More Than a Meal

More Than a Meal

Chef Kevin Gillespie is changing the lives of families in Atlanta one (delicious) meal at a time

Words by Paige Townley
Photo by @derekbedwellphotography

Chef Kevin Gillespie has accomplished a lot in his career. From opening multiple restaurants and competing as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef to being a seven-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist (not to mention a plethora of other awards), the list of accomplishments is long. But what may come as a surprise is that what Kevin would probably call one of his greatest achievements isn’t even on that list: the Defend Southern Food Foundation, a nonprofit that provides meals for families who otherwise wouldn’t have them. “The awards are amazing, but at the end of the day, I’d feel much more accomplishment if I had more families able to tell me that the program we put in place affected long-term change for them,” Kevin says. “That would mean so much more than money in the bank or plaques and awards we hang on walls.”

Awards and money in the bank were initially a driving factor for Kevin as he built his empire—he openly shares that he came from a past of financial instability with his own family—so it was an early goal of his to be able to experience financial stability. “And I was proud of what I accomplished and so was my family,” Kevin says. “It was bootstrapped, and it felt rewarding to make it happen.”

He started making that goal happen after leaving MIT—where he had originally attended to become a nuclear engineer—to pursue his real passion: cooking. He quickly put a plan together to get into The Art Institute of Atlanta, and after graduating, he began working in a variety of top-shelf kitchens across Atlanta and even out West before his empire building began. In 2013, after being part-owner of Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill, he went out on his own and opened Gunshow. Just two years later came Revival, and the establishment of his Red Beard Restaurants group with business partner Chef Marco Shaw followed a year later with Communion. Soon after, he added to the list and opened Gamechanger, Ole Reliable, and Cold Beer (which was reconceptualized during the COVID pandemic and reopened earlier this year under its new name, Slabtown Public House). “When you say it out loud, that many in such a short span of time does seem crazy,” Kevin says with a laugh. “But I’ve never been the person who is content with being OK. I’ve always had the mindset that if I’m not pushing the red line, I’m not really living. So, I think the moment things get easy, I tend to make them hard again. If you’re in the restaurant business, the fastest way to do that is to open another restaurant.”

That way of thinking, however, was flipped on its head when Kevin was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. While undergoing hospitalizations and treatment, he realized many of the things that were driving him didn’t really matter. “You just don’t know how much time you have left in this world,” he says. “Since I knew I had no guarantee, I realized that whatever time I had left, I was going to do something actually worth doing.”

When the pandemic hit, Kevin got a completely unexpected opportunity to put that newfound way of thinking to full (culinary) use. A friend called and shared that students in the Jackson school cluster in Atlanta were no longer getting their relied-upon free school breakfasts and lunches because schools were closed. “A great deal of the student body in this particular cluster qualify for free meals, and when schools were no longer in session, the school system quickly realized they didn’t know how to feed these kids,” Kevin explains. “They knew these kids relied on those free meals because most of them don’t eat dinner at home. The food they ate every day was consumed at school.”

Within twenty-four hours of getting that phone call, Kevin—along with business partner Marco—had a plan to address the problem. Also “temporarily” closed due to COVID were restaurants, but Kevin still had thousands of dollars of food in his fridges and a full staff, so they got to work preparing meals five days a week for the students who qualified for the free meals. But that became 2,500 meals per day as Kevin and his team didn’t just provide a meal for each student but a meal for every family member in the household. Another local organization, I’m A Father F1rst, picked up the meals and delivered them to homes. “We immediately started without any real thought into where it was going or the long-term implications,” Kevin says. “A few weeks into it, we learned a lot about the realities for these families. For the most part, they were really fighting to keep their heads above water. What seemed simple in that it was just a meal was actually incredibly important because we were alleviating one of their problems—a meal for the entire family that day.”

Not only were they alleviating a problem for these families through the program, but they were at the same time helping ease another COVID-related issue by purchasing fresh products from locally-owned purveyors, farmers, and ranchers. “Our restaurants relied almost entirely on small, independent food producers for our ingredients,” Kevin says. “When restaurants were closing, those producers were struggling too. We thought back to our motto, defend Southern food, and we knew we couldn’t let that happen.”

While many would have expected the program to utilize the cheapest products possible, Kevin ensured the program continued to use the very same ingredients he had been purchasing already for his restaurants. “We were satisfying two goals with that: bolstering the local economy by purchasing from local producers and providing these families with nutritious, wholesome food,” says Kevin. “That’s something that has been escaping communities like this for a long time: those who need nutritious food the most don’t often have access to it.”

The Defend Southern Foods Foundation continued on throughout COVID, officially became a nonprofit, and still continues today. The number of families in the program has dropped as fewer families have needed the meals—currently they are providing dinners to 500 people (approximately 125 families) five days a week—but it’s still serving the same school cluster in Atlanta. The distribution model has also changed—with schools reopened the food is picked up there—and Red Beard Restaurants is supporting the program fully to keep it going, even changing the business model of Cold Beer (now Slabtown Public House) to allow time and kitchen space for the program to continue. And, of course, they are still fully utilizing local farmers and food producers for ingredients. Kevin is even partnering with the nearby high school with its rooftop garden, mentoring students about farming and the restaurant business and even purchasing its produce for his restaurants. Kevin’s goal is to eventually expand the program beyond the Jackson school cluster and even provide a blueprint to other restaurant groups to do the same in their community. “I realize that feeding these families isn’t changing the world, but if it's changing their lives, that means something to me,” Kevin says. “Even if it changes their lives in a minimal way, it’s still progress. If nothing else, I want these kids to know there is still good in the world, that there are people that do things because it’s right. With this program, I feel like I’m leaving this world a little better than it was when I got here, even if in a very small way.”