It’s been a few months since my last visit to The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette. As I enter the property and navigate the driveway to the restaurant, what strikes me is how different the landscape is in spring compared to winter. While the black, barn-like building that houses the restaurant contrasted a snowy landscape that caught my attention on my last trip in February, a visit in early spring showcases how colourful, diverse and alive the property is. While it’s been a wet start to spring, the vines are now lush and green, the livestock and fowl are active and workers are tending the gardens and greenhouse.
I enter the dining room to what I recognize as a familiar scene — the entire team of employees and management is sitting around a communal table participating in what seems to be a staff meeting. It isn’t until I start paying attention that I realize this isn’t a run-of-the-mill staff meeting, but something I’ve yet to come across in more than 30 years in the restaurant industry. What I’m witnessing is an ‘employee presentation,’ which takes place on Wednesday afternoons when the restaurant is closed to the public. It’s not only the presentation itself that causes me to pay closer attention, it’s the topic — carbon costs in restaurants. I listen to server Martin Watson inform his colleagues on issues ranging from methane-producing ruminants to the lifetime of a plastic straw. Once again, I’m reminded how different this restaurant is and how education plays a key role in its success.
My plan to interview staff on this visit is briefly derailed by an impromptu conversation with chef Eric Robertson, during which he labels the arrival of spring as a game-changer. He tells me how foraging for the restaurant is back in full swing, with nature providing a wide variety of things that are “small, tender, juicy and sweet.” The foraging team seeks flavours of its environment, recently having success with sassafras shoots with vanilla and anisette notes to them. Though he’s excited about what’s now becoming available, he says this time of year is also somewhat restrictive, as the kitchen must use up the root vegetables they have left in the cellar so they don’t go to waste.
When asked about any new developments in the kitchen, Robertson tells me the big news — he and chef Daniel Hadida have added a full-time baker to the team. Since the opening, Robertson and others have been doing the baking, but lacked the time needed to really focus on the bread program. Hiring baker Anthony Viera has allowed them the opportunity to incorporate more breads onto the menu. “Fresh-milled [flour] makes such a difference and we’ve come to realize there are small grain producers out there, you just have to go and find them,” Robertson says.
I sit down with several employees to get a sense of what makes the place tick. I met first with Roisin Fagin, the restaurant’s maître d’. Fagin recently left a job as a college professor to get back into the hospitality industry. She’d worked as a server and bartender in Hamilton, Ont. before joining Pearl Morissette, intrigued with the opportunity presented by Hadida. When asked what a modern-day maître d’ does, she says, “Since we are a unique place, we need to communicate a lot with our customers, help with expectations, explain how the menu works, the tipping policy, the reservation system — this is the key role I play.” Fagin explains she also greets, seats, assists on the floor and “I also polish a lot of glasses,” she adds with a smile.
Since Fagin communicates so much with the guests, I ask her about how they feel about some of the unique approaches. “Some customers are confused, but once I take the time to explain, they understand.”
As Hadida has told me in the past, she confirms the ‘service-included’ approach is not an issue. The new Tock reservation system has also been accepted by guests. I’m told the plan was originally to open with Tock in place, but the team felt too many new approaches might overload both management and the customer during the opening period. This Tock system requires a paid deposit by the guest at the point of making the reservation. In the case of The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette, this is $20 per person. Hadida told me the operation has significantly reduced it’s ‘no shows’ and cancellations, an issue that was financially impacting the 34-seat restaurant, and says this approach is designed with restaurants like his in mind — higher end with prefix menus.
To end my interview with Fagan, I ask what’s most unique about working at The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette. “Working with all salaried employees is different, as is working with the same people every day and the level of interest and commitment of all involved is something I’ve never experienced before.”
Next up is a conversation with Liam Mcloughlin, who has been cooking at the restaurant for the greater part of a year. When asked what’s most unique about working at Pearl Morissette, he quickly points to the fact he interacts with customers through the presentation of food at the table. He says this aspect of service has helped maintain his level of interest and improved his confidence. After telling me how much the guests love this style of service, he lets me in on a secret: “I’m much more passionate describing a dish when it’s one that I’ve made,” he says, adding he finds satisfaction in both speaking to customers and watching their reactions when he describes what he’s prepared for them.
I ask Mcloughlin if he checks out online reviews, which he admits he does. Unlike many more-experienced people in the industry, he seems comfortable and accepting of the idea. He should be, as he uses the tool himself to help select places to check out when he travels. Mcloughlin also tells me how much he appreciates working with ingredients that change daily. “The learning aspect is like nowhere else I’ve worked” and, although the hours are long when the restaurant is open, he really appreciates having a consistent schedule. “I’ve never worked at a place where I always have the same two days off in a row.”
After sitting down with the restaurant’s staff, I have some follow-up questions for chefs Hadida and Robertson regarding how they plan to attract and retain staff — is there a strategy or a collection of policies they’re putting in place? After getting to know these two progressives, the response is not surprising — “culture is the key.” Hadida goes beyond the virtues of a positive work culture by adding they’re hiring based on ‘emotional intelligence.’ He says this focus on emotional intelligence, accompanied by setting clear expectations and holding themselves accountable, is their recipe for good retention. While this sounds good, I ask him if this works for servers who are not receiving industry-standard gratuities. While Hadida emphasizes again the importance of “being the most inspiring workplace possible,” he admits finding servers to work in this non-traditional system is tough. “It’s a challenge, no doubt. Those who serve in our industry are culturally conditioned to receive cash.”
I move on to the question of pay. Are they able to ensure all employees at the restaurant are making a living wage? Hadida pauses, seeming to do the calculations in his head. “With all employees being salaried, they are when calculated at a yearly amount.”
In addition to their salary, all employees are covered by a health-benefits program and are given a wine allowance and a yearly bonus based on overall sales. The bonus is distributed evenly amongst all staff based on how many months the employee worked the previous year. The bonus program is key to Hadida, who feels this strongly encourages “cross-pollination of staff, to spend time in the winery, get out in the garden, or to go out foraging.”
To get a better sense of the leadership philosophy in the kitchen, I ask Robertson the other tough question — what is the future of the classical European, ‘Escoffier’ brigade approach to running a kitchen? “I think parts of the concept are really good; the focus on details is key, but not the formalities. Working in this system for many years has shown me that regiment can help an organization.”
To end this visit, chef Hadida gives me a tour of the new hoop house and describes the thinking behind the restaurant’s increasing commitment to grow some of its own food. “The garden isn’t meant to be a showpiece; it’s meant to be a productive aspect of the project.”
Hadida explains they’re mostly growing things that local farmers aren’t. He introduces me to new additions to the team, market gardeners Shane Harper and Monica Goodchild, who will be responsible for the garden this year. Harper is a former-pastry-chef-turned-farmer and, like every other farmer I’ve ever met, expresses concern that the weather is hampering his efforts to keep things on schedule.
While I entered the building, fixated on the idea of how ‘welcoming’ a place the restaurant is, I leave it impressed most by the sense of trust I feel in this workplace. Fagin sums it up best when asked about the restaurant’s secret to success. “A sense of trust that breeds commitment in our place of work.”
The next instalment in this four-part series will be featured in the October issue.
Written by Bruce McAdams