Our tour of chefs who should have won Top Chef begins

First of all, I apologize deeply for the fact that I haven’t used this blog in, well, forever. We started it for fun when we still lived in southern Minnesota and since then I’ve been promoted and transferred, and my life has become immensely more hectic.

Being foodies with no kids and a lot of free weekends is a great thing, and Jessie and I have begun putting that to good use. This weekend we’re in Atlanta to begin our tour of “Chefs who should have won Bravo’s Top Chef.” When we booked our reservations at Chef Kevin Gillespie’s Woodfire Grill, we were hoping it would be to celebrate his win. He was, after all, mopping up elimination challenges left and right and nothing the Voltaggio brothers did could stand up against his simple yet robust cooking.

Sadly, Kevin didn’t win, making our trip even more important to us. We’ve already booked our tickets to the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen in June, where the winner of Top Chef will have a showcase, so now we had to make sure that we got to sample Kevin’s abilities at least once.

Leaving Chicago, we were able to catch an earlier flight, putting us on the ground at 8:30 instead of 10. After getting through the time-consuming rental car process, we got on the road and went straight to Flip Burger Boutique, the restaurant headed up by Top Chef season 4 finalist Richard Blais. We love Stephanie, who won that season, so we’re not saying Richard should have beaten her, but the guy’s cooking is inventive, weird and just plain fun.

Flip Burger Boutique did not disappoint. It was 10:15 p.m. before we got there from the airport, and the place was packed shoulder to shoulder. The bartender at our hotel, the W Buckhead, said Flip Burger is his favorite restaurant in Atlanta.

Jessie remarked first off on the interesting mix of people there — mostly on the young side, but also some older couples thrown in. Despite the loud music and modern decor, the “old fogies” actually looked like they were enjoying themselves. I guess that’s a testament to the quality of the food.

I had a southern burger (country fried beef patty, house-made pimento cheese, bread and butter pickles, green tomato ketchup) with fries and a nutella and burnt marshmallow milkshake. It was delicious and the perfect portion size. I thought they used a little too much liquid smoke in the “smokey mayo” condiment that came with my fries (though I appreciated it, because I LOVE mayo on fries) and the pickles were a little under-pickled for my liking; other than that, it was a great meal.

Jessie had the bacon and cheese burger (onion, lettuce, tomato, house-made pickles, Benton’s bacon, American cheese, ketchup) without the FLIP sauce (which is apparently like Thousand Island dressing, which she’s not a fan of), fries and an amazing milkshake, spicy chocolate mole (that’s mo-lay, not the rodent that lives in the ground).

On to the reason for our visit…

The earlier flight made a visit to Flip Burger possible — otherwise the purpose of our visit was entirely just to go to Woodfire Grill.

Kevin Gillespie had been our favorite to win Top Chef all season, and his style of cooking so closely matches what I try to accomplish in the kitchen that I’ve grown to be a huge fan this season (as has Jessie). His wins seemed so effortless, and there was nothing pretentious or silly about his cooking. It just flat-out worked, no matter what he did, until the last episode.

We got to Woodfire Grill well ahead of our reservation, and sat in the bar area having cocktails. About 15 minutes before our reservation rolled around, I looked across the bar table and saw Jessie’s eyes light up. “Oh my god, there he is,” she whispered, giggling. Chef Kevin was hanging out at the hostess station, and my lovely wife probably forgot who she was there with for a second. Of course she was too shy to go over and ask to get a photo with him, leaving it up to me.

As you can see, we got a photo with the bearded one (I should mention as a weird coincidence that when we got back to our hotel, the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was on TV, featuring Kevin’s doppelganger, Yukon Cornelius).

On to dinner…

Woodfire Grill’s a la carte menu is broken up into several courses, and given that each course is closer to European portion sizes, you’ll need all the courses to get full. That’s not a knock, I think that’s how it should be. Why pay a lot of money for one main course that’s a whole lot of one thing when you could spend the same getting multiple courses to try new things?

We both had essentially a five-course meal. Our wine was a 2008 Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec that was a decent background to our meal. I’m not sure I’ll order it again, because it was nothing special, but in terms of being a steady drummer to our rock star of a meal, it did its job.

My courses were an amuse-bouche of a beet salad, then arugula salad with grapefruit supremes and beets with a chevre dressing, crisp fried natural veal sweetbreads, wood grilled sonoma artisan duck breast and a blue cheese and honeycomb dessert.

The veal sweetbreads were absolute perfection. I was slightly disappointed I couldn’t convince Jessie to try one, but also happy that I’d have all of them to myself. Sweetbreads are the thymus and pancreas glands of a young calf, and have a texture like chicken nuggets. I tried them once as a teenager in Europe, but haven’t had the chance to try them since. I have to say, I think I’m in love with sweetbreads — or at least the sweetbreads at Woodfire Grill.

My duck breast was, quite simply, the best I’ve ever had. It was prepared by someone comfortable with preparing duck. Duck is a delicate meat and you can’t prepare it the way you would cook a chicken, for example. It has a lot of fat that must render out into juicy tenderness, and if cooked too long it becomes dry and tough; too short and it’s a big gooey raw mess of meat. Of the dozens of times I’ve eaten duck breast, I haven’t had it as perfectly prepared as this.

Throughout the season of Top Chef, we’ve marveled at how Kevin’s dishes can be so simple yet seemingly pack so much flavor. I think I’ve figured it out: It’s the “one little thing” element that makes the entire dish come together. On my duck breast, it was the tiny flakes of citron confit — preserved fruit, essentially — that made the dish shine. If you scraped away the flakes and built a bite of just the duck and the onion grits you had a great dish — but with the citron confit and everything together, it sang.

My dessert was the same way:  A chunk of really good blue cheese, a chunk of honeycomb, and a sprig of pea shoots. Never in a million years could I have told you that pea shoots would be the proper accompaniment to blue cheese and honey (a delicious combination we discovered in Hawaii and that I’ve been obsessed with ever since). In this case, a bit of all three together makes perfect sense.

I’ll let Jessie tell you about her meal. For me, it was the five most perfect courses I’ve ever eaten in a row. Paired with a perfect weekend away with my lovely wife, it was a great experience.

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About the Author

Owner of a graphic design firm specializing in magazine design and wannabe chef. Former resident of Belgium, the United Kingdom and...North Dakota.