Despite his affable manner, Winston Blick is worried. The chef/owner of Clementine restaurant in Hamilton and the recently opened Green Onion market and Clementine at the Creative Alliance is once again trying to make payroll. “We’re struggling,” he admits. “If I hadn’t done half of the dumb-ass things I did, we’d be successful.” But Blick has never done things the easy way. He dropped out of high school (later getting his GED), married and divorced young, and started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher. “I was really bad,” he says, sitting on a comfy black-leather couch at the original Clementine he opened with his second wife, Cristin Dadant, in 2008. But, wait, was he really a troublemaker?
Blick, 44, a hulk of a man with a Father Time red beard and gentle blue eyes, is self-effacing to a fault. When he talks about growing up, he’s like a wistful kid, sharing stories about his single mom raising him and the grandparents he adored. He so admired his grandfather that one of his colorful tattoos—and he has quite a few—is an homage to him with symbols like a handsaw and an apple tree.
When Blick thinks about it, that’s where his appreciation of food began—at his mother and grandmother’s tables in Anne Arundel County, where he was raised. “It’s where I began developing ideas about Southern food,” he says. “An early food was fried chicken. We’d eat mashed potatoes, grits, stewed tomatoes, and pickled things.”
Until he was in his mid-20s, he had no idea he’d end up cooking for a living. The stint washing pots spurred him to bigger dreams. He remembers thinking, “This is not cool, and you don’t get paid well. I want to be over there with the cooks.”
And soon he was—not that it was glamorous. In the beginning, he was the guy making 50 pounds of mashed potatoes each day and monotonously slicing discs of zucchini. They had to be uniformly cut or “I’d have to start over,” he says. “I’d get yelled at all the time.”
But he was determined, learning the trade from seasoned chefs at the respected McCafferty’s in Mt. Washington. He also bought La Varenne Pratique, a comprehensive culinary reference book, following it as closely as he did his favorite punk-rock bands of the time.
Blick came up in the professional kitchen world when “it was a very masculine brigade,” he says. “It was alpha males only. It only works for young men. It doesn’t work with Jill.”
Jill is Jill Snyder, the new head chef at Clementine. She brings a solid resume to the kitchen with stints at Red Maple and Woodberry Kitchen. She also was a 2008 contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef, making Baltimore proud even though she had to pack up her knives in the season’s second episode.
Now, she’s carving out her own territory at Clementine, using whatever local products come her way. “I try to source as best I can,” she says. “I change [the menu] every day.”
Snyder is appreciative of the opportunity she’s been given by Blick. “He put it in my hands,” she says of running the kitchen. “It makes me want to do the best job possible.”
Until earlier this year, Blick had been the top guy in his kitchen, turning out Southern comfort foods and his well-known charcuterie. As he opened the Green Onion market in Hamilton—where he sells many local products including foods made at Clementine—and a second Clementine in Highlandtown last year, he realized he needed to concentrate on the business end of running his food operations.
“I was too pulled,” he says of his increasing responsibilities. “I wasn’t running the kitchen well. . . . For my family, I had to be a good business manager.”
Blick met Dadant 18 years ago through a friend. They would often run into each other socially over the years. Then, eight years ago, they ended up sitting next to each other at the Mt. Royal Tavern and had an “aha” moment, Blick says. They’ve been together ever since.
Today, they live in Lauraville with their 7-year-old son Zeke. When they moved into their circa 1915 Sears Roebuck cottage, they had no idea they’d be running a restaurant on nearby Harford Road. Blick was ready to be on his own after working at Sobo Cafe, but he wasn’t sure what the next step would be in his career.
In one of those twists of fate, Blick and Dadant stumbled on Big Boy’s Soul Food while taking a walk around the neighborhood. It was empty. The tenants had vacated the storefront, and soon the couple had their very own place with 43 seats. It was an immediate success.
“The first evening we opened, a soft opening, there was a line around the corner,” Blick recalls. “It was really flattering.”
