CINCINNATI -- Christian Gill is not your typical chef: The 28-year-old Lexington, Kentucky, native with striking blue hair and a big personality is also a singer, sound engineer and bass guitarist, too.
In early February, he beat his culinary peers in Food Fight, a local cooking contest at Maribelle’s eat + drink, adding yet another distinction to his list of accomplishments.
His next big (ad)venture will be taking the culinary helm at Boomtown Biscuit Bar, a restaurant in Pendleton specializing in biscuits and other food items of 19th-century pioneers. The eatery is projected to open in June.
“I’ve always been ambitious,” he said.
‘It was just me and my mom’
Gill grew up an only child.
“It was just me and my mom,” he said. “She was a single mom. She worked multiple jobs and went to school for a degree in communications, media and marketing.”
According to Gill, he was a “super imaginative” kid who did a lot of reading and creative writing. He also was very close to his grandparents, who, along with his mom, were “always there for him.”
They also nurtured his interest in food. “My grandmother, my mom – they cooked all the time,” he said.
His aunts loved cooking, too, so much so they house-hopped over the holidays because everyone wanted to cook. Gill made himself useful in the kitchen and washed dishes at an early age.
“Food is the glue for my family,” he said.
Early love for music, theater
Gill grew up in a Baptist church where his love for music and theater developed early as a member of the children’s choir. When he was in third grade, he was accepted into the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he majored in theater and visual arts from fourth through 10th grades.
He chose to major in theater in college and had been at Northern Kentucky University for only a year when an internship with Disney lured him away.
“I was planning on just a one-semester internship, but I was gone for three-and-a-half years,” he said.
Gill dived into two different internships at Disney World: one in food and beverage and the other in entertainment. He worked in the restaurant kitchens and dining rooms and also performed in musical productions such as “Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue” and “The Lion King” (playing the part of Rafiki). During his time at Disney World, Gill had an epiphany.
“I discovered theater was great, but food was my first passion,” he said. “I’m a little curmudgeonly and I get really intense when I’m in the kitchen. This is what I love to do.”
In 2012, Gill landed in Cincinnati and immediately surveyed the city’s culinary landscape. He initially considered starting a food truck, specializing in waffles of different grains, served with different meats like pulled pork, beef and even shrimp and scallops.
Instead, he landed a job as an event captain at Cincinnati Art Museum and worked his way up to executive chef. Gill has since moved on, but he still continues with his role as the marketing chef at Rhinegeist, where he creates recipes with beer.
Boomtown has familial ties
Launching Boomtown Biscuit Bar will connect him to his grandmother all over again.
“My grandmother passed away last June. It’s hard with Boomtown,” he said, pausing to reflect. “A lot of my concepts were derived from my grandmother’s kitchen.”
As a kid, Gill used to dig into biscuits and gravy at his grandparents’ house. He will re-create Boomtown’s sausage gravy in his grandmother’s tradition: laden with meat and aromatics like garlic, onion and sage. He also will make jams, jellies, preserves and an assortment of compound butter, an endeavor he attributes to his mom’s whimsical ideas.
Gill acknowledged as a young black man, he still experiences nuanced social typecasting. He said he doesn’t neatly fit into any stereotype along racial lines -- and he’s OK with that.
“Be you,” he said, smiling. “Be the person you want to be. It doesn’t matter what other people think.”
Gill invoked another lesson he learned from his mother and grandparents.
“At the end of the day, all you have is your name,” he said. “What you do with your name is what defines you.”
Boomtown Biscuit Bar
1201 Broadway St., Pendleton
Projected opening: June 2017
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.