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Books That Cook:

October 23, 2012

Kevin Gillespie’s “Fire in My Belly” Cookbook A Finalist for James Beard Award

Cool culinary techniques & Southern goodness collide in this nostalgic cookbook plus pork belly with bok choy & fried candybars!

By Nancy Staab

Woodfire Grill sage and Top Chef fan favorite Kevin Gillespie shares simple family recipes on the eve of his hotly-anticipated new restaurant opening, Gun Show. From humble Southern Revival Potato Salad (with Duke’s mayonnaise please) to fancy-pants Halibut en Papillote, these easy recipes will appeal to all manner of cooks.  Look inside this killer cookbook which was just named a finalist for a James Beard Award.

Chef Gillespie; pan-seared trout with peaches and green garlic; Black Mission Fig tart Chef Gillespie; pan-seared trout with peaches and green garlic; Black Mission Fig tart

On Bravo’s Top Chef and in real life, Woodfire Grill chef Kevin Gillsepie comes across as the jolly, bearded, tatted up, and congenial spirit with gentle Southern manners and Southern taste buds to boot. It is this same unpretentious, earthy and earnest personality that pervades his very personal cookbook. But don’t let the “aw shucks” demeanor fool you, this M.I.T engineering scholarship honoree (who blew off M.I.T. to go to culinary school instead) and James Beard-nominated toque has a few tricks up his sleeve. Sure, he may pay tons of homage to the nostalgia of his Locust Grove, Georgia, youth, by way of his father’s Appalachian mountain heritage and his mother’s Southern plantation roots—not to mention his granny’s insanely delicious banana cream pie, pole beans and one-pot “hog supper” (the joke is there’s no pork or protein at all, with the exception of fatback to flavor the veggies). However, Chef Gillespie is a seasoned chef with The Ritz-Carlton Atlanta and a stint helming the seasonal kitchen at Fife in food-centric Portland, Oregon, on his resumé. Then there’s the classic culinary school training, heavy on classic culinary technique that also kicks in.

Fire in My Belly Fire in My Belly

The result of all of this is a highly idiosyncratic if not wonderfully schizophrenic cookbook that thinks nothing of offering up Coca-Cola braised pot roast using real Mexican Coca-Cola and chicken pot pie, next to the rustic but more sophisticated Coq au Vin or Alice Waters-style Black Mission Fig Tart.  Indeed, what other cookbook would offer up crispy sweetbreads with celery relish and “gussied up” mac’n’cheese with crushed potato chips on top (albeit gourmet Utz chips); scotch eggs and Salad Lyonnaise; grilled honey lacquered quail and also a mess of baked hot wings? There’s even hipster chefs’ food like pork belly with bok choy and dueling chef recipes for ramen in this worldly cookbook. For the Southern traditionalist there’s Gillespie’s own spin on classics: cornbread pancakes with sliced brandywine tomatoes and bacon mayo; pan-roasted pork chops with apples and redeye gravy; buttermilk biscuits; overnight grits with tomato-braised greens; and African squash tart with whipped eggnog topping. But don’t you dare call him Modern Southern…or ask him to cut watermelon into precious cubes!

Gillespie writes in the book, “I don’t like the term modern Southern cuisine. It seems hollow…Like every regional food in every country, Southern American food is extremely specific. It has well-defined traditions. There is no modernizing….It’s true I was cooking sophisticated food with a distinctly Southern feel. But.. my dishes were springing from food memories, often from childhood.” He cites the simple “one-pot hog supper” as an example, which he later served to the international president of the entire Slow Food movement. And, P.S., the president loved it.

Fire in My Belly is definitely not a compendium of Woodfire Grill’s recipes, with a few exceptions, like the grilled scallops with tomate frito recipe or the insanely popular sage-battered mushrooms with cheddar fonduta. The scallop recipe is an example of the simplicity of Gillespie’ approach: It’s a 4-ingredient recipe if you don’t count the tomate frite: just scallops, lemon, salt, olive oil and a heated grill. Gillespie maintains that there’s no magic and mystique about chef-dom, that cooking is really just “flying by the seats of your pants”—no need to measure every spoonful and stress about it. His recipe book lovingly caters to the untrained at-home chef, like his own mother and granny, not his squeeze-bottle and tweezer-toting James Beard cronies.

