This article is part of a series on the Restaurant at Pearl Morissette written for Foodservice and Hospitality Magazine.
My drive down to Niagara feels a little different now that it’s mid-August. The sun is scorching, some of the green things are showing a bit of brown, the land seems tired. I arrive at The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette and get a slight sense of the same. It’s mid-afternoon, the staff are as welcoming as ever, but it’s been a long and busy summer and it shows. I spend some time catching up with Chef Eric Robertson who informs me that they’re short a few bodies in the kitchen. A turned ankle during a lunch time soccer game, knee surgery for another, and they’re down two cooks. “The guests don’t notice any difference. but we work a little harder to get a 10-course tasting menu out.”
Maitre d’ Roisin Fagin comes over to say hi as I wait to speak to Chef Daniel Hadida. I ask Fagin if she saw the last story I’d written about the restaurant. I’m pleased to hear she had seen and enjoyed it. She does however point out that I referred to their patrons as ‘customers’, something they never do. Fagin explains to me that they refer to people who dine with them as ‘guests’, I assure her I won’t make that mistake again. This exchange with Fagin cements what I’ve come to know about this restaurant. Leadership’s commitment to the guest experience is not just rhetoric, it’s something that starts at the top, and if it didn’t, the kind of ‘escapism’ the team is trying to provide would not be possible.
There are several things I want to cover for the summer installment of this series, one of them is the increasing challenges of dealing the dietary restrictions of guests. A ‘high maintenance’ friend of mine recently told me about the great experience he had at The Restaurant at Pearl Morisette. He was both ‘astonished and impressed’ with their willingness to accommodate a rather lengthy list of his dietary restrictions and I want to do some digging to see how they make this happen. I also want to discuss with Hadida his thoughts on where the industry is. Though he is trying to change the model, Hadida recently commented to me that he feels the industry is making progress and I want to ask him to explain his thinking.
To start things off I ask Chefs Hadida and Robertson about the restaurants approach to dietary restriction requests from guests. They admit that this was a big consideration when they were opening. They thought about saying no, they even considered charging more. In the end, they committed to accommodating any requests as this was most aligned with their goal of providing a luxury experience. Reading the body language of both Chefs I wonder if they regret this decision but before I get a chance to ask, Robertson explains ‘our decision is validated by all the great feedback from guests who are touched by the effort.” Hadida adds that he hasn’t wasted a moment second guessing the decision, it doesn’t make him happy but it does make him satisfied.
I continue by asking the Chefs about the process they use to make this happen and am shown a reservation sheet for the upcoming week. I can see from the information presented that approximately one quarter of the reservations have dietary restrictions. There are vegans, pescatarians, gluten free diets, allergies to mango, cinnamon, and even nightshades. Robertson tells me that in order to deliver the high level of cuisine they are committed to they have looked for ways to make handling requests less of a burden. Given that they are a reservation-based restaurant that books up months in advance they possess the ability to get information from guests ahead of time. When I’ve made on-line reservations at the restaurant I’ve been prompted by Tock (on-line reservation system) to provide any dietary restrictions my party may have. Maître d’ Fagin or another member of the service team follow up a week in advance of a reservation via phone to ensure they have all information needed. The first thing that is obvious to me is that without having detailed information this far in advance the team couldn’t manage all the requests they receive.
I’m told by the Chefs that I should attend one of the restaurants weekly menu meeting to get a better understanding of the efforts required to deliver on this promise. As I have a dinner reservation the following Friday evening I arrange to attend the meeting the team will be having to plan the menu I will be enjoying. It seems fitting that one of my guests for dinner that night happens to be a vegetarian. I’m looking forward to a first-hand experience of how the restaurant responds to her requirements.
