Interview with Executive Chef Jim Morse of the Boathouse Restaurant in Old Mission Peninsula, (Traverse City) Michigan

ExecutiveChefJamesMorse_TheBoathouseRestaurant_Michigan_acookscanvas_copyright 2011-2015_58

The Boathouse’s culinary team is headed by Executive Chef Jim Morse. Chef Jim is a fourth generation Northern Michigan native and attended culinary school at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College. He started working at The Boathouse as Sous Chef in 2000, and became Executive Chef in 2002. Jim then moved to Siren Hall in Elk Rapids in 2008 where he spent five years as Sous Chef. He returned to The Boathouse as Executive Chef in the fall of 2013.

Chef Jim teaches part time at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College and loves to share his knowledge and experience with up and coming chefs. Most recently he taught World Cuisine which studies foods and cultures throughout Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the New World. He uses his knowledge of these cuisines to create dishes that are unique and well balanced. The ideas used in Asian cooking regarding balance and harmony of flavors are blended with Western techniques to create new and exciting dishes.

Chef Jim’s menus reflect the growing demand for seasonal and locally sourced foods. Many dishes include fruits, vegetables, or herbs grown on The Boathouse Farm. Meats, fish, cheeses, and wild foods are sourced from some of the best farmers, foragers, and artisans in the area. Chef Jim’s goal in creating new dishes is to blend the exotic with the familiar to offer the diner an experience rooted in tradition but exceeding their expectations with new flavors and combinations.

Recently I had the chance to sit with Executive Chef Jim Morse of Boathouse restaurant and ask him a few questions about his background and culinary philosophy; here is what he had to say.

Describe your culinary philosophy and approach to cooking in three words.
Simple, fresh, seasonal

How did you get started cooking, and when did you decide to make a career out of it?
I started working as a dishwasher at a golf course when I was 15. Moved to Crystal Downs Country Club as a valet at 16. Pulled into the kitchen to cover one of the cooks. Decided to go to culinary school my senior year of high school while working at CDCC. I really looked up to the chefs there and wanted to be like them.

Who are your main culinary influences?
Two chefs I’ve worked for after culinary school and who both taught me a lot are Michael Bauer and Michael Peterson. The chef’s I look up to most are Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz, Mario Batali and Alice Waters.

Is there a process you follow while creating new recipes and dishes?
The first step is to identify the season. This will determine both the products available and at peak quality as well as the diner’s expectations of style. ie. rich, comfort food in colder months vs lighter, seafood focused foods in warmer weather. Then I choose the focal point of the dish; protein, cheese or a specific produce item that is at it’s peak. Then I choose the supporting characters taking into consideration balance of flavors, colors, textures, acidity, seasonings. From there it takes shape in my head and then I work out recipes that bring it to the plate, tweaking my methods and seasonings as I go.

The Boathouse is a contemporary French farm-to-table restaurant, and much of your produce comes from owner’s Doug and Erin Kosch’s local 10acre farm. Working with what you have available, what ingredients/techniques do you consider essential to retaining the “Frenchness” of your menu?
I believe in allowing beautiful ingredients to speak for themselves. A good example of this is in a dish like Ratatouille. This to me is the essence of simplicity and how choosing ingredients fresh from the ground and allowing them to speak for themselves creates a dish that is much more than the sum of it’s parts. This to me is what French cooking, and truly any great cuisine, is all about. We do an event literally called “Farm to Table” where guests meet at the restaurant for a cocktail, head to the farm for a tour along with champagne and a salad of whatever I have just picked, then return to the restaurant for a plated dinner. At the farm I cut fresh tomatoes, cucumber and onion that are still warm from the field, toss it with torn basil leaves, olive oil, sea salt and cracked pepper. I might also pick other herbs or flowers that are growing on the farm and mix these in. The flavors of this type of “cooking” are impossible to improve on with any level of technique or training and the guests enjoyment is incredible.

