North Forker and Grace & Grit Chef Jennilee Morris Reflects on ‘Local’

Grace & Grit chef Jennilee Morris
Grace & Grit chef Jennilee Morris Doug Young

Jennilee Morris, executive chef and co-owner of Southold’s Grace & Grit catering company is a very busy woman these days, preparing her farm-to-table specialties for all manner of affairs and hosting foodie pop-ups. But you have at least two good chances to meet her this season.

Morris is one of the East End’s top chefs gathering to honor the doyenne of North Fork dining, the North Fork Table & Inn’s co-founder Chef Claudia Fleming, at Dan’s Chefs of the North Fork hosted by The Halyard at Sound View Greenport on Saturday, July 7. It will be a night to remember, featuring a once-in-a-lifetime meal with wine pairings.

“I’m very excited to celebrate Claudia Fleming. She’s an incredible, strong woman and an inspiration to, not just female chefs, but ALL chefs,” Morris says. Her advice for enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime meal? “Drink responsibly but eat without boundaries!”

Morris is also going to give Team NYC a hard time as she competes on Team Hamptons at Dan’s GrillHampton presented by New York Prime Beef on Friday, July 20 at Fairview Farm at Mecox. East End chefs are pitted against NYC chefs in a one-of-a-kind cooking competition and tasting event.

She doesn’t need to practice, but she sort of has been, noting “at home lately, I just love cooking over an open wood fire and will grab whatever I find fresh from the farmstand and that’s dinner.” How do you know when a dish works? Morris says, “something that tastes so good it just lingers and, even though you’re full, you keep eating because that flavor is so, so good.”

Who inspired your career the most?
The late Gerry Hayden of North Fork Table & Inn helped me get through one of the most challenging times in my career. I got into a bad business deal at a young age and thought my career was over. He taught me how to think through my problems, and that there’s always a solution.

He was right. It’s incredible because Gerry has mentored so many chefs but I didn’t get close to him until after he couldn’t cook anymore. Gerry didn’t teach me how to cook. He taught me resilience. He also showed me how powerful it can be to collaborate and work closely with your farmers—something he always stayed true to.

How would you describe the evolution of the North Fork dining scene?
I’ve been in the industry on the North Fork since 2007 when I was the opening general manager of Love Lane Kitchen. I knew the North Fork was something special. At the time the only restaurant I cared about was the North Fork Table and Inn. It was always an experience, farm-to-table, innovative and reliable. Nothing else existed to me for a number of years, it was Love Lane and NFTI.

In Greenport there was the Frisky Oyster and that’s it. In the last five years it’s been incredible to see the success stories that have launched in this region. There’s a culture of culinary entrepreneurs here and people want to support it. I can attest to it—when I opened North Fork Roasting Co., a small batch coffee roastery, with my partner, Jess Morris, in 2015—it was an instant staple.

As if we should have always been there. Specialty coffee was just one small part of the demand. It’s all about local. Local products, artisans, farmers. Our community wants to support our community. What a beautiful thing.

Where are you from?
I was born in Florida but grew up on Long Island. I spent my childhood playing in the woods, collecting little strawberries from my lawn, slurping the honey off of honeysuckle and freshwater fishing with the boys on the block. My fondest memories are having Memorial Day cookouts with my dad and playing Wiffle ball in the backyard.

As a kid I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, setting up lemonade stands, selling candy bars and raking people’s leaves. I even used to catch nightcrawlers and sell them to the local tackle shop. I learned at a young age to work hard and found a true enjoyment in providing a service to others. I liked making people happy.

What’s your earliest food memory?
My grandfather was a chef and my uncle and cousin both operated restaurants and catering halls. I was a bit too young to remember the crazy stories my mom tells me about my grandfather’s catering life but I do remember my cousin’s first pizzeria. It was the first time I made a pizza pie. I was probably only 11 or 12 at the time—the excitement of rolling out the perfectly proofed dough and having a whole mise en place of ingredients to create.

The excitement of watching my pizza cook in the oven was only surpassed by the moment I got to share it with my family. The oohs and ahhs over something I made on my own—it was the beginning of me understanding the inextricable link between food, family and love.

What’s special about being part of the North Fork culinary community?
I’d say the camaraderie in our industry. I feel like we have a pretty tight knit culinary scene on the North Fork. We’re very supportive of each other and love collaborating and celebrating the achievements of others. All boats rise with the tide out here. It’s not just other chefs working together but it’s also chefs and our farmers.

The relationships I’ve been able to build with some of my local farmers will last long after I hang up my apron one day. I have learned more, spending time with these hardworking cultivators, then I ever could have in culinary school. It’s amazing to see the innovation and the experiments our modern day farmers are working on.

Each season we spend time talking and planning the year’s harvest, which is exciting for our team because we can work our menus around this and ensure our customers are getting the freshest food the East End has to offer. 

How does living on the East End inform your cooking and culinary creativity?
I pinch myself every day at how lucky I am. I have learned so much by visiting my farmers and walking their fields. I’ve seen a field of tomatoes burst from heavy rain and I’ve watched my own lettuces bolt because I didn’t know I was supposed to have picked them already.

I’ve farmed my own oysters and caught my own fish. I’ve been able to feed chickens and watch goats be milked for cheese. Actually seeing where our food comes from has changed me as a chef. I treat my food with more respect. I do less to it.

What does the term “taste of summer” bring to mind for you?
All of our farms! I wait all winter for the bounty to return and it’s so exciting to see what people are growing each season. Michelle Hart from Deep Roots Farm in Southold is always trying new things—her fresh raab was incredible this year. Ira Haspel has this spicy arugula I obsess over each season. Pete Trieber has the freshest berries and Breeze Hill Farm & Preserve in Peconic grows more variety in their orchard each year. It’s so exciting. Makes me want to cook.

What’s the most important thing to teach the next generation of chefs?
Continue to cultivate your relationships with your farmers. It’s a beautiful cycle. As a chef, it’s difficult to leave your kitchen, but the more you get out there the more opportunities you can find to do good.

Whether it be hooking up with a local charity for food waste like CAST (Community Action Southold Town) or working out a composting program with a local farm. Whatever you can do to keep the cycle going is the greater vision. Your food will be incredible if your love for it runs that deep.

What makes a cocktail a “craft cocktail?”
Whatever Joe Coleman, our mixologist at Grace & Grit does, one taste and you know it’s that man’s craft. I will say his use of fresh produce in his cocktail—he also balances his drinks and spends time testing recipes.

Dan’s Chefs of the North Fork hosted by The Halyard at Sound View Greenport is Saturday, July 7 at 7 p.m. Tickets—at press time only a few remain—are $150 and are on sale now at Patrons must be 21 or older to attend.

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