As much as he tries to cloak himself in a tough persona, Trevor Morris readily admits there are times when he wears his heart on his sleeve.
That's what happens when something you love -- a passion for creating great food and fresh pasta -- suffers an unkind, critical comment on popular review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp.
As the chef and owner of Trevioli Artisan Pasta Company in Columbus, which has been open about a year in a modified storage unit on Tower Road, he just can't help but take the sting personally at times.
"As a business owner, when you read reviews, you just hang off of every word. It will make your week or it will destroy your year," said Morris, 30, who was born in Texas, but has lived in several U.S. cities.
He knows the stakes are high as he looks to grow Trevioli into a successful company with legs that can expand one day into downtown Columbus. And he sees embracing his culinary dreams as a way to put behind him a tough upbringing that included a mother addicted to drugs, his own depression and struggles for direction to make something out of himself.
Trevioli, he says, is the one constant in his professional life. It's his baby, even with wife, Brandi, expecting their first child, a boy, in the next couple of weeks.
"I'm kind of a soft-hearted guy," he says. "I try to keep a tough skin, but it doesn't work, especially when you've put everything into this. I've bled for this place. I sweat everyday for this place. I hurt relationships and I build relationships. At what point does it become more than a job? I think I've passed that already."
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Morris recently, sitting and talking inside the modest Italian restaurant he set up inside a storage unit that, with its partial brick facade, appears like a mini-business center from the outside. Within Trevioli's walls, there's a drawing of an octopus, a small rowboat hanging from the ceiling, racks of wine bottles and seats for 24 people in the main dining room. Six more are available in the foyer when business picks up.
The chef and restaurateur discussed his job managing a staff, making pasta and other dishes from scratch, his hopes for the future, and what it feels like when an eatery is running like a well-oiled machine. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
The blog on your earlier life (which can be found via a link at ledger-enquirer.com) drew some attention, didn't it?
We weren't trying to promote the restaurant; just help people out in need -- like, this is where I've come from and this is what I've done to get here. And what it basically comes down to is whether you're going to give up or not. Just keep going, keep going.
That was such an emotional experience for you?
There's a lot of things in life that you just have no control over. I finally realized one day that the only thing I really have had control over is myself and my wanting to succeed in life. There are a lot of people that get down and just kind of quit. A lot of those people are in my family. (laughs) A lot of it is faith. A lot of it is believing that God is on your side. And the other part of it is just not settling for less.
This is where I'm starting. It's in a storage unit. But it's the best damn storage unit that I could put together. It's the best thing I could do. So I'm here seven days a week, 10 to 15 hours a day, and one day I'd like to reap the benefits.
When did you first realize food was the way you wanted to go and that it made you creatively calm, so to speak?
I've tried a lot of different things. I went to school for industrial design. I went for accounting. I even went to culinary school. Not to diss culinary school, but it's nothing like working in a professional kitchen. They give you the fundamentals and the basics, but they'll give you two hours to cook a chicken, when here you've got about nine minutes. And then you can have angry customers.
As you can see, I'm an artist. I painted that (octopus on the wall). I built that boat in my backyard out of plywood. I feel like this type of art isn't nearly as saleable as food. If you have a good team, which I am putting together, with good ideas and good palates, you can put out some pretty amazing stuff.
The duck we're going to run as a special this week, I think it's going to do pretty well. But last week we made some homemade sausage and did a fresh farfalle pasta and sausage and portabella thing, and it was received greatly. We do a lot of specials on Facebook and have a good following. We have 130-something reviews right now and I think 129 of them are five stars. We have one or two that aren't good, but you're not going to make everybody happy.
So I've learned with the social media and whatnot. We've been up there in the top one or two or three on TripAdvisor (restaurants in Columbus) since Christmas. As for Yelp and the other stuff, I don't pay a lot of attention to those.
Explain the impact of social media. Five or 10 years ago, you wouldn't have had to deal so much with that. But now, when I go to another city, I look for the top 10 restaurants on TripAdvisor.