On that Wednesday morning I arrive just as the meeting is getting under way. I’ve become accustomed to being surprised by what happens at this restaurant and this day is no exception. All managers and employees are present, including the farm team and forager. The first 20 minutes are taken up with what Hadida refers to as a weekly check-in. Everyone takes a turn sharing what they’ve done during their two days off that the restaurant has been closed. There is a comfortable feeling around the table and a sense of equity among all, it’s obvious to me that this is a truly trusting environment. Perhaps what is most shocking to me is how much laughter there is. While the humour is mostly self- deprecating, there are a few friendly jabs taken at one another, but all in good fun.
Once the catch up is complete the team moves on to the business of the menu. Chef Roberston shares the details of the 10 courses they will be preparing for their weekly tasting menu. Notes are taken, and questions are asked before they move on to how they will handle this weeks’ dietary restrictions. The team has prepared an “Allergy Sheet” for the week that is broken down by each service. Robertson starts his review with Thursday dinner service where they have 40 reservations. The allergy sheet shows 12 of these guests have some form of dietary restriction. I’m amazed that the team goes through every plate that will be affected by these requests. Some substitutions are obvious, others take several team members input to come up with an appropriate alternative. Forty minutes after starting the team gets to the last service for the week, Sunday night. This service has some particularly challenging requests and I get a sense of fatigue in the group. There are a few ‘looks’ from the team when a ‘severe’ allergy to pork is mentioned, and more gluten free discussion seems to tire the group.
The next part of the meeting involves the restaurants forager and farm team giving an update on what they’ve been working on. Summer is a slow time for foraging but there has been lots of work in the gardens, not only harvesting but planning and planting beds for upcoming seasons. It is during the farm update that I am once again shocked by something I hear. The farm team makes the group aware that they have planted some lettuces and arugula specifically for staff meal and they will be ready in the upcoming week. Though I’m aware of Hadida’s belief that staff meals provide an opportunity for the front and back of houses to get together in a transaction free environment I had no idea they were growing specific foods for these meals.
I sit down with Hadida and after complimenting him on what I thought was an incredible meeting I move the direction of the discussion away from his restaurant to a broader industry discussion. Despite his belief that the current restaurant model is broken, Hadida is positive about the progress that has been made in the last ten years. He tells me the restaurant industry is in a ‘transitionary period’. When asked what has changed Hadida states, “I was fed that passion bullshit for a long time, I was institutionalized.’ He speaks to the state of the industry using an interesting analogy. “It’s like a piece of kitchen equipment you move and see that it’s dirty underneath, in the past the industry has not addressed the dirt, we’ve just put the equipment back, we are now addressing that dirt.’ As an industry veteran who saw the dirt but didn’t do enough to clean it up I’m inspired by Hadida’s dedication to change.
It’s a Friday night at the end of August and time for me to enjoy The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette as a guest. My companions and I arrive, and after a warm greeting we’re shown to our table and get comfortable in our seats. Wine orders are taken, and we have the menu explained to us by one of the service team members. My friend comments that the term ‘vegetarian’ was never used when it was explained that she will be enjoying a menu with a few different ingredients. In all, four of the ten courses come out prepared slightly different for my guest. The deliciousness of all dishes is etched on her face as she explains to us the flavours and textures she is experiencing. At the end of the meal each of us is presented with a printed copy of the menu we enjoyed to take home. We are all left speechless when we see that my vegetarian friends’ menu reflects the exact dishes that she had enjoyed that evening. We expected that her menu would read like ours, but the team had taken the time to personalize a version of the menu just for her.
A life-long vegetarian, my friend explains to me that she has never experienced a dining experience with a set menu where he has not felt that she was being ‘accommodated for’, or even made to feel a burden. She gets quite emotional explaining how fantastic an experience she has had on her first trip to The Restaurant at Pearl Morissette. When we left the restaurant we thanked Hadida for a magical experience. My friend shares with Hadida her feelings, how special she has been made to feel by the restaurants accommodating her vegetarianism so seamlessly. A smile crosses Hadida’s face as he receives the praise for his team’s effort. At least for this moment, I’m certain he’s
pleased he decided to face the challenge of dietary restrictions head-on.