A real good biscuit recipe can change your life. Just ask Chef Christian Gill.
The culinary force behind Cincinnati’s Boomtown Biscuits & Whiskey has made his mark on the culinary scene by serving up elevated comfort food that – according to him – is a “sloppy, sensual mess of unctuousness.”
Last year brought the pandemic to Boomtown’s doorstep and temporary closure of its doors. It also brought the devastating loss of Boomtown Co-Founder PJ Neumann. Fast forward a year later and there are finally signs of hope, healing and growth; both Boomtown and Christian are thriving with the expansion of a second Boomtown location with an even larger menu. Not to mention Toast Malone – Boomtown’s official biscuit van slinging some transportainment. Yeah, you read that right.
We sat down with Christian for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s delicious creativity. Read the full interview and get to know Christian below:
People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“I find inspiration from travel. It’s not just from experiencing new restaurants, it’s more of the immersive experience – the entire city, the weather, the vibe. It could be the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn or the super chill nature of NorCal in Napa. As a chef who was a musical theater major, the entire experience matters to me and how I draw little bits of inspiration; I hope to inspire others.
One of my favorite places to go is the Smoky Mountains – there’s a lot to be gathered in the mountains and on the trails. When I’m foraging, maybe having a simple conversation with a friend, I’m able to step back and take it all in. It’s that breath of fresh air and reinvigorating environment. It clears my mind. When you get to the Smokys, the humidity changes and you immediately feel this shift of peace and tranquility.
I try to do that with my food – take you away from whatever your reality is for a moment. I make elevated comfort food, it’s food you already know – memories of senses, smells, tastes. At Boomtown, the biscuits are the vehicle for those memories; I trigger something in your head that brings you back to a memory that you loved. I draw from my own family and memories – it’s shareable and it’s very different from a high-brow restaurant, it’s rooted in tradition but still elevated.”
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“In my Grandma’s kitchen. I remember the first time she let me add chili powder to something cooking on the stove. She taught me to season with confidence. I grew up in the country of Kentucky, and I spent a lot of time helping her cook for large events, things like biscuits and dumplings, and helping her wash chitlins. I loved seeing the ingredients go from a raw state to a finished delicious bowl of gold. I learned that if you can feel it, it’s right and you hit a level of confidence in your cooking.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“Creating becomes a habit and reflex. The first thing I do is put myself in the kitchen with the key components of the dish and then I just GO. I don’t write anything down the first time – I do it by feel. Then my staff will try it and based on their feedback, I’ll dial it in.”
How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?
“How I approach plating really depends, but it’s 100% an art. If it’s for Boomtown, there has to be levels of comfort and elements on the plate to draw you in; the dishes are hearty and very ‘from the dirt’ – every position of each ingredient matters. But with every dish, it’s the flavor that comes first and then plating comes second.
At Boomtown it’s ugly delicious. We’re giving you a sloppy, sensual mess of unctuousness. It’s a delicate and direct mess in a cast iron. There are three things I look for: plate, color, and finish. Our finishes or garnishes serve a purpose – they’re utilitarian and functional.”
What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“I didn’t go to culinary school. For me it’s trial by knife, not trial by fire. Don’t be afraid to humble yourself to the technique, there will always be someone who can do it better and quicker. We’re all different and bring our own things to the table. Do not be afraid to humble yourself.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“Oh man. By isolating the sense memories I have, and looking at specific ingredients I may not have a memory for or haven’t used before, those are the ones I f*ck with. It gets me in trouble sometimes (laughs), sometimes people don’t want grapes with fresno peppers. But again, I’m humbling myself to the technique.
The biggest way we get to get creative at Boomtown are the jellies, preserves and compound butters. We also make our own kimchis. That’s on brand for us: on the frontier they didn’t have sh*t, and it was and is still all about cross utilization. I will ring every ounce of flavor out of an apple that I can.”
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“Yeah. I feel competitive. I was told in one of the first shows I competed in that you’re not playing against everyone else necessarily – you’re playing against yourself. Whether it’s who has the best kimchi or who has the best process. Can I do my best to defeat myself? But at the end of the day, the competition is friendly.
