Eating is believing: A U.S. Catholic interview with Chef Kevin Gillespie

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What you put on your plate says something about the kind of person you are, says this Catholic gourmet chef and reality TV star.

Kevin Gillespie comes from a long line of Southerners: “My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents are all from the South,” he says. They hail specifically from the Appalachian Mountains, where the traditional diet depended heavily on what was in season and grown locally, thanks to minimal opportunities for preservation.

Gillespie, who is most known for his appearance on the Bravo reality TV show Top Chef, continues his family’s traditions and turns to fresh, local, and seasonal food when he’s preparing dishes for his Atlanta restaurant, Woodfire Grill. While the whole world is available to him in terms of ingredients, his choices, he says, reflect something bigger, namely the belief that eating should be a responsible endeavor and that faith should play a role.

“You are casting a ballot with the food decisions you make every day.” Given that much of the American diet today contains foods grown, raised, and processed on an industrial scale that rewards profit over community and quality, he says buying produce grown across the globe is a vote in favor of that system. “If you’re not OK with that system, then you shouldn’t spend your money on it.”

What’s wrong with how Americans eat today?

The American diet is largely concerned with what’s easiest and available and even what is most indulgent. It reflects a common opinion that we’re the greatest place in the world, so we should eat like kings all the time. Well, the unfortunate side effect of that attitude is that we’ve lost all sense of nutrition and balance.

The American diet has been highly influenced by the global economy, which has convinced us that everything—from tomatoes in the winter to tropical fruit in cold climates—is easily available to us all the time. We’re not bound to having to think about where our food comes from. Instead of considering that these blueberries come from Peru, these peaches are from Chile, or this tomato is from Mexico, we think, “It’s in my grocery store. That means that it’s available, and I have the right to buy it.”

On one hand, we believe that America is a land of opportunity, a place that, if you work hard, you’re rewarded and can live a better life than you could live somewhere else. I think that’s a great viewpoint. But it has contributed to some bad eating habits.

For example, people didn’t use to be able to eat meat every single day, or at least in the quantities that we eat nowadays. But the attitude is, I work hard and I deserve it. And so we have taken on a diet that’s extremely meat-heavy, which you just don’t generally see in other parts of the world.

Dinner to us means this much meat, and maybe we’ll put some vegetables on there, and maybe something starchy. So now, every day, farms produce that. That’s why we have these giant farms that raise animals by the droves.

The human body is extremely resilient. It’s been able to cope and manage and make modifications and evolve with every single diet that has come about in this world, with the exception of the modern American diet.

Why does this approach to food conflict with a Catholic understanding of eating?

Food isn’t just about making people full; it’s about the communion that we share with one another. When you look back to the Bible and to the traditions of the faith, you find that so many things were shared over a meal. And so, in my opinion, food is extremely important to our faith.

As Catholics we believe that the time that we spend with our family is very important. We also believe our family includes the people we share this world with now as well as those who came before us and will come after us. The decisions you make about where you get your food and what you choose to eat directly affects the whole community.

We have a responsibility to come to terms with what our food choices mean. If you’re eating meat, that means coming to terms with the fact that something that was once living has been killed in order to provide you with food.

It means that you should feel like it is your duty, as a person who has chosen that lifestyle, to ensure that every animal you eat has had an appropriate life, has been raised to a certain standard, and has been processed at that standard.

If you take those things seriously, you find that the big, industrial-sized mechanization of raising animals for meat does not meet that standard. It does not meet the moral standard of eating responsibly.

Why don’t people choose to eat more responsibly?

It’s much easier for people to go to the grocery store and see a steak in a package and think, “I like steak.” But when you try and put that piece of steak back into the living puzzle that is a whole animal, people get grossed out. They don’t want to think about how this piece of steak got chopped off a cow.

Unfortunately, turning that blind eye has caused so many problems on factory farms. I’m not trying to advocate vegetarianism, but what I am trying to advocate is thinking a little bit more about where things come from.

Meat is a very easy one to understand because it comes from a living, breathing animal. But you can also have this conversation about tomatoes, where they’re grown, how they’re grown, who picks them, and how they get to your grocery store. You have to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about these things.

But if all you know is to go to the grocery and buy your meat in little packages, how do you change your behavior?

One of the most important things to remember is that if you make an attempt to change anything at all, that is progress. I think people have a hard time thinking about it because they want to create and continue this sweeping change of all their habits.

