New chef shakes things up at Elk Creek Cafe

Elk Creek Cafe’s new head chef Winston Blick talks on Nov. 15 about his experiences, the transition to Millhiem and joining a staff of talented cooks.
Elk Creek Cafe’s new head chef Winston Blick talks on Nov. 15 about his experiences, the transition to Millhiem and joining a staff of talented cooks. adrey@centredaily.com

Searching job websites on a whim one day, an opening at Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks caught Winston Blick’s eye, but he hit a snag when it was time to upload a resume.

That’s because the chef, who has appeared multiple times on the Food Network and has received numerous accolades for his cooking, has never had one. And with no culinary college behind him — he’s self-taught, having started in the kitchen as a dishwasher — he wasn’t exactly sure what to include.

“I said, ‘I don’t have a resume, but this is my philosophy on food,’ ” Blick said.

A few months later, the 49-year-old is sitting in the empty Elk Creek dining room on a break from preparing for the next dinner shift. He’s about 160 miles from Baltimore, his former home where he owned and operated the acclaimed restaurant Clementine for more than eight years, but in terms of environment, he might as well be on another planet.

“This is a very unique thing,” Blick said. “This is a renowned place that happens to be in a town of 800.”

Back in Baltimore, Blick had heard about Elk Creek from a friend. Once he arrived, he learned that the mainstays of the brewpub — fries, burgers — really were that good.

“We’re not changing anything,” he said. “We’re adding and growing.”

That means the local foods and farm-to-table approach that Elk Creek has always taken is not going anywhere. Actually, Blick hopes to expand the effort, and Elk Creek manager Amy Seaton said the way he has been able to use those local ingredients has made a difference the diners can taste. He’s using the same meat, for example, but treating it in a different way.

“I think it’s just a fresh take on what we’ve already been doing and enhancing what we’re already doing,” Seaton said. “He’s got a great palate and he’s energized the kitchen.”

Elk Creek owner Tim Bowser said he was initially wowed by Blick’s background and qualifications, and now that he’s on board, the community response has been resoundingly positive.

“It just seemed like it was a perfect fit,” he said.

Blick grew up on (and in) the Chesapeake Bay, so seafood and influences from that region are expected to make an appearance at Elk Creek. During a late October specialty dinner that formally introduced Blick as head chef, diners got a taste of things to come with crab soup, fried oysters, seared dayboat scallops, rabbit and duck pot pie and more.

Since then, Blick said the ideas for new dishes, ways to use local ingredients and incorporate his regional influences keep coming. That’s a welcomed shift from previous years, when he said owning his own business took a toll.

“It’s like my mind is fertile again,” Blick said. “It’s fun again.”

The boom has created a logistical challenge for Seaton.

“The biggest problem now is trying to figure out how to make the menu work with all the ideas Winston has,” she said, laughing.

The solution will likely be a menu that changes weekly, Seaton said, giving people an opportunity to constantly try new things and creating demand for returning dishes.

Blick commutes from Williamsport, where he’s closer to family, and said it’s been the right move professionally, as well as for his wife and 12-year-old son. Blick credits supportive management and enthusiastic kitchen staff for helping him already feel at home in the Elk Creek kitchen.

“There is something really soul-satisfying about feeding people,” he said. “We get to do that.”

Jessica McAllister: 814-231-4617, @JMcAllisterCDT