slow-roasted pork shoulder with turnips and rutabagas slow-roasted pork shoulder with turnips and rutabagas

As the book title suggests, Fire in My Belly embraces the local and global, homespun and exotic, farm-to-table dishes AND the decadent junk foods that light the fire of Gillespie’s personal food passions. The chapters are personal and amusing: “Foods that I Thought I Hated,” “ My Version of Southern Food,” “World Classics Reinvented,” “Junk Food,” “When I Want to Eat Healthy,” “Food + Fire = Delicious” and “Some Like it Hot.” The eclectic range and scattered organization of the recipes makes it a bit difficult for the reader to figure out how to combine them into coherent multi-course meals. But who cares when you have such winning dishes as pan sautéed trout with green garlic and peaches; tomato tartine with argula salad and country ham; grilled oyster mushrooms on marcapone toast with hot giardiniera; and smoked trout puffs with bacon jam at your fingertips?

There are only a handful of desserts in the book, including the playful, Carny-inspired deep-fried Milky Ways from Gillespie’s experimental teenage years, but that is to expected, since Gillespie is a chef not a patissiere. Photos by the talented Angie Mosier convey the rustic deliciousness and zero pretense of Gillespie’s style of cooking, where taste trumps everything else. Informative sections about cured pork; pickling and preserves; sustainable fish; root vegetables; and local or not-so- local sources for everything from country ham and green peanuts to espelette peppers, round out this capacious cookbook. Lastly, Gillespie’s unvarnished memories of celebrating food with his close-knit Locust Grove family, sprinkled through every chapter, bring home the real message: food is love and a good bowl of bean poles or banana pudding brings everyone to the table (and to Gillespie’s successful restaurants).

Gillespie has recently departed the lauded Woodfire Grill and will open his own improvisational, small plates eatery Gun Show (a nod to Gillespie’s favorite childhood activity with his father) in East Atlanta this spring.

Fire in My Belly is now available at fine bookstores everywhere and at



Recipe from Fire in My Belly:  Woodfire Grill’s Sage-Battered Mushrooms with Cheddar Fonduta  (enough for four small plates)


10 oz. of large cluster Oyster mushrooms

8 oz. sharp white cheddar cheese

1 ½ cups heavy cream

white pepper, a couple grinds


Sage-battered mushrooms with cheddar fonduta Sage-battered mushrooms with cheddar fonduta

Canola oil for frying

½ cup of Cornstarch

½ cup all-purpose flour

1 Tb. Of fresh sage leaves, chiffonade

1 tsp. of rubbed sage

1 cup of cold soda or seltzer water

1/3 cup Candied garlic syrup



1.     Trim the tough root ends from the mushrooms , leaving the clusters as intact as possible. Set aside.

2.     Cut the cheese into ½ inch chunks and place in microwave safe bowl. Loosely cover with wax paper or parchment paper and microwave on 50% power until the cheese softens but doesn’t completely melt, about 30 seconds.

3.     In a 2-quart saucepan bring the cream to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in the cheese, a couple of grinds of white pepper and a small pinch of salt until everything looks smooth. Keep the fonduta warm until you’re ready to serve it. If you need to hold it for more than an hour, it keeps warm best in a double boiler.

4.     Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350 degrees F. Place a cooling rack over a baking sheet.

5.     In a large bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, flour, fresh sage and dried sage. Add a few ice cubes to the club soda and swirl to chill. Remove the ice cubes and whisk the club soda into the cornstarch mixture to form a smooth batter, working with one mushroom cluster at a time, dip and swirl the cluster in the batter to completely coat the mushrooms. Let excess batter drip away, then drop the clusters, one by one, into the fryer and fry until crispy, about 2 minutes. Using a spider strainer or tongs, transfer the fried mushrooms to the rack and immediately sprinkle with salt.

6.     For each plate, spoon one-quarter of the fondue in the center, drizzle with the garlic syrup, then mound one-quarter of the fried mushrooms on top.


For candied garlic syrup: (makes 1 ¼ cup)

1 cup sugar

1 cup cider vinegar

3 whole heads of garlic, each clove peeled and trimmed (approx. 30 cloves total)


In small nonreactive saucepan, stir together the sugar and vinegar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cut the heat down to low; cook until garlic is golden brown and soft, about 30 minutes. Store the garlic in the syrup mixture, covered, in the refrigerator.