Absolutely, and so do I. I typically stick to TripAdvisor ... I feel like it's the most unbiased. People come in and they're honest. Somebody gave us a one (star) on Valentine's Day, and I like that you get to respond to their stuff on TripAdvisor. So I responded to them. I basically said, look, you came in on Valentine's Day. We were running a special three-course menu, which was not our usual thing. Your server had been here for three days. My wife was working and she's eight months pregnant.
Valentine's Day is the day you're supposed to be 'on' in a restaurant -- and Mother's Day -- and we were off that day. I apologized and said please come back in. I haven't seen them back yet, but somehow the one star went away. But if they did come back in, I would definitely take care of them.
Why choose this flavor of restaurant, Italian with the pasta and garlic and everything?
I went to culinary school. The fundamentals are all French, and the Italians seem to have branched off of that a little bit. The thing that I'm trying to do is offer something that nobody else has, and that's handmade pasta. You know that it's possible, but who wants to do it? (laughs)
Is it hard to make?
Yes, and it takes all day. It's definitely a labor of love. If you want handmade pasta, you either buy it from somebody who makes it or you create this restaurant based on it, and that's what we did. We just said, you know what, we'll just do everything and make pasta.
What's the key to making pasta? And what can mess it up?
It's humidity. Everyday the humidity's different, especially down here in the South. If your pasta is too wet it's going to get stuck in your machine. And you're cleaning your machines out all day, especially the extruder, which squirts out the macaronis.
We do the macaroni for 11th and Bay (restaurant downtown); it's a roasted garlic macaroni. It will get all stuck in the machine. They're really hard to clean out. A lot of it is just cleaning.
And if your pasta is too dry, then it just kind of falls apart. It's like drier biscuit dough, where you have little crumbles everywhere, and it makes a mess.
So getting the right humidity within your pasta based on the humidity in this room or outside -- depending on what time of the year it is -- is the hardest thing to do. You're basically adding little tiny droplets of water or tiny drops of flour to make it happen. After a year and a half or two years that I've been working on this, I feel like we're pretty good at making it happen correctly.
You make several varieties of pasta?
We do. I like learning the old-school stuff. We do culurgionis every now and then, which kind of look like a pot sticker. They're really hard to do, but they're really awesome if you stuff meats in there. We did a roast pork with basil once. It was really good. Your raviolis aren't hard. You tortellinis are fairly easy. Everybody on the staff can do them.
But I watch a lot of YouTube and I try to find the old stuff that they used to do. There's one, called fusilli, and usually you see them in pasta salad and there's the green one and red one and the white one. That's squirted out of a machine. But the older original (method) is they would cut off a strip of pasta and get a long wire and roll it out to like a straw, and then wrap that around the wire and make a big cork screw. The texture is just awesome. You can't beat it.
Some people like pasta just by itself with a little olive oil, perhaps some mild vinegar?
We like to do that every now and then, maybe some fresh tomatoes. We like a lot of organic stuff. We try to get local stuff. I wish that we had hydroponic growers and the organic (farmers). All of these restaurants around here would just love that. Buckhead Grill, they carry White Oak meat. They buy pasta from us. They're trying really hard to support local, and I think it's important that you do. I think us local restaurants should support each other.
You're here not far from the epicenter of the chain movement at Columbus Park Crossing. Any thought that this was not the best place to be, behind a fitness center in a storage unit rather than on the main strip or downtown?
Absolutely, this is a terrible location. But as with Hunter's Pub, when people find out about you, they'll make the drive. A lot of my customers or guests are happy because they live up here, so they're not driving home after two glasses of wine downtown. On the other hand, if you're going out to dinner for local food, you're probably going downtown. You're not coming up here for local stuff.
Are you planning on a downtown location at some point?
It's in talks. I've gotten a lot of people that are like, hey, we'd like to get you downtown. I was looking at that Vintage 222 restaurant for a while, but it didn't really work out. The thing right now is I'm about to have a baby, so life has just stopped. I'm just trying to hold onto everything that I have here and make it the best it can be.
I've had a couple of investors (approach me), but it's all up in the air right now. Would I like to get down there? Yeah. My career would be sealed if I could get down there and compete with these other guys. Or not so much compete. If we could all get together and support each other and make Columbus downtown a foodie destination, I think that we would all be set for life.
