Zach Gill, General Manager of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, VA, keeps his watch on military time, and keeps everything else running with precision at the popular Arlington, Virginia hotspot. A native of Massachusetts, Gill joined the U.S. Army after high school, serving in Germany and upstate New York, and attaining the rank of sergeant by the time he retired eight years later. He specialized as a helicopter mechanic, but during a tour in Iraq he developed an interest in cooking, too – by necessity.
“There was plenty of food, it was just all in cans,” explains Gill. When he was growing up, his single mother had instilled higher standards than that, and whatever was going on, she always got a good home-cooked meal on the table. They also did lots of baking together, especially pies. “But over there, if you wanted to eat well, you had to develop some real culinary creativity,” says Gill. That creativity became his motivation for his next career: leaving the army, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America [CIA,] where he earned degrees in both Baking and Pastry and Hospitality Management, completing the program in an accelerated three years.
At a job fair at the CIA shortly before graduation, a Washington-based corporate restaurant headhunter connected Gill to someone who, in turn, put him in touch with David Guas, the chef and proprietor of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery, and an accomplished pastry chef, himself. Gill was just the manager Guas needed, possessing a perfect combination of leadership skill and culinary strength. He came to be manager in June 2014, a move perfectly timed to allow Guas to concentrate on the development of his second Bayou Bakery venue, in a historic site on Washington's Capitol Hill. Gill and his young family moved to nearby Alexandria, Virginia. “The DC area makes me feel like I am really home. I love that there’s such a prosperous dining scene, and a strong military presence. And, hey: it’s the capital of the United States!” says Gill of his new town.
For a few months in his military days, Gill was stationed at Fort Polk in western Louisiana, where a good buddy's father, a local, would have them home for crawfish boils. That was Gill's first soulful immersion in to the culture and cooking he has fully embraced, managing the Arlington, Virginia source of down-home southern goodness. It took the talented newcomer no time at all to translate that compelling experience to his new reality. “You soon start to feel you are actually from those parts, as you realize you're talking with a southern drawl, and saying ‘prah-leenz’ like a native!” He reveals a personal weakness for Chicken Sauce Piquante, an occasional “Chew Dat” special.
Gill is truly in his element managing the efficient operation that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and countless coffees to the patrons of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery. He shares responsibility for ordering [up to 35 pounds of Alan Benton's bacon a day, and 100 pounds of Counter Culture Coffee!] and managing staff, and Gill enjoys filling in in any capacity -- coffee service, manning the register, cooking on the line, in the back kitchen or helping out with pastry, where that particular skill of his comes in handy. “I love being a part of everything here,” he says, “there’s never a dull moment, and there's real freedom in not being tied to any one task.” He also appreciates the community of customers he sees and serves every day at Bayou Bakery, the many regulars, the fresh faces, and even the farmers market vendors who come over for breakfast after closing down in the adjacent square. He describes what he does as "the perfect job" -- a good thing, as he's at it up to 60 hours per week. At home, meanwhile, he still finds time to cook for his wife and young son every day. “It's part of my meditation…” he explains with a smile.