Though it tries to fly under the radar, Pearl Morissette Estate Winery — and now its restaurant — are recognized as beacons of excellence in the Niagara Peninsula. Located on the outskirts of the village of Jordan, Ont., a one-hour drive from Toronto, the 25-acre property is home to an estate vineyard, wine-production facilities and a 30-seat restaurant.
In 2006, developer Mel Pearl enticed winemaker François Morissette to join him on a project to produce world-class wines in the Niagara region. With the promise of free rein in the vision and running of the winery, the Quebec-born and French-trained Morissette set to work producing some of the region’s most exceptional and unique wines. Fast forward a little more than 10 years and Pearl Morissette has entrenched itself in the global wine scene as a producer of high-quality wines made with minimal intervention.
In 2017, Pearl added a new member to his team — a relatively unknown chef named Daniel Hadida. Pearl’s original idea was to open a small dining-room with space to host guests, but Hadida successfully pushed for the group to open a fully functional restaurant. Like the winery, a commitment to excellence and sense of place would shape the vision for the restaurant. Simply named The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette, the ever-changing menu would focus on serving the region’s best ingredients, inspired by seasonal French cooking.
The restaurant is located on the upper level of a newly built building housing a wine library, cellar and production facilities. With an all-black façade, designed with a traditional barn silhouette, the building hosts a mysterious entrance way that leads guests upstairs to a warm and welcoming dining room. Built with a weathered industrial feel, the open view to the kitchen was designed with both the guest and employee in mind. A great view of the property makes this the quintessential destination restaurant.
Although I was familiar with the wines, my first introduction to The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette came when I received a phone call in Spring 2017. On the phone was Hadida, asking about my research on the impact of gratuity-based compensation systems on restaurants. Our conversation led to me touring the restaurant during its construction. Sitting at a picnic table beside the start-up organic garden and a handful of bee boxes, Hadida shared his vision for the restaurant that would eventually open in November 2017. “We aim to create a factory of beautiful things; to produce a place where a door opens, having no idea what will be behind it, where guests will revel in discovery,” he explained.
From that first visit, I got the sense The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette would march to the beat of its own drum. Many great restaurants across the country are re-thinking their relationship with our food system, but after spending time with the group of individuals involved in this project, it was evident they were after more. In one of my early interviews with Hadida, he said the motivation to work within a new operating system for restaurants was rooted in his personal experience.
After starting his career working in Toronto, Hadida travelled and cooked in Mexico, Peru, France and Denmark. It was while working in Europe that Hadida experienced a different employment model. There he worked three, 14-hour shifts a week and enjoyed a month-long break when restaurants typically close for holidays. This introduction to doing things differently not only stuck with Hadida, it shaped his philosophy about the restaurant business. In another sit down, Hadida asked me — and himself, “what is a sustainable restaurant?,” adding, there’s no model for it yet.
Hadida’s partner in the kitchen is chef Eric Robertson, who joined the project several months before opening. The two share similar experiences that have shaped their philosophy towards the food they serve. They’re fanatical about working with local producers and employ a full-time forager (Deirdre Fraser) who also tends the ever-expanding organic gardens. When it comes to food, the Pearl Morissette team wants to adjust perceptions of how to dine in a region where food is an important part of the public persona. This kitchen team take its cues from the producers it buys from, working with products available during the season. The team uses Instagram to showcase what’s coming in the back door and what to expect from meals in the coming days. Hadida wants to challenge the current restaurant model, which he labels lazy, and help show what’s possible when we question the industry norms we’ve grown accustomed to.
The restaurant started out boldly. From the start, it was decided the carte-blanche menu would change daily, with an all-inclusive price of $88. Tackling the status quo is not something the team is hiding from. The restaurant’s website reads “Please note that our prices are all-inclusive. Our staff is delighted to provide service and hospitality without the need for you to tip. This is a departure from the old way of doing things.”
When asked about how the all-inclusive, no-tipping model is going, Hadida glows, saying it’s been well received by guests. By eliminating tipping, the entire team is paid on a more equal basis and servers receive a significantly higher rate of pay. Conviviality is also a shared responsibility — chefs and cooks help deliver food to the table, where they explain product origins and preparation methods for each dish.
While cooking seasonally in the winter is a limitation for some restaurants, the team at Pearl Morissette approaches it as a challenge, embracing what’s available to work with, such as shellfish, dry-aged meats, preserves and cellared root vegetables.
In addition to the food, this project is about wanting to provide a positive and inspiring work environment that will lead to low turnover. Hadida stated expressively that they “are working to improve the quality of life of the employees, not just mitigate the shittiness.” When asked about the direction the restaurant is headed, Hadida uses phrases such as ‘socially regenerative’ and explains the approach is about “responsible decision making and progress versus perfection.”
These chefs lead a team with lofty goals, but their commitment to their values and dedication to their vision has already paid dividends. The restaurant has even caught the attention of Michelin, the world’s most-respected restaurant-ranking body. Twice it’s been asked to host events involving the organization, a clear sign the dining experience it’s providing is creating buzz. In June 2018, the restaurant was named as one of the five best restaurants worth visiting outside of Toronto by Toronto Life magazine and, in October of that year, EnRoute magazine named it the best new restaurant in Canada.
With the first year behind them, the Pearl Morissette team has found its legs and is now set on pushing the boundaries even further. Hadida says continuous reflection is the key to strong communication. “We’re creating a place where all can express their opinions daily.”
Written by Bruce McAdams