Work to Live… And Live to Play

April 1, 2006

Mortons

By Kristi Ruggles

Paul Jacobsen’s culinary career was downhill, as in skiing, from the very beginning. And he wanted it that way.

The chef, who now runs the kitchen at Morton’s The Steakhouse in Clayton, got his start with cooking jobs in Colorado, where he moved as a 19-year-old to pursue the lifestyle that only the West could offer him.

Jacobsen, now 41, was born a child of the slopes. His dad, who was Norwegian, was an Olympic gymnast who raised his family in Milwaukee. On winter weekends, the family skied. So it was little surprise that when Paul Jacobsen’s older brother finished school, he moved to Colorado. His sister followed, and once Jacobsen was old enough, he headed west as well.

“I started cooking because it was a good ski job,” he said. “I worked nights and had my days free to cycle, mountain bike, ski … I just enjoyed living in the mountains and everything it provided.”

In the off-season, when restaurant business slowed, Jacobsen found jobs making snow and maintaining mountain trails.

“It was a herky jerky start in the restaurant business because it would be really busy for six months and then a struggle for six months,” he said. But Jacobsen eventually would meet the woman he would marry, and soon thereafter, he’d find the job that would make cooking more than the work he did so he could enjoy his hobbies.

Mitzi McCalley, an Alton, Illinois native, met Paul Jacobsen while attending a 1994 conference in Vail, Colorado. She moved to Vail that same year, and the couple stayed until 1995. Then they moved from Vail to Glenwood Springs, where Jacobsen joined the kitchen staff at Hotel Colorado, an 1890s hotel dubbed the “White House West”  because of its frequent guest, President Theodore Roosevelt. When Mitzi and Paul married in 1997, they exchanged vows in the room that had been Roosevelt’s during his visits. Paul Jacobsen was only a groom that day; he had long since left his post at Hotel Colorado and moved into the job that would convince him he wanted a career in the kitchen.

Chart House Restaurant was tucked away in the mountains in Aspen. As a casual fine dining restaurant it set itself apart from other restaurants in many of the same ways that Morton’s does today. It offered a top-notch menu and an atmosphere that suggested it was an out-of-the-ordinary destination. It also—like Morton’s—had a propensity for attracting celebrities.

Jacobsen spent seven years at the Chart House and moved up the ranks to Lead Night Chef until a seafood chain bought Chart House. So Jacobsen moved to his new gig at The Blue Water Grill —a cozy but bustling grill in El Gelbel, a small town nestled in a Colorado valley.

“The Blue Water was a great working and learning environment,” he said. “The owners treated me very well. I was working hands-on with a great chef, Chris Sapp, and I was working with all sorts of new dishes.”

Mitzi Jacobsen seized upon a career opportunity in 2004, and the couple, who now had a 4-year-old son, returned to the Midwest.

“The timing I hit with this place was impeccable,” Paul Jacobsen said. “I’d been back (in the St. Louis metropolitan area) for about a week. I applied for this job, met the general manager, and things just worked out. I was very fortunate.”

Jacobsen assumed the head chef job in a restaurant that strives to offer the same unforgettable meals in 69 locations. The approach has been affectionately dubbed a “Big Mac strategy at porterhouse prices.”

“The whole idea is that you know exactly what to expect,” said Jeffrey Daniels, assistant manager at Morton’s in Clayton, “an extraordinary dining experience no matter where your travels take you. It is our hallmark. If you have an event in Washington, D.C., we can duplicate it in Chicago or St. Louis with consistency.”

Missouri has two Morton’s—one in Kansas City and one in Clayton, an affluent suburb of St. Louis. There are five Morton’s in Chicago and others scattered in major metropolitan areas as near as Indianapolis and as far as Singapore. They offer boardrooms for events, which in St. Louis accommodate 30 people in each of two rooms. The rooms also can be rented for one group and accommodate 60. Daniels said if a group uses the entire restaurant, it can bring as many as 200 for dinner.

The restaurant boasts that it serves USDA prime beef and a list of 300 wines. Dinners begin at $51. Groups larger than 15 may order from a boardroom menu, which skips the a la carte options and offers prices for meals including a salad, entrée, accompaniment, dessert and coffee and tea. Among the most popular cuts of steak are double cut filet mignon and New York strip steak. For guests who don’t want beef, the menu also includes lobster, salmon, shrimp, lamb and chicken.

Daniels said about half of Morton’s guests are there on business. The boardrooms are equipped with videoconferencing technology and other tools essential for business meetings.

The other half of the restaurant guests come to celebrate special occasions, Daniels said. They go to the restaurant for anniversaries, birthdays, bachelor parties and sendoff parties for soldiers about to be deployed.

“Morton’s isn’t for every occasion,” he said, “but when the occasion calls for it, this is the place. When someone says, ‘We’re going to Morton’s for dinner tonight, it signifies something special.”

As for Jacobsen, he’ll continue his role as chef at Morton’s in Clayton and supervise what he calls a “very talented” kitchen staff.

In January, he was carrying his skis around in his car for a return trip to Colorado. He’s also staked out several Missouri parks and found cycling trails that he hits as often as he can. Son Matthew is often behind him in a bike trailer. His days typically begin in early afternoon and wrap up after 11, but even amid the demands of a head chef job for a national steakhouse, he has a tiny piece of what drew him to kitchen work in the first place: his days free to enjoy the outdoors.

For information about Morton’s in Clayton, or to schedule an event, call the sales and marketing manager at (314) 725-4008. Find out more at www.mortons.com. MM&E

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