Grilled In a Minute: Wes Morton
Julie Mautner / September 25th, 2012
Chef Wes Morton is the executive chef at Art and Soul, chef Art Smith’s Washington, D.C. restaurant (at The Liaison Capitol Hill, an Affinia Hotel), offering “relaxed elegance” and Southern hospitality. Morton oversees the restaurant and its private dining rooms, which frequently host events for groups of up to 500 guests.
Morton says his approach is humble, his aim to bring people together through food, while emphasizing sustainable practices and local ingredients.
“I really enjoy taking the discipline and techniques acquired in my classical training and applying that to approachable no-fuss food with clean flavors and memorable plating,” he says. “I’ve brought this approach to Art and Soul, elevating the ‘soul’ while maintaining the integrity of Art’s vision.”
A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, Morton’s passion for cooking began in the most traditional of ways: during large family Sunday lunches prepared by his grandmother.
His head-to-tail approach to food, using as much of the animal as possible, also stems from early childhood, when he began hunting and fishing with his father…not for sport but for dinner. Today, for example he might do a Cajun “boucherie,” a traditional Cajun pig slaughter and roast, which results in boudin and andouille sausage, cracklins (fried pieces of pork fat), pulled ham hocks, and Sea Island red peas in pork stock (made from the pig’s head).
Morton attended the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, graduating in 2004. He kicked off his career with line positions at Citronelle and CityZen (Washington, D.C.) and The French Laundry (Yontville, CA).
He went on to become executive chef at Houston’s Alden Hotel. Under his leadership, the Alden received outstanding reviews, including four (out of five) stars from the Houston Chronicle and a coveted spot on Esquire magazine’s Best New Restaurants in America list for its *17 Restaurant.
Morton then went East and landed a position as executive chef at Againn in Washington, D.C., where more accolades rolled in; he was Washingtonian magazine’s 2010 Rising Star and was praised for, among other things, his use of local ingredients. That loyalty to local farmers, as well as co-ops like Fresh Link in the Shenandoah Valley, continues to play a large role at Art and Soul, where Morton’s menus are seasonally driven.
Morton, 34, lives in Washington, D.C. with wife Melissa and son Aidan.
Tell us a bit more about hunting and fishing with your dad as a kid…and growing up in rural Louisiana…and how those experiences impact your food and philosophy today.
My father taught me to hunt and fish when I was 8 years old, as it’s a major part of our culture in southern Louisiana. Through hunting and fishing, he taught me how to respect the land and nature. We always picked up our gun shells and any other trash we’d find. He also taught me how to respect the animal after hunting by using every bit of it. We always hunted and fished to put food on the table, not for a trophy. The most anticipated hunting season back home was definitely duck season, and we always hunted our share of wood ducks. If we could get out on a boat, we caught redfish, bream, largemouth bass, catfish, and crabs. One of the many things this taught me is what a difference fresh food makes. Cooking fish that’s just caught is so different from cooking fish that’s bought. It also taught me about a nose-to-tail approach to food that I didn’t realize until later in life.
Who had the strongest impact upon your decision to become a chef?
My grandmother (on my dad’s side of the family), Wanda Broussard Morton. We had the same routine every Sunday: church in the morning, then off to Granny’s for lunch. Lunch at her house was the highlight of the week for me. The entire family (around 15 of us), all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, would be there. Those are some of the greatest food memories of my life.
What story does your cuisine tell?
I’m discovering that now. My cuisine tells a story of rich culture with an emphasis on Cajun and Creole, but with a little modern twist. We use lots of local produce, heritage pigs and sustainable fish. It’s kept really simple, bold flavors with precise technique.
Most important thing you learned in culinary school?
How much I absolutely love this career. Being from Louisiana and then going to culinary school in Vermont was a huge step. It made me realize that I was “all in.”
Worst job ever…and why? (In any field…doesn’t have to be restaurants.)
I took a position with Restaurant Depot as a consultant to help better source their produce. Let’s just say it was the longest six months of my life. Working in retail is definitely not my calling!
How did you team up with Art Smith?
I was in a position as a chef/partner that was not going the way I had envisioned. One day I received a phone call from Denihan Hospitality Group about an open position. I scheduled a tasting with Art and the management staff at The Liaison Capitol Hill and Art and Soul. It was the first time in my professional career that I cooked food inspired by my heritage. The following week I was offered the job.
Most popular dish on your menu today at Art and Soul? Most popular dish ever?
Fried chicken and more fried chicken!
What’s one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without?
A good cast-iron pan.
Have you ever cooked for the President?
No, but the first lady has dined at Art and Soul with her mother a couple of times. For us in the kitchen, it was business as usual.
Tell us about teaching your staff about butchery.
We’re always local, sustainable, and take a nose-to-tail approach. This means knowing where your food comes from, utilizing all by-products and wasting as little as possible. Butchering is the best way to teach this. Learning how to build a relationship with a pig farmer, understanding why they raise a certain breed, and the benefits his or her land may receive from it…once you understand what it takes to raise the animal, you feel connected. And once you feel connected, you’ll never waste a single ounce from that animal. All of this makes a dramatic difference in the final product. You can definitely taste it; it has soul!
What’s the one cookbook you use most often?
That’s hard to say because I’m an avid cookbook collector; I currently have about 350. If I had to choose just one, it would have to be Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.
What do you eat when no one is watching? Or what’s your idea of late-night snacking bliss?
My wife’s chilaquiles with salsa verde, fried egg and a really cold IPA!
And what’s one thing you’ll never ever eat?
Kidneys. I have a really hard time eating kidneys for some reason.
If you could drink just one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It would have to be Champagne, and it would have to be Krug!
If you could work with one chef, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
If you would have asked me five years ago, I would have easily told you Alain Chapel. But, because of where I am in my career now, I would say either Marco Pierre White or Mark Hix. Yes, they’re both British chefs.
Favorite thing about your job?
“WANG!” It’s the name we’ve given to the family meal at Art and Soul with our managers, both front and back of the house. Every day we cook and sit down to a family meal. We don’t always talk about work—we just have fun with each other.
Least favorite thing about your job?
Operating a restaurant that’s open from 6 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week. I’d love to spend more time together talking about ideas of food and concepts we’d like to explore at Art and Soul.
What one behaviour guarantees you’ll fire a sous chef?
Selfishness! If a sous chef would ever put himself above the team or didn’t “buy in” to our program, then it’s probably not the right fit.
Personal goal/fantasy not yet attained?
Traveling to France to explore Paris, as well as the brasseries of the countryside, Normandy, Burgundy, Rhône, and all of the Champagne regions. That would be a dream trip that I would love to take with my wife.
What was the very worst day in your culinary career?
The day I was let go in Houston. I felt as if I let my family down and that all of the hard work and dedication to my craft was for nothing. I felt lost, until my wife made me realize that I’m better than that.
If not this, then what? Meaning, what would your second career choice have been? What would it be now?
I’d say a teacher…and my family is full of them. The joy you get from cooking a meal for someone who “gets it” and was raised with the same values is indescribable. Teaching and inspiring someone to be better every day, retain knowledge, and evolve gives you that same joy. Immediate gratification is really hard to come by, and both chefs and teachers get it every day. That’s where my inspiration comes from.