That’s unrealistic, especially with adults. It’s very hard to go back on a lifetime’s worth of behavior. But if you can make advances in some arenas, those steps are always progress. They always help.

One of the first steps is to pick one thing that you know that you can change. Maybe you decide, “From now on I’m going to go to the farmers market every Saturday morning, or go to my local market, and I’m going to buy everything that I think looks great. But I’m not going to rely on that to be my only source of shopping. I’ll go to the grocery store and buy whatever else I need to make dinner, but I’m going to make my first stop the farmers market.”

I think that’s an easy and attainable goal for people. Just by doing that, they often find that maybe five items that they would have bought at the grocery store, they just bought from their local market, which gives money back to their local economy. And frankly, they’ve bought something that’s of a higher quality.

Where do you go from there?

After that change, you’ll gain momentum, and you’ll find that you start making more changes. Maybe all of a sudden you say, “From now on I’m going to buy all the meat that we use for our house from a farmers market or from a co-op.” Those little steps start to compound.

There’s one part of this change that people cannot argue with: taste. Quality is easily perceived. People will make a lot of changes in this world because they find something that they like better.

Absent of all feeling about whether or not you should do this or that, if someone purchases something and they think, “Those are better-tasting turnips. That’s a better-tasting tomato. That’s better-tasting beef,” then they’ll buy locally grown and raised food for those reasons alone.

What does choosing to buy a farmers market tomato or beef from the co-op have to do with being Catholic?

For me, one of the things that changed my perception entirely was when I took a moment to think back on what my decisions say about me.

For Catholics, for people who consider their faith to be an identifying quality about them in this world, they have to take a moment to stop and say to themselves, “Taking my dollar and going to the store and buying this, or taking my dollar and going to the market and buying that, say two very different things about me. What do I want to be saying through my actions that I’m not broadcasting to everyone else?”

Certainly a piece of the Catholic faith is that you make the right decisions and you do the right thing, but you don’t make it a point to tell everyone about all the stuff you do. You don’t rub it in people’s faces that you’ve done something better.

If you want to live a life that truly embodies the spirit of our faith, it has to take place in all facets of your life. It can’t just be that you go to church and you pray and you feel in your heart that there’s a place for God.

You have to be able to actually live those actions every single day. And your food choices are part of that. They come up multiple times every single day, and your faith is tested in those decisions. That alone should motivate people to make more responsible choices.

You’re a member of the Slow Food movement. Can you explain what that is?

The Slow Food movement started in Italy and is essentially based around the idea that, as the world has sped up in every way, we have begun to forget about things that used to be important to the soul of humanity, things that were very important to communities and to people.

One of those things, obviously, is food, and food is a representation of us as a whole. It’s not just about being fed; it’s about communing with people, it’s about respect for nature and spending time with your family and the people that you love.

The Slow Food movement promotes the idea that we need to slow down and remember that there are some things that are worth spending more time with, and your food is one of them.

What I love about Slow Food is that it’s able to incorporate all of these beliefs I have thanks to my Catholic upbringing and make them available to people who maybe don’t have any sort of religious background.

For me, it’s very important to remember constantly that faith teaches the importance of the things that you do on this earth. It’s about doing the right things and making the right choices.

I think that’s what Slow Food represents: helping people to make those choices and do the right things. I’ve been on board with it for a long time for that reason.

Who are these food movements for? Just for people who can afford local, organic food?

That has certainly been a major criticism, but I think it’s misplaced. I don’t think Slow Food and local, organic movements are elitist organizations by any means.

Slow Food is not advocating for people finding a way to make more money so they can spend more money on their food. But it does, in fact, say that there is a certain price that has to be paid for the quality of food. It addresses that reality through the idea of redistribution and reprioritizing.

What I mean by that is that most of the time, people spend their money on things that are less important than the food they put in their body. Slow Food wants to encourage people to understand that the food you put in your body is one of the single most important things.

With that said, there is the question of whether people can always afford the kind of food that you should put in your body. Thankfully, there have been organizations that I have worked with to make that possible.

What kinds of things are these organizations doing?

Wholesome Wave is an amazing organization set up by a fellow chef, Michel Nischan—also a Catholic, by the way—that works toward providing people who don’t have as much money with things that are necessary for quality food.

The Wholesome Wave network will support certain farmers markets so that if you spend your food stamp money there, you get double your value. For every $1 in food stamps, you get $2 worth of food.

