of like a movie. You don’t walk into a movie 20 minutes before it’s over and ask for the ending to be changed. It’s likely it won’t produce great results.”

Most food allergic people expect and appreciate that their meals will take longer to prepare because they know there is a process that has to take place in the back of the house to safely accommodate them. It’s part of why it’s important to have a safe appetizer on the menu when possible. People with true food allergies, especially adults with late onset food allergies, generally love food. There is some preconceived public idea that they are doing it to lose weight or that they just don’t like food, often times the very food they have become allergic to, is likely one of the foods they loved the most, as is the case of Misty O’Conner from our previous story or in our upcoming stories with other serious foodies who developed food allergies.

“Our primary concern at Gunshow is flavor and quality of our dishes. All of our energy is poured into that, not into how to accommodate those with special dietary needs. We don’t concern ourselves with the balancing act or what if scenario.”

Do you think understanding food allergies and special dietary needs is an important topic to understand in the food industry?

The food industry could do a better job at understanding this topic. The text books in culinary school teach bottom line not quality. We have to pay the bills and make a living but be moral with our food in the industry. If we can continue to express ourselves in our food we will be unique.

Guests who have special dietary needs need to understand that it is not black and white. We choose where we go and that being said: Let’s say I go to vegetarian restaurant and I am a meat eater (I prefer to eat meat). Does that mean they should prepare a dish for me that has meat on it?

Eating outside of the home is a privilege not a right and we can choose where we go.

Is there a solution for those who want to enjoy eating out that have special dietary needs?

Chefs wish we could accommodate everyone. If a guest calls in advance and gives us a choice, we can take the time, effort and control we need to try our best to accommodate them and we will take it seriously.

More often they don’t call ahead and that is not fair to anyone in the process. It needs to be a give and take relationship.

Gillespie states, ”When I see someone has a chef card, I know it’s a real food allergy.”

Can you name the big 8 food allergens in the U.S?

Chef Gillespie begins to name them and then goes into what he has heard the most of in his career, “dairy, gluten, nuts, tree nuts, shellfish, peanuts, egg, casein, papaya fruits, thin skin fruit, bell pepper, cayenne pepper, onion/garlic.

(The Federal Food Code, FARE and other states have begun to put food allergy laws in place, focusing on the big 8 food allergens in the United States. Some of those laws are as simple as having a food allergy awareness poster up which names the big 8 food allergies in the United States.

Most chefs, restaurant owners and food suppliers either don’t know about these laws or can’t name these allergens, even if posters and education are mandated.

Even non-food allergics who see this poster will often send me messages asking, “What is that poster supposed to do to help those with food allergies or those catering to them?”)

For Reference: The Big 8 allergens in the United States are: Milk (Dairy products), Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Eggs, Wheat (not gluten), Shellfish, Fish, Soy. The FDA and FARE only focus on skimming the bare minimum to educate and keep consumers safe when dining out or buying packaged foods.

Each country has their own standards and sets of food allergens, some are the same. In Canada there are 10, in the UK there are 14 required to be listed on packaged food products and beverages.

Have you ever received training on food allergies?

I've learned the most working in the restaurant environment, on the job and from guests themselves. Culinary school gives us a base of knowledge on the business and history of being chef. Where we learn how to be chefs is on the job not in school.

Outside of Culinary School Chef Gillespie has no training on food allergies and what training was provided to him, was not in great detail. The majority of his knowledge has taken place in the real world, especially in the last 8 years where he has seen the biggest difference in catering to 15 people a night with some food allergy concern.

“I still feel like this is an American issue because when I serve people from Asia, they don’t ever ask for anything to be modified. They eat what I serve them and that’s it. They seem to love food and love the dining experience.”

Chef Kevin Gillespie’s Final Last Words:

“We should all regain the time in our lives to take food seriously. We should care about it again like we used to. Food can tremendously enrich our lives in all aspects.”

Stay in Touch with Chef Kevin Gillespie or contact him directly:
Facebook.com/ChefKevinGillespie
Twitter: @TopchefKevin
Website: ChefKevinGillespie.com which has recipes and restaurant information

Read Part I and Part II of Food Perspectives by clicking the links to the stories. This is a 10 part series.

Follow or Subscribe to Food Allergy Gal for the next stories.

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