Chef Jason Morris has a reputation for obsessive, uncompromising perfection. He and restauranteur partner Kabir Kapoor achieved considerable success with their first shared venture, Le Fantôme, a culinary hotspot a stone’s throw from the Lachine Canal in Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood. But their journey into reimagining the foodie scene in Montreal was far from over; last year the duo opened Pastel, a meticulously designed fine dining spot near the city’s Old Port, which was met with rave reviews and a Montreal 2018 Eater Award for Restaurant of the Year.
We caught up with Morris to find out exactly what it takes to establish not one, but two intensely creative kitchens — even if that means, as we learned, going to great lengths to source ingredients and temporarily putting a personal life on the back burner.
Who, and what, first ignited your passion for the culinary arts? (We understand you began your career as a fishmonger!)
I actually worked the fish station at [a] Montreal high end fish restaurant for two years, but what ignited the passion for food was quitting university and going into an industry which gave me something to constantly feel anxious, depressed, proud, and excited [about], all simultaneously.
Did you engage in any formal training or was your craft honed though a journey of exploration and development?
Stages, culinary school, masterclasses, internships, jobs, colleagues. Everything is a source of exploration and development if you have the right perspective — I am still learning many things and always trying to perfect things I feel I already know.
You’ve worked in restaurants across Europe, where you honed your culinary skills in some very fine establishments. What cultural influences and food techniques were you able to take away from your experiences in France, Norway, and Denmark?
Food culture is so different from place to place. I’d say a great impact [on] me as a chef and restauranteur is to read what people in cities appreciate and what set of qualifiers people are looking to find when they go out to a restaurant. In Quebec, for example, portion size is a very big issue; clientele want to see quantity no matter what the cost — as opposed to Scandinavia, where everything is geared much more towards sourcing and quality. Trends change, cultures get influenced, but it’s important to read the room and know your crowd.
Pastel is your second restaurant with Kabir Kapoor, which follows in the success of Le Fantôme. How did you and Kapoor meet, and what inspired you to launch into a collaborative career path?
We met at the same party — we both hit it off after finding a kinship in wanting to bring a tasting menu restaurant to the forefront of the Montreal culinary scene.
You were heavily involved in each step of the process when it came to opening Pastel; everything from the demo to the interior design became a hands-on labour of love. How did you and Kapoor land on the aesthetic of Pastel? And how much did you intend to diverge from the atmosphere of Le Fantôme?
Kabir calls Pastel the ying to Fantôme’s yang — which is quite accurate. We wanted to have a very different space, so we executed that vision to a tee. Higher ceilings, open dining room, kitchen at the front door versus in the back. We designed and built both restaurants with only the help of our staff and close friends. This was strategic to help foster a sense of ownership from all our employees and not just Kabir and I.
You’re known for your simplicity when it comes to ingredients, but your preparation methods can be extremely time consuming and rigorous. What’s the most elaborate dish you’ve created, and what is the process involved?
We used to do a cassoulet-en-croute, which is exactly what is sounds like: rabbit boudin blanc studded with livers and micro mirepoix, navy beans and clarified rabbit consommé, all baked in a pate-en-croute style terrine, and we poured more consommé once it was done cooking. The following day, it was sliced into twenty-one portions. Imagine having to cut soup. The navy beans are suspended within the gelatinous consommé and boudin, held together only by the framework of quarter inch thick pastry. It didn’t stay on the menu long, as only two staff members were capable of achieving the final result we wanted. It was an intimidating dish to even try, and you only found out if you failed on day three when it was fully baked, rested, congealed, and set.
You and your team are passionate about experimentation; in the past, Kapoor has described the kitchen for Pastel as a “food lab,” and you regularly update the tasting menu. Can you walk us through the process of how you put each new menu together? From where do you source inspiration?
I would not call it a ‘food lab’ per se, but our process is quite simple. Always be creating… Louie, our Chef de Cuisine, is always writing down ideas throughout the year so we have a book of incomplete/unsuccessful/completed/missing/wishful/etc. dishes to work on at any time of the year. Some dishes are waiting on a cheaper source for protein, some are waiting for a missing ingredient or a new perspective. But the idea is that we are always looking forward to a new menu. Plus, I’ve been known in the past to change the menu as a whole on a dime…but that’s part of working for me, I suppose. It’s my job to find everybody’s true potential, and if I don’t push, they may never dig deep enough to discover those new limits. In some ways it’s like weight training. Working in small spaces makes it easy to stay clean. Working under intense time constraints forces you to have good time management.
You’re extremely particular about ingredients; we understand that you take pains to source the finest quality produce, fly in fish from purveyors you trust, etc. What are the greatest lengths you’ve gone to in order to obtain the very best ingredients for your kitchen?
I’m still looking for Japanese Mountain Grapes Kyoho — please, someone call me about it. I may or may not have smuggled butter and cheeses into Canada. I have a standing arrangement with a fisherman in Quebec for a four-hundred-pound bluefin tuna when in season every year. I fly my sea urchin in from Hokkaido. Those who know what the difference is worth… It completely ruins my profitability, but I can’t hide my excitement for good products.
What shifts would you like to see in Canadian food culture? Are there practices or values you’ve witnessed in other countries around the world that you’d like to see adopted here?
Smaller restaurants, private restaurants, tasting menus, more biodynamic farming, and more people that do what they love for the love of doing it. Sustainability for the arts. Support and less gossip, please.
You’ve been highly praised by Montreal critics for your work in both restaurants. How do you handle the pressure of maintaining a certain level of prestige when introducing new menu items? Is it limiting or a satisfying challenge?
Luckily for my businesses, I don’t have a personal life. I try to focus on my three venues [Morris also runs a restaurant consulting service and catering service for high end functions] and sustain a creative vision. Hopefully I can train my managers well enough for the day I decide to put some attention into my personal life. Until then, I’m grateful to my staff for their hard work, my family for the support, and Mister Bossy, my pit bull, for being such a champion.
Do you see yourself opening another restaurant in the future? If so, what would be the vision for the establishment?
I would love to explore the idea of a sushi counter, not limited to sushi or even Japanese cuisine, but the idea of a closer connection between the artisan and the diner. Better dialogue about provenance and technique. So often diners ask our service staff how certain ingredients are prepared or obtained, and that story would be well suited for a cook or myself to answer, but sometimes it’s impossible with our current setting. I would love to expand on the idea of intimate dinner with a very personalized and authentic narrative to showcase talent, produce, and share opinion and knowledge.
Photos courtesy of Jason Morris.