Being located in one of the top wine areas of Michigan, what are your favorite pairings with the locally produced reds, whites and sparkling?
Our region shares climate characteristics with some of the great wine regions in France and Germany. Our growing season is fairly short so we focus on the grapes that do well with that. Riesling and Gewurztraminer both do very well in the Grand Traverse region. I think both of those wines are great food wines. I like to serve dry Rieslings with spicy, Asian influenced dishes. One of my favorites is a Thai style green coconut curry seafood soup paired with a dry Riesling. Most of the wineries in this area produce a great dry Riesling. L. Mawby makes world class sparkling wine on the Leelanau Peninsula. Any one of their wines is a great beginning to a meal. Their Blanc de Blanc with our oyster-tuna tartare dish would be a great match. Villa Mari (name soon changing) grows red wine grapes under hoop houses to extend the limited growing season and produces some of the best red wines in the area. They generally blend their grapes to produce wines will the specific characteristics they are looking for. I think their wines pair very well with lamb and lighter game dishes such as elk, venison and duck. The area also produces some very nice ice wine and dessert wines. The Black Star Farms Maple Sirius and Pear brandies as well as their Sirius White (Port style brandy fortified Chardonnay) are great options for sweeter after dinner wines.

I’ve read that your most favorite ingredient to work with is eggs. What is your favorite way in using eggs as an ingredient?
I love the egg’s versatility for use in sauces such as mayonnaise, aioli and hollandaise. It’s emulsifying properties are still kind of magical to me. I think my favorite way to use eggs are to poach them, leaving the yolk runny and allow the guest to break the egg open on the plate, creating a sauce with other components on the dish.

Do you have another ingredient you enjoy working with?

What is your least favorite ingredients to work with?
Any ingredient that is not fresh

What are a few of your favorite cookbooks? 
The French Laundry-Thomas Keller
On Food & Cooking – Harold McGee
Charcuterie – Brian Polcyn
Culinary Artistry – Andrew Dornenberg & Karen Page
How America Eats – Clementine Paddleford
Charlie Trotters series
Writings by M.F.K. Fisher

What cities/countries would you like to go to for your culinary travel?
France, Spain, Japan & India

The critics have their favorites, but I like to eat where the Chefs eat. Besides The Boathouse what restaurants do you like to eat at here in Michigan and/or elsewhere?
In Traverse City my favorite restaurants are The Cooks House & Stella. For lunch or off the beaten path my favorites are Frenchie’s, Harvest and Osorio. Whenever I travel I seek out the ethnic foods. I teach World Cuisine at GLCI and am always looking for new flavors that can’t be found in classical European restaurants.

What do you like to cook for friends and family?
My wife is vegetarian so I cook a lot of fresh vegetables at home. That’s what I prefer to eat. I get plenty of rich foods and meats working in a restaurant so I like to focus on foods that make me feel good to cook and to eat. Whatever I pick from my garden is best.

Do you have a guilty pleasure; something you eat when nobody is looking?
Peanut butter straight from the jar, sometimes sprinkled with chocolate chips.

Not only receiving your culinary degree from Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College but you’re also an instructor. What advice do you give to young chefs just getting started?
Try everything at least once. Also, just because you didn’t like something the first time you had it doesn’t mean you will never like it. Maybe it just wasn’t cooked properly. I can’t name a food that I don’t like other than one that was not fresh or not cooked properly. Learn to know the difference and you will never be disappointed in your cooking.

There are many aspiring cooks out there like myself who are not beginners but haven’t yet reached the professional level; what advice would you give us to take our cooking to the next level?
Experiment with global cuisines and learn how to blend exotic ingredients with everyday cooking to keep your ideas and flavors fresh. Never cook the same thing twice. Always tweak something just a little bit. Thomas Keller says there is no such thing as perfection, only the pursuit of perfection. If we ever were to reach perfection, then what…

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