Chef Jason Morse leads a double life. While many know him as the Douglas County School District's executive chef, Morse is a savvy business owner who created and markets his own line of spices and caramels, works as a consultant to other schools, hotels, restaurants and food service entities, runs a catering business and teaches college classes.
Morse founded 5280 Culinary in 2010 with his wife, Annie. He employs some part-timers, but it largely is a family-run business. The couple's 9- and 11-year-old daughters, for instance, are the marketing team behind the names of Morse's spices, which include “Oink,” “Little Little Lamb,” “Fishy Fishy,” and “Cluck.”
His caramels and spices are featured products on the shelves of 32 Ace Hardware stores in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. The Earth Salt Caramels, the result of a challenge to create a better caramel thrown down by a former co-worker, soon will be joined by bacon caramels. Morse is perfecting that recipe now.
Employed 40 hours a week as a contract DCSD employee, his work for the district extends far beyond the contract's outline.
“I tend to represent the district in everything I do,” Morse said. “”That's kind of the beauty of me being a contract employee; I can represent them everywhere I go.”
And that's a lot of places.
“From a volunteer standpoint and a consultant standpoint, I tend to be heavily involved in the community,” Morse said. “We do catering on the side. I teach at Metro State on Wednesday nights. I'm a huge car guy, so I do a lot of cooking involved with cars. It's pretty common for us to be up in Wheat Ridge cooking for Porsche Club of America, or cooking at a road rally.”
On a sunny late afternoon in mid-July, Morse is in Jefferson County, offering customers at the Green Mountain Ace Hardware pieces of freshly grilled chicken seasoned with his spices and rubs. In addition to the samples, the affable Morse doles out lighthearted quips to almost every passer-by, engaging even those who decline a sample in easy conversation.
He compliments one man on his orange Volkswagen bus, and wishes a woman holding a fluorescent light fixture good luck on her project. One customer asks if Morse is the Douglas County chef he recently saw on 9News.
Most stop to accept a sample, faces lighting with pleasure as the first bite meets their palates.
Green Mountain's Annie Schell needs one word to describe the taste of the chicken thigh Morse hands her: “Delicious!”
Morse's talent for connecting extends to Douglas County's schoolchildren, many of whom greet the chef with hugs and high fives in school hallways and Highlands Ranch grocery stores. That makes it easy for him to choose a favorite from among his many jobs.
“It all satisfies me on different levels,” he said. “But hands down, it's the kids. Hanging out, getting hugs from the kids … to me, that's the coolest.”
Only a few years ago, Morse's life was on a very different path. A summa cum laude graduate of Johnson & Wales University, he was employed as a country club chef. His career path veered sharply in 2010, when Morse and chefs nationwide were selected by first lady Michelle Obama to participate in the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. The program is part of Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity.
That year, Morse sat with 3,000 chefs on the White House lawn as part of the initiative's kickoff.
“A year after that, 220 chefs were still actively participating,” Morse said. “My opinion is I think a lot of people went into it thinking this is my new revenue stream and I'm going to make tons of money, and then realized schools didn't have a lot of money to pay them and wanted them to do a lot of volunteering.”
Morse never looked back.
“I left my country club job,” he said. “I took an enormous pay cut to come and do school lunch because I knew it was worth doing. I felt I was being called to move into school lunch and leave my mark. You hope to leave a legacy behind, to leave a mark on this world. I haven't regretted it.”
Morse's goal is to get kids accustomed to and hooked on healthy eating early in life. To that end, he works to make nutritious food tasty and fun.
“All the education we give our kids is meant to prepare them to make better decisions,” he said. “We've got to make it fun and exciting and interesting, and that's where I come in. A much as I love food, I want to help kids get that excited as well.”