Winston Blick taught me how to make bacon. Well, okay, Michael Ruhlman did in the New York Times, but whatever. Even though at the time we had never met, Winston sold me the pork, spent a few minutes with me giving me tips and made me feel like I was ready to tackle yet another home cooking project. And I was so thankful for it. I had heard about Winston, eaten at his restaurants, but it wasn’t until the day I bought pork belly at the Green Onion on Harford Road did I actually meet the guy. What a nice guy.
Winston grew up in Anne Arundel County and both sides of his family were watermen from around Shady Side. The Wolford side focused on oysters, the Avery side on pretty much everything that came out of the water, fish, shellfish, etc. That stuck with him.
At 24, Winston got the city bug. His friends had been moving to Baltimore and he wanted to be with the cool kids. The punk rock music scene was happening and, well, it seemed like a lot of fun. Of course, after moving to the city, Winston needed a job. “You know, so I could afford my cool lifestyle,” laughs Blick.
He got a job washing dishes at McCafferty’s in Mt. Washington, the now closed steak house owned by Don McCafferty of the Baltimore Colts. He was a hard worker and moved up the line quickly. He learned the basics of cooking, knife skills, and more. Then he moved onto One World Cafe in Tuscany-Canterbury where he cooked, and one day sliced his hand open severing two tendons. Other than injuring himself every so often, he was pretty happy.
“I liked being in charge of myself. And what I do now is really not that much different. I am just better at it all and use better ingredients, better sourcing. I liked to make what I wanted to eat. That was pretty great.” Winston expanded on that, “You know, cooking is very intuitive. Chefs right out of culinary school can do well with intuition and drive, but you need to understand flavors. That’s a huge part of it, too.”
Then, a few years late, Cristin Dadant enters the picture…Winston’s wife, partner, manager and doer of many super important things that no one really sees. Winston had been cooking at Sobo Cafe in Federal Hill, where he would stay for 10 years, and Cristin was waiting tables at Sobo, along with Chameleon Cafe (which is now Maggie’s Farm) and Brewer’s Art and they had known each other for a while.
They dated and then got pretty serious, moved in together, eventually moving up to the north part of the city that often happens when you have little kids. Winston and I both joked that when people in Baltimore have kids, they immediately MUST MOVE NORTH. (Not always, of course…) We were cracking up, like you know, “It’s the law in Baltimore!” But really, Cristin was in nesting mode and just wanted more room for their son Zeke and living up in Hamilton just was a good fit for them. By 2007 they were officially Hamilton residents.
Since catering was something they did a lot of, they were looking for a space to expand. They kept walking by the Clementine space on Harford Road, thinking it was great. Great light, small space, they loved it. It had been a soul food cafe and they loved the space. (One side note, the entire interior was covered in mirrors. Mirrors everywhere.) They bought the place and really thought they’d cater out of it, but it just made more sense to make the space a restaurant. The first night they opened, they had a line out the door and got national press and that was kind of mind blowing to them. Packed every night, the restaurant had Winston and Cristin working their tails off while their Moms took care of little Zeke most evenings. “Family is very, very important to me. Zeke is a good, decent kid because of his upbringing and being around family,” he says. (Love that.)
Was food a big part of your upbringing? Did you cook when you were a kid?
WB: I didn’t cook a lot but food was huge. I was raised by a single mother and she was pretty creative with simple, inexpensive ingredients. We lived near my grandparents and spent a ton of time with them. My grandfather and uncle owned some property in Trappe, Maryland and we hunted there and we ate everything we hunted. They also had a huge vegetable garden – I mean HUGE. Dinners were around a very large table filled with bowls and bowls of good food. We did lots of canning and pickling, too.
Lots of kids get to choose their meal on their birthday…anything they want (to a point, I suppose…) What would your birthday meal be now? What was it when you were a kid?
WB: Can I call my mom? (Ha, I told him that Bryan Voltaggio actually DID call his mom during our interview to ask her…)
As a kid, it would have a whole day of special favorites. French toast for breakfast. And my mom would pack me a really cool lunch – you know, not the usual PB&J. Then dinner would be something hearty like venison and mashed potatoes. So good. Now? I like to go out and have steamed crabs. We go to Costa’s – we love it there. Sometimes, sushi. When I go out, I like to eat things I don’t usually make. But really, crabs are my favorite.
