Morris Martick 1923-2011
"What I took from him was to not be scared of being unique. He just did things the way he wanted"
Published: December 21, 2011
Baltimore has certainly enjoyed its share of eccentric eateries over the years, but perhaps none so endearing—certainly none so enduring—as Martick’s Restaurant Français. Patrons had to ring a bell to gain admittance to the dimly lit and eclectically furnished dining room, where mismatched silver and china topped the tables and a multifarious array of works by local artists graced the walls. It was funky and shabby and utterly unlike anywhere else.
The restaurant’s inimitable founder and chef, Morris Martick, died Dec. 16 of lung cancer at the age of 88, having literally spent his life there. He was born in the building—214 W. Mulberry St.—and grew up working with his parents, two brothers, and two sisters in various enterprises operated there by the Martick family: a grocery store and then a speakeasy during the Prohibition years. (Rumor has it a gin still remains in the building’s basement.)
Martick’s own first incarnation of the family business was running a bar/jazz nightclub during the 1960s. By all accounts, it was an island of Bohemian refuge in an otherwise conservative city. Painter Raoul Middleman used to hang out there, and Martick gave him his first show—hanging his paintings above the bar. “This was when segregation laws were still in effect,” Middleman recalls. “And I had a friend I really wanted to have see this show, my first show, but he was black, and it was against the law for him to enter the bar. But Morris just said, ‘Bring him on in.’ He could’ve gotten in a lot of trouble for doing that. He thought segregation laws were stupid and he lived by his beliefs. I always respected him for that.”
Former Martick’s employee Steve Pampinelli says Martick used to recount how Billie Holiday once sang there in the nightclub days. “It was actually against the law of segregation, but he would let black folks in anyway,” Pampinelli says. “So when Billie Holiday sang there, she was actually there as a patron. When people realized she was there everyone got really excited and asked if she would sing, and of course she did.”
“Morris really only left Baltimore twice in his whole life,” recalls Scotty Stevenson, who worked at Martick’s from 1977 through the mid-’80s and off and on for several years after that. “He was gone briefly during WWII while he was in the Air Force—he was in Alaska, according to him because ‘That was where they sent all the fuck-ups.’ But then he came back and took care of his mother until she died in 1959, and ran the jazz club until, he said, he got tired of the drunks and the musicians. So he closed down in 1967 and went bumming around France for a couple years really learning how to cook. He had always liked to cook, he was a natural at it, but that was when he really educated himself in formal technique. Then when he came back, he fixed the place up and reopened as a French restaurant.”
That was in 1970, when Martick’s Restaurant Français had two dining rooms on two floors, a maitre’d, tuxedoed waiters, and a genuine French chef from Paris. According to Alex Martick, who survives his brother at the age of 83, “I don’t know where he found that chef, but the man was a goddamn drunk. He’d call downstairs for bottles of brandy, supposedly to cook with, but he’d be drinking it himself. Then when he was good and drunk he’d come after my brother.”
Stevenson recalls hearing the tale as follows: “One night the chef came after Morris with a knife, and that was that. Morris was left with a French restaurant but no French chef, and that was when he started running the kitchen himself. Then the monkey suits and the maitre’d evaporated, and it all became the artists and the musicians.”
It was a natural evolution, Stevenson explains, because “almost everything in that restaurant Morris had done himself anyway—the stained glass, the painted tile, the albino rattlesnake skin wallpaper. He was an artist himself, he drew and painted, so he was always at home with artists and musicians.”
Anna Oldfield, who put herself through college working in Martick’s kitchen from 1985 until 1991, says, “Nobody worked harder than Morris himself. He was simply always there, cooking and doing anything that needed to be done. So anyone who worked for him got into that same zone, that you just did everything necessary to make it work. That 75 people were going to come in and somehow, in this little kitchen at the top of these impossibly steep stairs in this crazy little house with a bunch of crazy people, you were somehow going to get it together and make these amazing French meals.
“The way it worked was inexplicable, but transformative for the people who worked there—the ones that stayed, anyway,” continues Oldfield, who went on to get her doctorate and now teaches at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. “I was there for five years, and in that time at least 50 people came in who had been hired and they’d run screaming their first night. Literally run out the door in the middle of their shift.”
“I always thought there was a little roulette wheel running in Morris’ head, and when he met you the ball either landed on ‘family’ and he treated you like family, or ‘intruder’ and he would chase you away,” Stevenson says. “It makes sense because everything in that building was his childhood—if you were banging the pots in the kitchen he’d yell at you, ‘Stop hitting the pots!’ which is exactly what his mother had yelled at him. Anything he yelled at you had been yelled at him growing up.”
