[This a new column at Every Food Fits about the people who cook the meals we enjoy outside of the home and the role nutrition plays in their lives and kitchens This week we have a giveaway – check it out at the end of the post.]
By: Stacey Viera
In October 2009, Morton and the team of colleagues who recruited him to return to Washington, opened AGAINN, pronounced ‘a-guin,’ a self-described “British Isles bistro.” Though AGAINN is new to its swanky digs at 1099 New York Avenue, NW, Morton is no novice. He comes from a “high-end background,” having worked in kitchens at D.C.’s Citronelle and CityZen, and Left Coast establishments such as the French Laundry and The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay.
(You’re not alone, humble reader. I’ve never eaten at those fancy joints, either.)
Morton is using his high-end skills to bring Washingtonians down-to-earth, quality meals in a comfortable environment. I can’t vouch for the food – haven’t eaten there – but here’s some insight into the philosophy behind it.
“I grew up in the kitchen,” Morton began. “Family lunch on Sunday was always cooked by grandma” in Lafayette, Louisiana, a small town about two hours west of New Orleans. “I’m from a large family. We all had problems, but at Sunday dinner, it was like everyone’s problem was fixed with good food and good company.”
Like the best home cooking, Morton wants to cook food for diners that is natural, made with quality ingredients, “not too fancy” and “casual, approachable.” That’s also how he cooks at home for and with his 4-year-old son, Aidan. “My son helps me make pizza dough. It’s fun for him; he loves getting flour on his face. Cooking is too important not to get the family involved. You make memories for the kids, and it’s a way for the family to be active together.”
Hang on. A chef that also bakes? So often I hear of chefs who cook and only cook. But Morton loves to make bread, especially “any bread with a sour starter.” At AGAINN, the table bread is a cracked wheat, and Morton enjoys making raisin bread with currants and cranberries. “We also make our own burger buns and brioche every day.”
When asked about the most misunderstood or under-utilized ingredient in the kitchen, he had to think about it for a minute. “Vinegar,” Morton said. “It can be used in different ways to balance a dish. You can use vinegar and lemon juice to turn a good dish into a great dish. We use vinegar to pickle beet stems used in salads and as garnish. We pickle mustard seeds for a charcuterie plate. It pops like caviar.” Added to drinks at the bar, you can also find pickled carrots and green beans from Morton’s kitchen.
As far as seasoning goes, he keeps it simple. Morton salts proteins a day ahead – like his braised chicken, for example – so that it penetrates the meat. It draws out the moisture and then he adds flavor with liquids such as bourbon. “I season steak the same way, with herbs and salt and pepper in a bag.” Then he adds olive oil once the meat is primed and ready to soak in the flavor.
Morton echoed some familiar themes about enjoying a balanced diet, noting that when he finds himself reaching for fried food, “I tell myself, ‘no, a banana.’ It’s self-control. It’s all in your head. Some days, you crave junk, but eating it makes me feel sluggish.”
And sluggish is no way for a chef to feel. “We’re active in the back, so I need to keep hydrated during the day.” Drinking water is healthy habit, and resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Clemson University Cooperative Extension can help you understand how much you need each day. For someone like Morton, who typically works a 12-hour day, that’s a lot of water. “I’m in at 9:30 or 10 in the morning, home by 12. Or 1 a.m. on Thursday, Friday, Saturday.”
Morton continued, “This is a business of workaholics. You get immediate gratification…you see results immediately [when you serve a dish]. It can be addicting to be at work all the time. It’s hard not to be a part of that.” But balance is important, and something Morton said is “key for work and for eating. I’m fortunate to have two great sous chefs who have been with me – one for five years, the other for two – who keep me humble and sane.”
END PART I
Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion to our interview with Chef Wes Morton of AGAINN! To view more photos from the interview, visit http://staceyviera.zenfolio.com/againnchefinterview. And enter our CONTEST to win a food print! In the comments section, tell us what you would ask a chef about nutrition. We’ll randomly select a winner by 5 p.m. Wednesday and announce it on Thursday’s blog. You must have a U.S. address (sorry, but I won’t mail the print internationally) and be our Facebook fan to win!