Chef Marcus Blackstone has a devoted following of foodies in Southwest Virginia who don’t mind traveling to keep up with the peripatetic gourmet.
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Blackstone’s mahi Lafayette: blackened mahi over sweet potato mash.
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Blackstone’s steak Oscar with roasted rosemary potatoes and roasted red pepper.
As a chef, you want to get the best products, and that’s half the battle,” Marcus Blackstone tells me on a rare day off from his duties as executive chef at Chilhowie’s Riverfront Restaurant. Blackstone describes topping a Black Angus filet mignon with lumps of crabmeat folded into sautéed shallots, deglazed with white wine and paired with pecorino Romano and cream cheese and laced with blended seasonings and fresh herbs. With mouthwatering enthusiasm, he explains the complexity of one of his signature dishes—a plate of alderwood-smoked salmon outlined with English cucumbers, pickled red onion, capers, hard egg and focaccia toast. “My professional philosophy is the ever constant pursuit of perfection,” says Blackstone, adding, “I love to make people happy with food.”
Blackstone has been a culinary fixture for more than a decade along the I-81 corridor of Southwest Virginia, cooking at restaurants including the Black Rooster in Marion, Greene’s Seafood in Bristol and the original Town House Grill of Chilhowie. In January, the 46-year-old chef was recruited by restaurateur Stanley Landis to expand the menu of steak, prime rib and seafood served at Chilhowie’s Riverfront Restaurant, a popular eatery for over a dozen years. “He’s kind of renowned for his flavors,” says Landis, “and he’s got a good following and knows what he’s doing.”
Located in the old Vance Hardware Company building in downtown Chilhowie, Riverfront Restaurant’s menu with its emphasis on homestyle cooking is described by Landis as “Appalachian cuisine.” He already has begun to incorporate some Blackstone customer favorites into the menu, including steak Oscar and lemon pecan trout, and plans to add more.
Coming to the Riverfront has been like a homecoming for Blackstone. “It’s really nice to be back in Chilhowie,” he says of the tiny town situated along the middle fork of the Holston River. Here, just across Main Street, is where Blackstone stepped into his first full-fledged job as an executive chef, creating menus and designing the kitchen layout in 2002 for the acclaimed, but now closed, Town House Grill. There for five years, Blackstone built a strong reputation and a customer base stretching from Kingsport to Roanoke.
It is also at the Town House Grill that Blackstone perfected many of what are now his signature dishes: artful masterpieces on a plate, bursting with color. “I used to love to draw,” he laughs. “So, now, I draw on plates.”
The chef also has a penchant for polenta (with Southern Italian tomato sauce) and a winning way with seafood like Chilean sea bass, which has won him praise from regular diners, including Anne Martin of Marion who says, “He’s very passionate about being a chef, very passionate about his food and wants to please.”
Martin, a retired schoolteacher, discovered Blackstone about 10 years ago during a lunch stop with some friends at the Town House. “We’ve been kind of following him from the Town House to Greene’s in Bristol to the Black Rooster,” she says, adding that she likes food with a bit of heat. Blackstone “has that combination,” she explains. “He just has that balance with the flavor and the heat.”
Born in 1967, Blackstone attended high school in the courthouse town of Lebanon in Russell County but grew up in Cleveland, Virginia, an isolated railroad town on the Clinch River. He roamed the mountains as a boy, igniting his artistic imagination. “I remember it as just perfect,” he says. “We’d go explore through the mountains during the summers, as soon as Mom would let us outside, as soon as the grass had dried. We’d pack our lunch and just get lost in the hills.” Blackstone says he and his three siblings would “be gone until we heard a cowbell ringing and knew it was time for dinner—and we better be home.”
Blackstone was brought up on country cooking and learned to can and pickle fresh tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and corn from his father’s garden. He expanded his culinary tastes at age 16 when a girlfriend took him to Bristol to eat at his first Chinese restaurant. “The food was all new to me,” he says. “It was good. It was new. So it was exciting.” But the curious teen refrained from trying to cook at home. “Absolutely not,” he says, grinning. “It was Mom’s kitchen. She was definitely the executive chef of that space. And I was not allowed in it.”
Blackstone credits his mother, Re, with his initial passion for cooking. “My Mom knows how to cook and grew up knowing how to cook because she was taught to do things. Me? I went to culinary school to learn the ‘whys,’” he explains. “It was handed down to her.”
By long distance, Re Blackstone helped train her son in the kitchen. Soon after he moved to Blacksburg in 1985 to attend Virginia Tech—where he briefly studied engineering before switching majors to marketing—Blackstone says his mother taught him to make gravy one morning while talking over the phone.
“There were Sundays when I would be cooking,” Blackstone says. “I had moved off campus and got an apartment and, I think, there’s where I really started cooking.”