What they’ve found is that these people, because they’re given the financial means to do so, are able to buy wholesome food and provide good nutrition to their families, taking advantage of farmers markets and doing all these things that we say are so important. And then that money is matched back into the community.

So rather than spending it at a large, national grocery store, with the money sifting through all the channels and ending up God only knows where, these people are buying food from local farmers, and that money is going right back into their local economy.

As it turns out, these relationships with farmers provide them even more. So maybe customers brought $1 and now all of a sudden they have $2, but the farmer is willing to do more for them as well. Maybe the farmer will throw in a little bit more food because he’s built relationships with people.

I think what makes Slow Food important is that it advocates values that people have lost sight of in modern society.

Do you experience a tension between being an executive chef in a relatively high-end restaurant and knowing that hunger and lack of access to food is a persistent problem in this country?

I do, and it’s extremely challenging. I try to be involved in any charity that is attempting to address that scenario—people not having enough food, people having to go without—head on. And I’ll always give my time to work on something like that.

But it’s still really tough. Recently I did a charity function, which was basically a potluck supper. Chefs from various high-end restaurants brought food to it, and people bought tickets that were ludicrously expensive. We all sat and ate all this food, and there was so much left over.

The whole time we were there, people talked about how, by doing this function, we’re raising money for an important cause. The intentions behind the event were commendable, but I had a really hard time with it because I just kept thinking about the fact that we were talking about all these good things that we were going to do for people while we sat with tons of food going to waste. It just seemed like we were sitting on some sort of high pedestal discussing the problems of people who were not us.

After that moment, I decided that I would rather be on the ground floor of fighting hunger. So my restaurant tries to provide people with food whenever we can. We try to donate food to the food bank a lot here in Atlanta, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work, because the people who don’t have enough food can’t actually eat a lot of food that we have available.

Why is that?

When we try to donate the breads we make at the restaurant, for example, there’ve been plenty of times food banks have told me, “Most of these people don’t actually have very many teeth left, and they can’t chew your bread.” It makes you hurt inside to hear things like that.

It’s a realistic reminder of how we’re lucky to have what we have, but we must always try to provide for other people. Hopefully my restaurant, doing what it does, standing up for things like slowing down and making time for family and only serving food that has a moral agenda attached to it, is something that we can believe in.

I hope those things will affect the people who dine at my restaurant to be more forthcoming with their money, to give more to their local charities, to support organizations that help people eat every day.

While on Bravo’s reality TV show Top Chef, you talked about fasting from meat during Lent. Does fasting make you think or act differently when it comes to food during the rest of the year?

It certainly does. First it constantly challenges me because I’m around food all the time, every day.

It keeps me focused and reminds me of the fact that there are people every day who go without, and that I don’t have to. During certain times of the year, I try to remember the plight of those people more.

It also reminds me that sometimes you have to make hard decisions. It’s very simple to just say, “You know what? Whatever, it’s no big deal. I’ll just eat this,” or “I don’t really have another choice.” Having to constantly be cognizant of your decisions and make the right choices is certainly challenging.

Giving up meat entirely for Lent actually makes me a better chef. It forces me, frankly, to be more creative and to come up with better vegetarian food to make for people, because I’m making it for myself every day.

That part maybe doesn’t have as much to do with faith, but it is a good side effect.

Are you a chef who happens to be Catholic or a Catholic chef? How has your faith informed your career?

I think it’s both. I am a chef who happens to be Catholic. To a certain degree, it’s a coincidence. On the other hand, my faith influences the way I operate my business.

I also think that talent is a gift that has been bestowed upon you, and it’s your responsibility to use it in honor of where it came from.

I constantly remind myself on the days that I don’t feel like putting in 100 percent that I have a responsibility to the God who gave me my talent.

How does being a Catholic influence how you run your restaurant?

Being Catholic has taught me respect for ingredients and given me an understanding that every living thing has value, and some things have had to give up their life to provide food for others. There’s this mutual respect for the world around you and the responsibility to take care of it.

We’ve also kept this restaurant at a five-day-a-week schedule intentionally. People constantly come to me and say, “If you were open two more days, you guys would be full two more days of the week. You would make more money.” That’s true, but it’s important to me that people have time to spend with their families and that they have time to pursue other things that are meaningful to them.

It’s incredibly important that you be able to live a life that you can look back upon and say, “I’ve tried to live as morally as possible, even in times when it wasn’t convenient or lucrative.” 

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 10, pages 18-22).

Image: Photo courtesy of Kevin Gillespie