A few weekends ago, I happened to see a Tweet about Chef Kevin Gillespie (of Woodfire Grill and Top Chef fame) doing a cooking demo with okra at the Morningside Farmers Market. Since my husband is ALWAYS trying to get me to cook more okra, and since we are both fans of the show, we decided to walk the puppy down to the market and see what the chef had to teach us (read: me).
The seating area was already pretty crowded when we arrived, but it wasn’t the madhouse I expected. Before beginning the demonstration, Chef Kevin meandered about the market, picking up his ingredients and chatting with the different vendors. He really seems as affable and gregarious in person as he does on television.
After being introduced, Chef Kevin launched into his demo. He talked about okra’s roots in various cuisines, and reinforced that it’s more than just something to fry or throw in a stew. He was extremely focused on the food that he was preparing, but he was simultaneously quite engaged with his audience. He dished out tips about shopping for and prepping the ingredients. He told an adorable story about how he still uses his granny’s recipe for grits. He took questions, even when they were the annoying TC inquiries that he contractually couldn’t answer. One interesting question was whether he would have preferred to cook for the French chefs (rather than eat with them, an honor he earned by winning the escargot quickfire challenge). The answer was an emphatic YES, since those chefs heavily influenced his cooking and his career, and he wanted to show them what he could do (he also did not enjoy hearing the harsh critiques of his fellow contestants’ dishes).
While he is clearly very knowledgeable, Chef Kevin isn’t afraid to fess up when he isn’t sure about something; I asked him if he had any tips on freezing okra (since I love using it in soups, but it is not a cold-weather plant), and he looked up quizically and said, “You know, I have no idea!” He then told me to try it out and then give him a call to let him know how it worked out.
After he was finished cooking, Chef Kevin passed out samples of his dish. It was absolutely delicious, almost surprisingly so when you take into account the fact that he was working on a fold-out table with a Coleman camping burner. I suppose his ability to make fabulous food in less-than-ideal circumstances is one of the reasons he is still wowing the judges on Top Chef. Jason insisted that I try to recreate the dish for dinner the following night, so I bought all the ingredients and gave it my best shot. It came reeeeeeally close, but it just seemed like it was a little off somehow. I just think it was missing the spark and charm that Chef Kevin Gillespie brings to his food.
Here is a slightly edited version of Chef Kevin’s recipe. Enjoy!
“Sauteed okra with grits and chili tomato sauce”
Brown the bacon in a large skillet until most of the fat has been removed. Add the onion, sweet pepper, and garlic to the pan and allow to soften over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add tomato, orange zest, fennel pollen, and a pinch of salt. Add the chili oil (note: there was never an amount given, but this is an oil-based sauce and the chili flavor is imperative, so don’t be stingy). Allow the mixture to lightly fry in the fat until the sugars begin to lightly caramelize. Remove from heat, re-season and hold until ready.
Coat a heavy skillet with olive oil; over high heat, quickly sauté the okra until a deep color is achieved. Season and spoon over grits (prepared according to that brand’s directions). Top with tomato sauce.