As Billy Zoellin strides into the dining room of his new midtown restaurant, Bacon and Butter, his pride is palpable. Zoellin is young— just 28. But with a killer résumé, including turns at Biba, Selland’s Market-Cafe, Mulvaney’s Building & Loan and The Golden Bear, where he served as executive chef, he was readier than ready to take the reins of his own restaurant. “I think it was really at Mulvaney’s where I learned how to take ownership of a kitchen, almost—how to make it efficient while making good food,” Zoellin says. At Bacon and Butter, where he currently is serving up breakfast and lunch only, the emphasis is on hearty, homespun fare using fresh, sustainable ingredients. “We change the menu frequently and use whatever’s fresh,” says the Sacramento native. “We hand-make everything. Except the bacon.” Sporting a close-cropped reddish-brown beard and a trim physique, Zoellin has a gleam in his eye as he talks about his new venture and “that bright, shiny road ahead.” Here are a few snippets from our chat.
IT ALL STARTED WITH GRANDMA. Zoellin grew up in a food-friendly household, but he credits his grandmother for lighting his culinary fire. “She had a catering company in Grass Valley, and she gave me my first job when I was 10, paying me to be her Johnny-on-the-spot,” recalls Zoellin. “I’d do anything to earn that money: putting parsley on platters, filling water pitchers, rolling silverware into napkins.” As he got older, cooking was “very easy for me to get into. I had to eat, and as I got older I had to cook for myself.”
HE AIMED HIGH. Zoellin never wasted time on amateur hour. His very first cooking job found him under the guidance of one of Sacramento’s most illustrious chefs, Randall Selland. “I bounced back and forth from Selland’s to The Kitchen and got some fine-dining experience there,” he says. For a time, he lived large as a cook for an American Le Mans racecar team, making big money and seeing the world. “We would work 10 weeks out of the year and make enough money to travel the rest of the year,” Zoellin says. And though he was “just” a server at the time, he still speaks glowingly of his early days at Biba. “Landing a job there was like hitting the lottery,” says Zoellin. “I would shell fava beans just to hang out in the kitchen.”
BEING COMPETITIVE HELPS. Sports are a big part of Zoellin’s life. He played baseball for 17 years, from Little League to junior college. Despite his crazy schedule, he continues to coach. “When you do something as competitive as a sport, where you’re on your feet all the time, it’s easier to transition into this kind of work, with its long hours,” he says.
THE NAME DOESN’T SAY IT ALL. OK, so the restaurant uses 100 pounds of bacon a week. Nonetheless, Zoellin wants you to forget any preconceived notions you may have about what’s on the menu. “People come in here expecting everything to be done with bacon and butter,” he says. “But we also support people who don’t eat bacon. We support special requests—vegan, gluten-free.” Indeed, you will find a few vegetarian items on the menu, such as an avocado and mushroom sandwich along with oatmeal, muesli and fresh fruit. But I’ll tell you what: If I visit B&B, it’ll be for the breakfast burger with bacon and brie or fried green tomato BLT