This story originally appeared in the March 10 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.
If Christian Gill looks familiar, it’s because the telegenic and colorful haired chef/restaurateur has appeared on a myriad of competition Food Network and Netflix shows. Between 2017 and 2022, he appeared on Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge (he won), and Snack vs. Chef.
The “Guy” in Guy’s Grocery Games is none other than Guy Fieri.
“He’s a happy-go-lucky scamp,” Gill said.
Gill’s favorite show to compete on was Beat Bobby Flay.
“I’ve never competed in a 20-minute, four-plate round on any other show,” he said. “That was the hardest in the context of speed-cooking to advance.”
For him, he enjoys the “chaos of being on set.”
“It’s my personal football game of sorts, complete with audibles, penalties, and color commentary from producers, hosts, and judges,” Gill said.”
In September 2022, Gill participated in The Kroger Wellness Festival in Cincinnati, featuring Chrissy Teigan.
“She was a delight to be around for the short period of time I spent with her,” he said.
One may think all of this media attention and mingling with A-listers and influencers would go to Gill’s head, but he comes from a non-celebrity, humble beginning. He grew up in Lexington, and learned to cook at an early age from his mom and grandmother. He knew even then that he wanted to be a chef.
“They taught me the fundamentals of seasoning and being respectful to the food I had and prepared,” he said about his family. “We grew up poor and had to eat what was grown or could be afforded … I loved international cuisine from a young age and being open to eating everything. I loved the drama that comes with watching someone eat things you create and seeing what they like and dislike about food.”
His favorite kinds of food to cook are Creole and Thai, and “everything in the realm of those two cuisines that is reinforced by umami, spice, and depth of flavor.”
In 2012, after a stint working at Orlando’s Walt Disney World, Gill moved to Cincinnati. He worked as executive chef at the Cincinnati Art Museum. He curated Rhinegeist Brewery’s chef recipes. But in 2018 he and P.J. Neumann opened their first restaurant, Boomtown Biscuits and Whiskey, in Pendleton.
Described as “frontier food,” the menu featured biscuits, gravy and goetta, and chicken and waffles. In 2020, Neumann died. In July 2021, Gill opened a second location in Union, Kentucky. A year later, he permanently closed the Pendleton location. The following year, Gill left Boomtown. Though he didn’t want to discuss his departure from the restaurants, he said someday he’d like to open another one.
“I am interested in owning another restaurant, but it is not a great time to open another restaurant,” he said. “I don’t know that I would without a passionate team of individuals willing to invest in sumptuous wages and benefits for staff, immersive design, a work-life balance for staff, and menus crafted for flavor and consistency instead of what is trending.”
These days, he works and lives in a studio in Northern Kentucky. On Feb. 20, he and fellow Food Network winner and Arnold’s chef Kayla Robison took over the reins of charity event Food Fight 513 from founders Leigh Enderle and Chef Mike Florea. For the first time in the event’s 10-year history, men and women contestants were equally represented.
“It just goes to show that we are, as an industry, moving more toward 50-50 when it comes to the kitchens,” Robison said.
Gill said Food Fight is when the industry “gets to breathe,”by coming together to share food, catch up with fellow foodies. He said it’s “an essential event for essential people” who often don’t take a break from their passion.
“Christian and I felt well-equipped to be able to handle such a big industry event.” Robison said. “Overall, it was the most humbling, honoring experience.”
Robison met Gill several years ago at a Food Fight, and while she was chef at Nation in Pendleton, Gill opened Boomtown across the street. He encouraged her to participate in competition shows like Chopped, which she won in 2022. Robinson said it’s best to “just be yourself” under the studio lights.
“Christian definitely instilled that in the sense of just show up with what you would do because that’s why you’re there in the first place,” she said.
Currently, they’re planning another Food Fight for the fall.
Though the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky food scene is becoming more diverse and award-winning — four chefs in Cincinnati have made the semi-finals of the coveted James Beard awards — Gill would like people to patronize Black-owned businesses more often, and for more minorities to receive funding and opportunities.
“I’m less likely to be given an opportunity to open a concept that is new and in uncharted waters versus a stalwart chef who happens to be white,” Gill said. “I was given a chance to co-found and open a restaurant in Cincy, but those are few and far between. The safer bet for investors is someone familiar, with a built-in audience and multiple concepts that are open and successful versus an untested chef of color with a fantastic idea.”
He said that the industry is still reeling from the pandemic.
“Food costs are extremely high,” Gill said. “Landlords aren’t receiving federal aid anymore, which means tenants are receiving fewer leniencies than during the pandemic. People are out and spending, sure, but we are unable to truly charge what we should in most instances, because the perceived value versus hard margin equation doesn’t play in our favor.”
He said they cater to the patron “because that is the name of the game in the service industry,” but he would like to see more customers deliberately seek out and support women-owned and Black-owned businesses.
Roughly 41% of restaurants in Kentucky are women-owned, and 5% of restaurants are Black- or African-American-owned, according to a 2022 report from the National Restaurant Association.
“You want more Black-owned restaurants? Support them when they open. Support them after the opening honeymoon. Support them through the hard times. Give more people of color the opportunity to have this conversation and the chance to be the main character in your narrative,” he said.
Gill quickly added he feels gratitude for the opportunities the region has given him.
“Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “If more people with wealth and a voice took a chance on people of color with ambition, vast work ethic, drive, talent, and a dream, then you would see more Black- and women-owned restaurants here.”
He’d also like to remind people that Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati are a part of the same food scene, despite a river separating the states.
“The food scene right across the river might as well be Cincy South,” he said. “Cincinnatians are Southerners in denial as this is the last bastion of sweet tea north of the Mason Dixon Line. I love to see what my peers in Northern Kentucky are doing: Rich’s Proper, Bouquet, Frida 602, Siam Orchid, The Baker’s Table, Kung Food AmerAsia, La Mexicana, Midway Cafe, and so many more are all worth the trip over the river into the South. They throw down just as hard as the prominent titans in Cincy proper.”
Gill has had a rather successful career, but he’s not afraid to talk about his failures. Sometimes he goes to culinary schools like Scarlet Oaks Culinary campus and talks to kids.
“I honestly teach kids about failure and persistence when I go speak and do demos at schools,” he said. “I talk at length about my failures and how I haven’t coped well with them. I try to inspire with a creative demo highlighting flavor composition and simplicity, but I keep it real with them. There are more pitfalls than successes. But finding the value in those successes outweighs the negativity that surrounds the pitfalls.”
In the meantime, Gill will continue to find more successes and more failures. Maybe he’ll win another Food Network competition. Maybe he’ll open another restaurant. But when asked about his future goals, he kept it intriguing.
“You’ll have to sit back and tune in.”