Everyone is in their own lane. And then I look at things like The Gray, and what Chef Mashama Bailey is doing there is phenomenal. It’s the best meticulous southern food I’ve ever had. But there is now a string of African American chefs receiving recognition that was previously only available to white male chefs – when that’s happening you set aside the competition.”
How do you see restaurants operating in 2022?
“I feel like it’s cliche to say, but I’d say restaurants will be operating very carefully. Now there’s a wider array of price points – from super unstable revenue to produce and beef costs – the unstable nature of vendors as we recover and recoup from Covid will have restaurants operating cautiously based on the current state. I’ve been cautiously optimistic. This past year, I had to take the key components of the Boomtown brand and decide if labor was worth going under for. After crying for a week, I switched to a drop biscuit, which presents itself in a different texture. It was hard, it was a cautious decision I had to make and if I didn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to open back up.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“MSG! Because it’s literally a flavor enhancer! We dive so deep into the fact that MSG is not what people think it is, and that bad rap is based in systemic racism to a T. But MSG is my favorite – it’s a Jedi lightsaber of umami. It thrives in savory dishes, but you can put it into sweet things, as well. The same way that I feel like I’m a support structure for my staff and a backbone to make sure they have what they need – MSG is that backbone you don’t know you need.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?
“Letting ancient grains and stone-ground grains rest in the process of cooking. Turn the burner off, seal them tightly, and let them rest. Turn off the heat, and let those grains rest like a very nice piece of steak. Stop rushing it in order to achieve big grit energy.”
What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?
“To be Grandma. The way my Grandma was to me and neighborhood kids, classmates, being that wizened soul that doesn’t have to say a lot, but where people come to heal. You’re doing your best to hire from the community and show them that they can do more than they imagined. You’re providing more benefits for your staff, and sometimes it’s you taking the backseat. You’re actually sharing recipes with people and chefs who want to better their food. As a chef, we want our food to exist beyond us – so share! Be the Grandma.”
What would you consider a defining trait of the Cincinnati food scene and chef community?
“The cohesive industry we have here in Cincinnati, it exists beyond just social media and having chefs of all facets promoting others stuff. We’re constantly supporting each other – and that was before COVID, and there’s just not a lot of room for cattiness. We want the passion for the food of this city to come through.”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“Drunken noodles are my ultimate comfort food. I’ve been on Whole30 and Spiceology saved the day. I’ve been messing around creating and picking flavors I’ve never had before and it kept me driven and inspired. For my drunken noodles I make zucchini noodles and – fun fact – fish sauce is Whole30. Also, now I don’t want people to yell at me, “THAT’S NOT WHOLE30!”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“My dirty rice. I use livers in it and we get all nice and dirty. From the level of spice and heat and type of rice – there’s a thought process put into every single ingredient – from the dice to the flavor complexity. Again, it’s about seasoning with confidence.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Dried thyme. People sleep on thyme since it’s considered one of the classics, but it exists in a lot more things than people realize. There’s this great bite on the finish, and you can push the boundaries of the herbaceous experience with thyme, especially when you pair it with citrus.
Also, I’m adding long pepper. It’s hard to find but far superior to black pepper in depth of flavor thanks to the smoke and the roasted notes. Also it’s milder in bite.
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Cincinnati?
“For breakfast I’d say The Governor. It’s pretty slick and they know their way around a pot. But I’m also partial to Uncle Yips – they have dim sum brunch on the weekend and the carts come out. We don’t have a huge amount of traditional Asian street food in the area, and it’s a great time.”
Go to Goose & Elder for lunch. Chef Jose Salazar is a good friend of mine and he’s making baller food. He’s sticking it to the greasy burger concept – be sure to order either the burger, fried bologna or the duck.
Dinner… this is a tough one! Sotto is a rustic Italian restaurant that has a really fun and chill immersive experience from the food to drinks and service. Like many restaurants in Cincinnati, they’re providing an entire brand experience. It’s a super immersive, friendly, welcoming and high-end Italian restaurant . And if they have the gnocchi in red sauce – get it. This might sound weird but it reminds me of the school cafeteria pizza and I just love it.
I’ll also say Losanti – a fairly new restaurant from Chef Anthony Sitek. It’s a steakhouse, but approachable with a lot of scratch pasta. Oh and their butter cake? Whooo. I never before wanted to eat the residual pool of butter from said butter cake…”