They soon expanded into the space next door, adding more tables, a bar, and a charcuterie room, where Blick hangs all manner of pig parts. These are from organic, humanely raised animals he knows, raised on Baltimore County farms where he has formed a partnership with two local farmers—Bobby Prigel of Bellevale Farm in Glen Arm and Stephen Belkoff, also a Johns Hopkins University researcher, of Forever Endeavor in Baldwin.
Their enterprise, Genuine Food Company, supplies Blick’s meats. “It’s economical,” Blick says. “It guarantees [the farmers] a price higher than at auction.”
Blick has a butcher—James Wilson, who honed his skill at Ceriello Fine Foods in Belvedere Square—on staff at the restaurant to break down the animals. Blick also participates in cutting up the carcasses.
And he still gets into the kitchen to make his flavorful pâtés, although he acknowledges he takes liberties with his ingredients, substituting bourbon and whiskey for brandy and using bacon. “I really Americanize it,” he says.
But he admits he’s having a hard time transitioning from chef to business manager. “I don’t know what my role is yet,” he says, honestly. “It’s weird that I don’t create everything anymore.”
He has another chef, Jeremy Price, in place at Clementine at the Creative Alliance, a cozy 49-seater. Price was head chef at the Hamilton Clementine.
Blick’s days are long enough, starting at 7 a.m. and going nonstop through 8 p.m., only to then go home and work on catering estimates.
His mother, Winifred Zeigler, lives with the family part-time when she’s not at her home in Williamsport, PA, helping out with Zeke and baking some of the delicious cakes featured at Clementine. The fluffy coconut yellow cake is a particular restaurant favorite.
The restaurateur is close to his mother. “I didn’t have a dad,” says Blick, whose father was not part of his life. “My mom worked two or three jobs. She was pretty amazing.”
He forms friendships easily. After opening Clementine, it didn’t take long before he bonded with Rich Marsiglia, president of the Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street organization, a group dedicated to making the communities a shopping-and-dining destination. Marsiglia is also a Harford Road mainstay as owner of the longtime Hamilton Vacuum and Janitorial Supply.
Unbeknownst to each, both men were interested in having a small boutique food market in Hamilton. “I always had the idea of a market in some shape or form,” Blick says. “We make so many things. Why not sell them?”
For Marsiglia’s part, he was thinking about the needs of the area. “I was looking at the trends,” he says. “What’s happening near Hamilton is food. We’re known as a little food corridor.”
He also owned the corner building, a block from Clementine, which became the Green Onion. Blick and Marsiglia unveiled the market on May 17, 2012. “There’s something about a little grocery store, a restaurant,” Blick says of the neighborhood’s renaissance. “It’s almost like I’ve been searching for this ideal my whole life, and Rich is a big part of it.”
Business at the Green Onion is good on weekends, the men say. It’s slow on weekdays. They plan to step up their marketing efforts with advertising, Twitter, and Facebook.
In the meantime, Blick continues to search for local products to add to an inventory that includes Andy’s Eggs from Fallston, Prigel Family Creamery ice cream and milk, Cedar Hill Farm cheeses, Kinderhook snacks, canned products from Tony Fetters Fruit Farm in Pennsylvania and One Straw Farm in White Hall, and so much more.
As he gives a tour of the store recently, his iPhone never stops alerting him to calls and texts. He doesn’t forget that the livelihoods of his staff at both Clementine restaurants and the Green Onion depend on him. He feels responsible. And it hasn’t been a smooth path.
“We had a series of tragedies,” he says. He developed double pneumonia last year, slowing him down. Then, the derecho storm hit in late June. He’s still trying to recover from the damages. The restaurant had no power for three days, resulting in a loss of food and revenue. “We lost weekend sales of $15,000-20,000,” he says. “It almost did us in.”
The restaurant’s kitchen ceiling also collapsed, causing another financial burden. It was a bleak time as Blick tried to keep his enterprises going. “We have a very high payroll. Everyone’s a craftsman,” he says. “It was very emotional.”
As he struggles to regain his footing on the cusp of Clementine’s fifth anniversary, he is very sure of one thing:
“My philosophy is teaching people about food and connecting people with food. I think it’s neat,” he says. “I think what we’re doing is important.”