How did you choose your location? I know it’s sometimes hard to get people to Hamilton even though it’s not far away. Were you at all hesitant?
WB: Hesitant? Yes. We live in Lauraville and it’s such a great community. Being here just feels right to us. It feels good to be investing in our community. One thing was clear from the start, it had to be family-friendly, but not sort of dumbed down kid food. No way. We also wanted a place that our friends and neighbors could afford and was also really good. Good food, good ingredients. We knew it was a risk and that we’d have to work really, really hard, but we wanted to be in Hamilton.
You do quite a bit of catering. What kinds of events do you like to do best? What’s your niche there? I remember that cake you did at Susannah Siger’s (Ma Petite Shoe) that was simply stacked wheels of cheese…I will never forget that cake!
WB: Well, first, it was Susannah and Amanda’s idea to do that cake, but yeah, that’s kind of our thing – a little bit different. When I really think about it, we pride ourselves on being able to do anything anywhere. Middle of a field on a horse farm? Done. On an island? Done. Also, we’ve done a lot of same-sex weddings and we are so proud of that. It’s really humbling to know that we are a part of someone’s big day that a few years ago wasn’t even legal. We’re part of history. That’s pretty great, you know?
What food trend can you absolutely not stand?
WB: Not really, I think of it this way: lots of food trends make us think and eat differently. Whether it’s roasting fries using duck fat, breaking down pig parts into charcuterie or making Korean-inspired dishes like tacos and kimchi, I’m into it. More people are eating adventurously nowadays. I think that’s cool.
What do you like about Baltimore?
WB: It’s home. The community of people here. And the food scene is just blowing up. So many talented folks here. It’s neat that we’re competing with other cities now, that’s why Food Network keeps coming back. People like Bryan Voltaggio certainly wouldn’t have opened up places here even just five years ago. It’s great.
What do you love about food?
WB: Well, it makes me really happy. (laughs) I love that it reminds me of things and people. For me, its never been just fuel. I don’t like to eat on the run.
How do you balance home and work? Your son is young – that can’t be easy.
WB: I am super lucky that our chef Matt (Singer) is an incredibly competent, easy going dude. I don’t have to be here all the time. I spend a lot of time with Zeke. I grew up without a father and I don’t want Zeke to have anything like that. I am very present. Cristin and I live and work together and we’re kind of like orbiting planets. We do talk about trying to do things on our own as a couple, but it just doesn’t happen very often. She honestly works harder than anyone I know.
Do you have time to watch any food TV? If so, are there any celebrity chefs you’d like to work with?
WB: Not much food TV happening at our house. This is gonna sounds nuts, but I have to say that Guy Fieri is a really genuinely nice guy. That’s something that’s always bothered me – people love to hate him, but he’s not a jerk. At all. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is a fun show to watch. While Clementine is not any of those three things, it’s cool to watch and see the people he meets and what they’re doing. You think, I wanna go there! That’s good stuff.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the city? Where do you take Cristin for those elusive date nights?
WB: The Helmand comes to mind immediately. It is the most consistent place we’ve ever eaten. Also (laughs), it’s ethnic but not too weird to take your mom, you know?! But like a lot of chefs, we don’t get out that much. I also want to eat more of my Exec Chef Matt’s food. He’s so talented. Even now – all these years later – I’m excited to eat at Clem. Also, I’m dying to get to Bottega. And, yeah, Parts & Labor. George Marsh is a bad ass chef.
Okay, obligatory…when you cook at home, what do you like to make? Do you cook with Zeke? Do you have a favorite “go to” meal?
WB: Go to meal? Does RoFo fried chicken count? (Me: Um, yes.) Yeah, we love to get Royal Farms fried chicken. Get the chicken fingers – they are amazing! We always hide the trash from Cristin… As for cooking, we tend to get sick of the same thing over and over. We try to do lots of fish, curry-ish style (coconut milk, onions, garlic, tomato…) and Zeke really loves meat. We’ll do a simple seared hanger steak with broccoli and mashed potatoes. I could eat that everyday.
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