The American South has a culinary history all its own. Temperate climates have bred a bounty of distinctive local ingredients from collard greens to crawfish, and the blending—or Creolization, if you will—of cultures has cultivated a cuisine that is uniquely “American” in its multiplicity. Dishes are generational, cuisine is comfortable, and food is a way to look back home in the South, where the past always informs the present. But this week on Top Chef duels, generations do battle as the historic traditions of the Southern old guard draw knives against the new.
On one end is modernist Kevin Gillespie—one of Top Chef‘s most considered culinary voices. Kevin was a standout competitor in the stellar Las Vegas cast, finishing third to the brothers Voltaggio but impressing the judges each week with his distinctive point-of-view, which drew complex flavors out of the simplest ingredients and ideas. Though still soft-spoken, he’s a restaurateur now, and his new Atlanta kitchen Gunshow is a realization of the vision that we first saw on Top Chef five years ago; it draws upon the historic past of the south to create a new future.
On the other is Top Chef Master Art Smith, southern classicist. I have to admit right off that I often struggle with Art—at first glance, he’s just another celebrity chef, whose persona, résumé, and brand image (Did you know he was once Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef?!) outstrip his skills in the kitchen. For all his personal pomp-and-circumstance, though, he has earned respect among the Top Chef community for cooking his food in his own distinct way. It’s not high-concept. It’s not fancy. But it’s comforting, soulful, and delicious. And it’s fried. That usually helps.
So for the first and only duel pitting a former Masters competitor against a regular-season competitor, the battleground was always going to be the place each of these chefs called home. But let’s be honest: down-home cooking means different things for each of them. It’s an interesting juxtaposition—the unpretentious newcomer with the high-concept palate versus the bona fide celebrity whose food remains referentially rustic even as his bank account swells beyond his humble beginnings.
Though Kevin is as controlled and no-nonsense as ever, he’s gone whole-hog into his quickfire challenge, forcing Art to sharpen his knives and butcher nine different pork cuts from half a pig. It’s a clever dig at Art, who admits he’s never butchered before—he pays people now to do it for him while he hobnobs with heads-of-state.
NEXT: A butchery battle