So can we rule out within the next year you being down there? After the baby comes?
(Laughs) I'd definitely like to. I know there are a few properties available. But, you know, it comes down to capital and how big of a loan do you want to get, and how much do you want to pay back. You have to have a lot of confidence in your culinary skill to take a huge loan out. And not only that, even if you're a good cook, you have to be an excellent manager.
There are a lot of people down there all the time, with the festivals and the Saturday morning market. We like to do that as well. CSU's crazy. Downtown is a great place.
And Mike Harrell, with 11th and Bay, he's got a million ideas for different things. You could drive downtown with him and he would tell you what restaurant needs to go into each spot. He knows that stuff ... He was with Carrabba's and was there what, nine or 10 years. He's been watching Columbus. I have a couple of his old staff from Carrabba's and they're very well trained. They're very talented. It was really (Mike) that helped me get this staff built up, and that's important. Without your team, you're just a guy in a storage unit.
What's your day-to-day life like?
I'll typically get here at 8 or 9. (Delivery) trucks come in and you've got your wine, you've got your fresh fish. Flour and all of that stuff has to come in ... I prefer to be here so I can look at everything. You can reject stuff.
Also, I don't like overworking my staff. I've got a couple of guys that are salaried, and I was salary for most of my career before this and just abused by big corporations. So my salary guys, I tell them, 'I want you work 45, maybe 50 hours a week. If you need a day off, take one off. If you need family time, take it and we'll pull this together.'
But as for the food (operation), I'm here from 9 a.m. 'til typically 11:30 at night. It doesn't really give me a lot of family time, which I'm going to need here coming up. But I feel like there are so many things to do, and the hardest part is replacing yourself.
When I have a location downtown, I'm not going to close this. I'm just going to have to replace myself here, which I think my front-end guy Jeff is the man for it. He's got just as much passion as I do. When it comes to owning a business, nobody is as passionate as you are. It's yours. But he comes pretty damn close.
Are you a perfectionist with the food and everything in general?
It's the food that I'm persnickety about. I don't ever want anything to come out that door that doesn't blow people away. That's hard when you're training people and you have new people on staff who don't have necessarily the background that you have.
We're a pretty tight-knit staff here and if there's one of us having an issue, we're going to fix it. It's not like one of those businesses where people don't talk to each other and things just happen, you know what I mean? Oftentimes, in these larger chain restaurants, it's just chaos. People are doing whatever they want.
So I guess the best way to describe it is on Friday and Saturday nights, even here it's like that football game and there's three seconds left in the game and you've got to throw a Hail Mary. It's like that for four to six hours at a time. You're just hanging on.
Which you enjoy?
When everybody's in sync, it's awesome. They call it a well-oiled machine. When everybody's running like that, I stand back and (think), man, did I create this? Not only did we create a restaurant in a building, but you have created all of those relationships that work perfectly together in sync, and if one person starts to get out of sync, the rest of them correct it right then and there. Making that happen is one of the greatest things that I've ever done.
What's the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I definitely have a lot more friends now than I ever have. We had a baby shower and packed this place out. We were closed, but everybody showed up. I have a lot of people in Green Island Hills who will come have dinner and bring a bag of diapers, which is awesome, but it's like, how did this happen? So I feel like this town has accepted me, and to feel accepted, for anybody, is just awesome.
As for the food, this is the first time that I've been able to just cook what I want. When you're working a 15-hour day and you're cooking what you want, it's not a 15-hour day.
If you want to create a new dish at any moment, it's simply 'let's go with it'?
Yeah. There are certain nights where I go, 'Scratch the white-bean cassoulet off the board. We're going with braised octopus tonight.' And they'll do it and people will come in and 99 percent of the time it's cool.
Is part of your job going to other restaurants? And where do you go?
Atlanta is a foodie hub, I believe, maybe not as big as New York or Chicago. I grew up just outside of Chicago and there's a lot of awesome stuff there.
