This is the first part of a two-part Chef Chat feature. Come back tomorrow for Part 2.
For people who love meat and steak but don't want the formality or cost that goes along with dining at a high-end restaurant like Morton's The Steakhouse, there's a new place for you to try: Morton's Grille. The new concept, which debuted in The Woodlands last month, is a lighter, cheekier version of its older sibling, featuring classic American dishes that will delight any meat-and-potatoes lover.
When I visited the restaurant recently to try out its new lunch service, the attractive space was busy and bustling, the bar area well occupied despite the midday hour (the bar, incidentally, looked like a great happy-hour spot). While I dined on their signature tater tot nachos, or "Tot'chos," indulged in a belt-busting serving of Smokey Joe's mac and cheese, and savored barbecue baby back ribs that had been braised in bacon fat, Trevor White, the regional chef in residence, came out to introduce some of the dishes and check on our experience. He was so personable that I asked him to sit down for a chat so that we could get a glimpse into his life as a regional chef for Landry's, Inc.
EOW: What does your role as regional chef entail?
TW: I oversee The Oceanaire and Morton's, and now also the Morton's Grille. I pretty much just make sure that they're following recipes, operations run properly, labor controls, food-cost control at my designated restaurants. I oversee southern California to Biloxi for Morton's, and I help with The Oceanaire in Dallas, Houston and anyplace else they decide to send me, and now Morton's Grille.
EOW: How many restaurants is that?
TW: Twenty, I believe.
EOW: You're based in Houston, though, correct?
EOW: How long have you been in this role? And what role predated that?
TW: I've been in this two years now, and before that I was the executive chef and operating partner with The Oceanaire in Houston.
EOW: What's the jump been like -- from executive chef to regional chef? What are you doing when you make a restaurant visit?
TW: Quality control is a big one. Usually if a regional is sent into a restaurant, it's because there might be some opportunity there, be it with recipe adherence, food cost. On a normal visit, we go in and we taste product, make sure that they're purchasing the right products, make sure they're following the right recipes so they have the right flavor profiles on all dishes, and then we stick around and watch service, make sure the food's going out properly, so that everything that's going out to our guests is the way that it should be and it's quality product.
EOW: If you do find a problem, where do you usually find the areas that you can improve? Is it with a particular role or person?
TW: Traditionally, it's just recipe adherence, which means the employee who's making the dish is not following the recipe, or they have the wrong product. We really like to follow our prep list, because we really regulate how much they make depending on volume of business. With Morton's, The Oceanaire and Morton's Grille, our chefs are very, very good about following procedure in the restaurant. We're very big on if you're making a dish, a recipe has to be in front of you. There's a reason why we develop recipes for them. We don't go by memory. People ask me, "Do you know what's in this?" and I'm like, "Get the recipe out." You have to follow the recipe. And that's all for quality control. When you have 70 Morton's worldwide, 12 Oceanaires and now our first Morton's Grille, we can't be in the restaurant every day, so we have to set guidelines for each chef and each employee, to make sure it's consistent across all the restaurants.
EOW: Let's segue to the new Morton's Grille, which just opened in The Woodlands. It's a brand-new concept under the Morton's family. For people who don't know what it is, what is it supposed to be?
TW: It's just good, approachable food. It's definitely a lower-tier restaurant than Morton's, lower price point.
EOW: But you do serve the steaks. Is it the same price point or lower?
TW: For our steaks, a little less price point. But we really don't take ourselves too seriously. We have the Tat'cho's, which is a play on nachos made with tater tots. Cheeky Pot Roast -- instead of doing a different cut of meat, we actually use the beef cheeks. You've had the Bacon Braised Ribs -- they're my labor of love. Veal-stuffed meatballs. I like to say it's kind of like American cuisine, with a strange, unusual twist. It's more a play on words. When we look at a dish, how can we twist it and make it our own? It's just our way of showing our philosophy on food when it comes down to our take on the American classics.
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EOW: How big or small of a role did you play in the menu development at Morton's Grille?
TW: Well, it was a collaboration between myself, Chris Rook, who's our corporate chef for Morton's, and Wade Wiestling of The Oceanaire. So the three of us worked pretty evenly on it, collaborated and had tastings, and it kind of came about pretty quickly.
EOW: Were you given any type of directive on it?
TW: The three of us got together. We talked about it and the direction we wanted to take it. Since it was a new concept, we couldn't be wrong. So there were no parameters. They said, "Have fun with it," which I think we did. It was a lot of fun. One of my favorites on the menu are the veal-stuffed meatballs. It's a meatball that we create with veal and pork and season it, and stuff mozzarella down the middle of it, and we serve it with a marinara sauce. Chris came up with that one, and it's probably one of my favorites on the menu. I can't stay away from them -- they're really, really good. I'm a big veal person, so when he came up with that one, I think during the tastings I ate 12 of them.