“Morris was challenging and irritable and he yelled at everybody all the time. But you could yell right back,” says Katie Brennan, who began her Martick’s career in 1985, at the age of 16—and began a friendship with Martick himself that carried through the next 26 years.
“We’d get these Culinary Institute kids who’d be like, Oh I’m gonna work at Martick’s and be a chef apprentice, and the first question he’d always ask them is, ‘How long do you cook this piece of fish?’” Brennan recalls. “And they’d start this analysis of what kind it was and how thick and blah blah, and Morris would just shout, ‘Till it’s done, damn it, till it’s done!’”
Martick was famous for his pâté, profiteroles, and, above all else, bouillabaisse. “That bouillabaisse took literally days to make,” Oldfield recalls. “You’d have to bone the fish and make the stock in all these stages, sometimes boiling, sometimes barely simmering it, and add all these different things at just the right times. It was a kind of cooking that hardly anyone does anymore, because it takes so long and is based entirely on instinct. He was such a master of that, and he never used a recipe. He always improvised, which is why if you went there twice and got the same dish, it would not be exactly the same.”
Jeff Smith, the Baltimore-born chef-owner of Chameleon Cafe in Lauraville, worked briefly in Martick’s kitchen. “Even in a short time, I learned a lot working there,” Smith says. “He definitely did things differently from anywhere else I had ever worked.”
The brutal working conditions at Martick’s were famous among employees—Brennan and Oldfield both recall a thermometer in the kitchen that routinely pegged out at its top reading of 115 degrees F—and over the years there were many tales of Martick working in his underpants, if he bothered wearing them at all. “I worked there with a guy who had been with Martick on and off over the years,” Smith recalls, “who told me that Morris would be in the shower—his bathroom was between the front and back kitchens—and customers would come in, and Martick would just step out of the shower, put an apron on, and start cooking, his wrinkly old ass hanging out while he was cooking this amazing food. I never saw it with my own two eyes, but this was the legend.”
After a heyday running from its 1970 opening to the mid-’80s, Martick’s Restaurant Français began to slowly fade from its original eminence. Stevenson says that the opening of Harborplace in 1982 drew diners downtown, away from Martick’s, as did the subsequent opening on nearby North Charles Street of Louie’s Bookstore Cafe by Jimmy Rouse, who had waited tables at Martick’s. “Louie’s drew a lot of clientele away from Martick’s, but Morris never held a grudge,” Stevenson says. “He would actually go and eat there almost every night. He used to sit there at the bar, telling Jimmy everything he was doing wrong.”
“What I took from him was to not be scared of being unique,” Smith says. “The way he just did things the way he wanted and didn’t care what anybody else thought. The guy just had a lot of guts, and held out to the end. I know what it’s like when it’s slow in your restaurant. It’s scary and hard to come to work, day after day when it’s slow like that, and he did it for years. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Martick ran his eponymous restaurant for 35 years, closing to the public in 2008. He remained there, living in the building where he was born, and carrying on the friendships he’d made over eight decades of life, many of them at the center of Baltimore’s creative circles. “There are so many people in Baltimore whose early networks and friendships were made by working at Martick’s over the years,” Stevenson says. In his later years, according to Brennan, Martick kept busy going to the movies and Pimlico race track. As late as 2010, according to Pampinelli, he was still “running a business hauling people’s trash out of their basements or helping them move house. We’d make a few extra bucks hauling stuff to the city dump in that board truck of his.”
In October, however, he collapsed while walking down Howard Street and was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. “It went pretty quickly there, at the end,” Brennan says. “A lot of people didn’t even realize he was sick. I didn’t know literally until the night before he died. I got [to the hospital] just in time. I got to give him a hug and a kiss and tuck him in when he fell asleep.”
Memorial plans are still tentative, but Alex Martick says that a celebration of his brother’s life is in the works for January. In a Facebook tribute to Martick, amid a plethora of reminiscences both affectionate and profane, Oldfield wrote:
I am overwhelmed with a combination of terrible sadness and memories that range from ridiculous to hilarious to truly tender. We were so very very very lucky to know Morris, he was like a planet that made an alternate gravity where people like us could thrive. He defied every law of physics [and] lousy boring stuff that people are supposed to do and I’ll bet y’all don’t know how close you were to having that walkin [refrigerator] fall in on your heads when you were having dinner. . . . Now that we’re all 50 or whatever we can maybe start to appreciate his absolute refusal to give in to all the thousands of things that drag people into those small compromises that destroy your soul. Morris never gave up. I’m only just beginning to get everything that he was saying to me all that time.
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