A Year In Niagara: The Final Instalment in F&H’s Four-Part Series on the Restaurant at Pearl Morissette

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The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette sits on a property comprised of vineyards and farmland, so the energy one experiences during the harvest season is tangible. It’s autumn and I’ve called on the restaurant a few more times leading up to its second anniversary in November. This time there seems to be more activity than during previous visits and the smell of wine permeates the air. This is the final chapter in our series chronicling a year in the life of the restaurant and I find this season an appropriate metaphor to describe what I’ve come to know about this operation and its people.

While the harvest has been bountiful, it’s not been easy, and I’ve felt a constant sense of struggle throughout my interactions with the team. Much like the weather at this time of year, there are days featuring sun and blue sky, but you’re always vulnerable to a nasty storm blowing in at any time.

A constant in my visits has been Kristen Daigle, the restaurant’s manager and Beverage director. While Daigle is somewhat unassuming, it’s become more obvious with each visit what a key role she plays in the restaurant’s success. She’s been part of the team since opening and has keen observations on the evolution of the restaurant. While expectations are high — as in many top-end restaurants — Daigle admits there’s a uniqueness here she hasn’t encountered before. “We’re an experiment in progress, not only in how we’re delivering a food-and-wine experience, but also in the reinventing of the hierarchy, trying to answer how we strike a balance.” While Daigle is positive about her experience to date, she admits working at the restaurant is a bit of a ‘grind’ — a word I’ve come across in interviews with other members of the team.

As Beverage manager, Daigle is the driving force behind the wine offerings that add so much to the restaurant’s experience. I recall being somewhat surprised on my first visit that more of the winery’s wines were not represented on the menu. Daigle explains that because of the popularity of the Pearl Morissette wines, the availability for the restaurant is limited and they’ve had to look at other producers. When choosing the mostly international wines, Daigle focuses on representing ‘low-intervention’ varieties from all over the world. Not only are these wines made in similar fashion to those of Pearl Morissette, it’s important to Daigle that the producers and agents she works with share the same values — what she calls the “connection to Pearl Morissette.”

Daigle’s passion for wine and the restaurant become even more obvious when a scheduled 30-minute interview passes the hour mark. To wrap things up, I ask her what she likes best about working at the restaurant. She pauses to think before providing me with three points. “The autonomy I have, the trust throughout the company and the liberty to pursue [ideas] I’ve been given.”

This time of year brings a change to the menu. Chefs Daniel Hadida and Eric Robertson find it an exciting season with many changes, such as protein becoming more prominent. Mushrooms also become more prevalent in dishes, as do root and other hearty vegetables such as cabbage. “Summer is about spontaneity, but this time of year, we can start cooking again,” Hadida says, referring to the harvest as “a time of transition for the menu.”

Hadida uses the term transition as a singular act when discussing the menu and compares it to the continuous state of change the operation seems to live in. Hadida has told me each member of the team “has to bring a lot and push to the highest level.” At certain times during the past year, I’ve wondered if he and his team are attempting too much; if the relentlessness he leads with is sustainable? Is all they’re attempting just too much of a grind? I guess only time can answer this question.

My final interview with Hadida takes place during the week of the restaurant’s two-year anniversary and I use that as a starting place for my questioning, asking him where they stand after two years and how the journey to reinvent the restaurant operating system has been going?

“Sitting down with the management team this morning, the one thing I kept talking about was people,” he says. “We’re a collective of people’s shared goals and values and we want to get to a point where every member of the staff has a contribution to the purpose — we’re not there yet.” I follow up with a question about the biggest surprises in the last two years. “I didn’t account for a lot of things, I don’t try to assume the future before I’m there, but by far the difficulty in getting staff has become a preoccupation. If we didn’t face such a shortage, being in the middle of nowhere, I never would have put so much energy into leadership, building a culture-purposeful business. I’ve been forced to become this and it’s actually a good thing.”

With the positive guest response and accolades the restaurant has received to date, I’m interested in knowing how Hadida measures the restaurant’s success. “I measure our success based on the impact we have on people in our community. The recognition is cool and encouraging and gets people in the door, but it’s the human relations, the personal growth of people we interact with that’s important.”

How does he measure success for himself? “The same thing really, putting a massive investment into culture and seeing it pay off with leadership development in our
staff, combined with having a positive global impact.”

Hadida has become a well-known name in food-and-restaurant circles, something that’s led to invitations and speaking engagements. I ask him about the role chefs can play as advocates for food and public-health systems and why it’s more prevalent in Europe and the U.S. than in Canada?

“I come from a political family,” he says. “There’s a real narrative for chefs and it’s forced us to become public figures — for better or for worse. If you have something to say, you should. There isn’t a voice for regenerative farmers or sustainable fishers — food security isn’t really an issue in the public domain. In general, we’d like to participate more because of the factors I mentioned. You don’t see it happening in scale in Canada, but it’s becoming more important. If all you’re doing is making dinner, that’s fine, but why would you not work at making the world better if you have the chance?”

As I pull away from the winery for the last time on a cold November day, I reflect on what’s been both an educational and enjoyable assignment covering a year at the Restaurant at Pearl Morissette. I’ve come to think of this group of people as pioneers trying to ‘crack the code’ on a new restaurant operating system.

During my time in the restaurant industry, I’ve worked for companies hell bent on making money and for dreamers — people who inspire by presenting an almost unattainable vision to work towards. Hadida and his team at Pearl Morissette do not operate like this.

They’re pragmatic, yet working towards a goal that many would consider idealistic. What they’re doing is an intellectual experiment, creating the restaurant of the future — a sustainable system built on a foundation of culture, trust and equity. Hadida has pulled together an incredible team of people with a conviction to the project that’s contagious. With the progress he’s making, it won’t be long before people from all over the world start paying attention to what is happening at this little 15-hectare gem of a property on the Niagara Peninsula.

Written by Bruce McAdams

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