Colorado Proud, the Colorado Department of Agriculture's food-promotion wing, is highlighting the harvest season this month with a 27-day, eleven-city "Choose Colorado" tour of the state, showcasing its best products. The tour will culminate with a private lunch for state dignitaries on August 27 featuring ingredients gathered by the Colorado Proud team and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar. Chef Jason Morse, along with fellow chef Kurt Boucher, will be cooking for invited guests. Morse is still working on the menu, but a cheesecake featuring Haystack Mountain goat cheese is high on his list, and he's excited about some of the other products he'll be working with: potatoes from Alamosa, tomatoes and rhubarb from Boulder, roasted green chiles from El Paso County, beets from Durango, and onions and scallions from Fort Collins, to name just a few.
Although the lunch is not open to the public, the Choose Colorado tour has been setting up one-day farmers' markets for the public throughout the state that will continue through the week (remaining stops include Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Fountain, Burlington and Denver). There are also Colorado-based recipes available on the Colorado Proud website, many of which Morse has created over the past four years. His passion for Colorado and its agriculture are clear from the focus of his consulting business, 5280 Culinary, where he advocates for products such as lamb that's born, raised and finished in the Centennial State and small-farm cantaloupe from Rocky Ford while offering his services to Colorado public schools to help shape the eating habits of Colorado kids.
Morse isn't from Colorado, and he took a roundabout career path to get here -- and to his interest in local products. He grew up in suburban Minneapolis, and first learned about cooking from a neighbor -- "a gourmand," he says, "not a foodie" -- who would let him help her with food preparation as a reward for mowing the lawn. By the age of fourteen, he was rolling enchiladas in a local Mexican restaurant, but he soon moved on to a steakhouse. After high school, he attended Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina. He credits his mentor, Mike Moros, with setting him on a path toward a culinary education, even though he thought he knew everything.
Over the course of his career, Morse has worked as a corporate trainer for Chili's, as the corporate chef for the entire Cafe Odyssey chain, at various hotel restaurants, and eventually at the Valley Country Club in Centennial. While there, he became involved in Michelle Obama's Chefs Move to Schools program because of his interest in children's nutrition. A trip to Washington, D.C., landed him in front of the First Lady with a group of other chefs involved in the program. It was a life-altering moment, and he remembers asking himself, "How did I go from frying tortillas in Minnesota to sitting on the White House lawn?"
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Immediately after returning to Colorado, Morse put in his notice at the country club and was soon building his new company; he also connected with Colorado Proud. Two years ago, he introduced his first school food-education program, taking forty kids at a time on grocery-shopping trips, during which he teaches them how to select good produce and meats, talks about how fruits and vegetables have seasons, then teaches the kids how to cook the foods they find. "I was blown away by adults' reactions to kids shopping," he says. That program has since expanded to 85 schools and over 66,000 students.
When teaching schoolkids how to shop and cook, Morse focuses on whole ingredients that many kids accustomed to processed foods haven't yet learned about. "I love seeing their faces when they taste unseasoned beef and then try it again seasoned," he explains, adding that something as simple as stir-fried beef can teach new cooks about the importance of salt, pepper and spices. His mission is "to get consumers connected back with food," he says. He talks about the importance of understanding where our food comes from. One of his plans calls for setting up camp on a sheep ranch and following shepherds and their Anatolian dogs into the wilderness to learn about the reality and economics of raising sheep on untamed land, so that he can better represent ranchers and farmers.
When Morse isn't promoting nutrition and Colorado foods to this state's kids, he's working with federal agencies (most recently he was in Guam to implement improvements in public-school lunches); leading cooking classes and boot camps; and producing a line of spices and "earth-salt" caramels. The salt, he says, comes from an underground deposit in Utah that's rich in natural mineral content. (He also uses the salt in his spice blends and rubs, which are another part of 5280 Culinary.)
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Morse is into "understanding first before talking," he says, which is why he has visited so many food producers, from melon growers in the Rocky Ford area to the Woolfolk cattle ranch to corn and peach growers. "If I could, I'd come back as a farmer," he confesses. But for now, he'll have to be content with cooking what those farmers produce.