But every now and then the wife and I will TripAdvisor Atlanta and see what's going on. The last time we went to a place called Sotto Sotto and it's basically just this little house in the middle of the city with a little patio out back, and it probably seats maybe 60 people in total. It was just genuine straight-up Italian. The guy was from Sicily. I go there and I'm like, OK, this is what I'm supposed to be doing.
We got a couple of different pastas, and we ordered the whole fish. It was like a Mediterranean sea bass. What they do is bring the whole fish out and they give it to you. They'll cook it to perfection and the meat just slides right off the bone.
So the next week we did that here. It was Brazilian snapper. If you cook it perfectly, you scale the fish, you leave the head on, you cook it and then bring it out here as a whole fish and just slide the meat right off. It was awesome.
I also love going to these places that have the local beers. We applied for our beer license. I want to carry Omaha and Terrapin Hops and Sweetwater. I love those types of (craft) beers.
With what little free time you have, do you watch any culinary TV shows, such as those with Anthony Bourdain?
I like Bourdain. I like the shows were there's generally an issue with the restaurant and they go in and fix it, like "Bar Rescue" or "Kitchen Nightmare," because I want to have one of those restaurants where we've already worked all of the wrinkles out.
I don't like reading the reviews that say, 'Oh, they must have changed the chef this night' or, 'Oh, my server was new.' I feel like if I spoil my staff and I treat them correctly, they're going to be happy here and they're going to love it. And when your staff loves it, it's hard not to notice.
Everything falls into place?
Everything works. The customers are just super happy because your server loves being here. Your cook in the back loves cooking and he's so proud of that.
So five years from now, where do you see yourself? What is your five-year plan?
I'm still working on it, I guess.
Besides being a daddy, of course.
(Laughs) Yeah, that's the ultimate, and a good husband.
But I'd like to have another one or two of these (eateries), maybe nice burgers at one and pizza at another. I could be like a micro-Mark Jones, a storage unit Mark Jones. Or I could go downtown and have one big massive restaurant.
I think some of the issues that downtown may have is that not everybody is on the same team, and I think that I have good enough relationships with a lot of the business owners down there, that I could come down -- I'm not saying that I would be the glue that holds everybody together -- but I really think that if we just all loved each other a little bit, then we could work as a city to bring all that money in that the city desperately needs. Our cops are underpaid; all of the issues that we write about in the paper. I think if we could get our downtown set up -- which is happening -- then we could cure a lot of those money issues.
A downtown is the heart and soul of a community.
What's your favorite dish, other than your own food?
I have to say the best thing I've probably ever eaten was (a few years ago) ... I worked for this old British chef and he had these two baby cow heads, the whole heads and skinned. He was like, 'These came off the truck. Take them next door and get them cut in half.' So I went next door where there's an Italian restaurant and they had a band saw for cutting stuff. He cut them in half and I brought them back and the chef starts pulling out brains and teeth and eyes and I'm just holding my stomach.
Four hours later, he comes up to me and goes, 'Here, try this braised veal cheek.' Braised veal cheek, as terrible as it sounds, was just like butter. Talk to a chef about butter or bacon; that was like bacon and butter put together. It was just one of those awesome things that you eat and you never forget.
Will we ever see that here?
I would certainly like to. We like to braise a lot of stuff. I love braising lamb and pork. This is pork town. We smoke a lot of pork. There was a time when I took a Boston butt and we braised it with some fresh ginger and vanilla, and I gave it to some of my friends and they were like, 'We've never had pork like this before. This is awesome. Put this in raviolis. Give us the sauce.' A buddy of mine was, like, drinking his plate.Bio
Name: Trevor Morris
Hometown: Born in Austin, Texas, but has lived in Auburn, Ga., Barrington, Ill., and Palm Beach, Fla.
Current residence: Columbus (lives three blocks from his restaurant)
Education: 2003 graduate of Barrington High School; studied industrial design at Southern Illinois University; attended Florida Culinary Institute; and studied accounting at Columbus Technical College
Family: Wife, Brandi, with a baby boy on the way (says his family also includes "a mix of marines, drug addicts, offenders and defenders. We are a rowdy bunch.")
Leisure time: Loves to go fishing, especially in the ocean; and, naturally, enjoys cooking