Soon, Blackstone’s friends noticed his developing skill. “Sunday mornings, I would wake up, and there would be people who would stay the night in the apartment because I was going to cook a big brunch,” he says. “Customers would already be in the living room—friends.”
In the late 1980s, Blackstone got his first paid kitchen job at a Hardee’s in Radford. “I worked there for six months. I got a nickel raise, and I went to Burger King for a quarter raise.” Then he took over the Tex-Mex kitchen at Sacketts, a legendary nightspot in Radford, known for its huge dance floor; he was ultimately promoted to kitchen manager.
A series of jobs followed at corporate-owned chain restaurants where, he says, he learned how to control time, expenses and people. The experience, he adds, also compelled him to earn an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s in food service management at the prestigious Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, graduating summa cum laude in 2001.
Blackstone then began working in the kitchen of Atlanta’s Houston’s Restaurant, but the glamour of working on Peachtree Street could not compete with the pull he felt to return home to the country roads of his childhood.
He moved his family to Abingdon in 2002 and worked briefly for the Troutdale Dining Room on the Tennessee side of Bristol—not far from where he lives today, in Bristol, Virginia, with his wife, Becky, and his two stepchildren, Bradley and Emilee. (His daughter Riley lives nearby.)
For this culinary artist, a kitchen becomes more than a working studio. “It’s my house. I live there,” Blackstone says. “I want the potatoes taken care of like I want the Chilean sea bass [taken care of]. Everything has to be taken care of and loved equally.” Blackstone says that what drives him to do his best is having “that intimate relationship with your customer ... the guest that becomes a friend.”
Blackstone’s love for both customers and cuisine has diners excited at the Riverfront Restaurant.
“With the Town House closing, Marcus kind of brings an element back to what they’re able to offer down in Chilhowie,” says Ken Heath, spokesman for the town of Marion and a former Chilhowie resident.
“He brings a depth to a menu. He brings flavors together and foods together that you would not normally expect. But they’re not so far out there that you wouldn’t be afraid to order them off the menu.”
Tastings & Tip-offs
LYNCHBURG RESTAURANT WEEK Fifteen restaurants are bracing for June 22-29, when they’ll offer special prix fixe menus. And don’t think “prix fixe” necessarily means “price, high!” Organizers promise a prix fixe for every pocketbook. Look for the lineup of offerings in this month’s issue of Lynchburg Living, which is co-sponsoring the event with Discover Lynchburg. Plot your course—and courses—early. Last year saw packed restaurants. LynchburgRestaurantWeek.com
CAFÉ CATURRA The place where West End Richmonders love to meet (business casual) and eat (between fits of shopping on Grove Avenue) has expanded its evening fare to include a full-service dinner menu that features, among other additions, tacos made with braised pork, crab and corn, and chorizo and potato, to name a few. All are authentic, of course, with just a squeeze of lime as accoutrements. But this is what one might expect of an establishment with a 24-bottle wine-by-the-glass bar. The expanded menu debuted at Café Caturra in Midlothian Village Square at the same time. CafeCaturra.com
GREEN FLASH BREWING CO. The San Diego-based brewery was all set to open its second site in coastal North Carolina when an unplanned jaunt to Virginia Beach re-routed its destiny. San Diego, you see, isn’t all that different from VB, where the roar of Navy jets and destroyers come with large, thirsty audiences. The only problem, when Green Flash was considering sites, was that Virginia didn’t allow breweries to sell pints in their brew pubs. (Breweries turn a nice dime selling quaffs in their tasting rooms.) Then, last year, when Virginia law changed to allow breweries to sell frosty mugs, Green Flash headed north and picked a point just south of Naval Air Station Oceana. Welcome, Green Flash! GreenFlashBrew.com
FLUFFY THOUGHTS CAKES Arlington’s from-scratch-only bakery Fluffy Thoughts Cakes is expanding its base of operations to include an additional 1,500 square feet. There will be more space to display owner Lara Stuckey’s confections, and a private room (for up to 15 people) for tastings, small parties and baking classes. Stuckey, you may remember, appeared on the Food Network Challenge’s “Best in Show Cakes” in 2011. And Fluffy Thoughts has been chosen as a “Bride’s Choice Award” winner on WeddingWire.com each year since 2010. FluffyThoughts.com
BACK BAY GOURMET Just hanging out on the water can stir up an appetite, so Virginia Beach’s Back Bay Gourmet is partnering with Surf & Adventure to provide nourishment during its two-and-a-half-hour kayak excursions through the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Kayakers can choose from four box lunches (sandwiches are grilled chicken, portabella and goat cheese, smoked turkey and Swiss or turkey club). Book a Lunch Box Kayak Tour at SurfandAdventure.com
If you have news of personnel changes, restaurant openings or closings, events or special menus, please tell us by writing to TastingsTipOffs@CapeFear.com