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Chef Garrett Morris' Sichuan cuisine is a hot commodity on the Central Coast

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Local chef Garrett Morris and his new start-up Sichuan Kitchen SLO are winning over notable foodies throughout San Luis Obispo County.

This month Hotel SLO tapped Morris to create a standout dish at Michelin-mentioned Ox + Anchor; establishments such as Saints Barrel Wine Bar, Debbie Duggan's Central Coast Culinary, and Etto Pasta Bar have nabbed Morris for regular Sichuan pop-ups and workshops; and Edible SLO magazine recently touted his private dinner parties as one of 2023's best local food experiences.

PEAK OF FRESHNESS Chef Garrett Morris of Sichuan Kitchen SLO sources ingredients, such as celtuce—also called stem or Chinese lettuce—and Chinese kale from local vendors including Surfside Farm, framed by Hollister Peak in Morro Bay. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SICHUAN KITCHEN SLO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Sichuan Kitchen SLO
  • PEAK OF FRESHNESS Chef Garrett Morris of Sichuan Kitchen SLO sources ingredients, such as celtuce—also called stem or Chinese lettuce—and Chinese kale from local vendors including Surfside Farm, framed by Hollister Peak in Morro Bay.

Even Morro Bay and SLO high schools are getting in on the action. Morris is collaborating with staff to develop a nutrition-compliant Sichuan recipe to serve twice per month as a student dining option.

Morris' specialty, Sichuan, is considered the crème de la crème of Chinese regional cuisine, he said. The province and its capital, Chengdu, are the country's gastronomic heartland, known for abundant natural resources and unique spices, particularly the iconic Sichuan pepper.

"Unlike much of American-Chinese cuisine, fresh and diverse produce is vital to Chinese cuisine," Morris said. "I partner with various farms—Aviator Acres, City Farm SLO, Surfside Farm, Werdless Farms, SLO Food Co-op, and Just Jujubes, to name a few—to get the freshest local produce and even grow traditional Asian veggies that can be well-adapted to this climate."

After collecting farm-fresh ingredients, Morris works his magic with an arsenal of imported Chinese spices, including his own proprietary chili sauce.

"My chili sauce is composed of a mix of chilis, dried shiitake mushrooms, Sichuan chili broad bean paste, peppercorn, fermented soy beans, sesame seeds, and crunchy peanuts simmered in oil until toasty and fragrant," he said.

SMOKY GUSTO Chef Garrett Morris of Sichuan Kitchen SLO sells his proprietary chili sauce at pop-up events for $15. The smoky, fragrant sauce is his key dressing ingredient for Sichuan favorites such as dan dan noodles, wontons, and smashed cucumber and chicken salads. - PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte
  • SMOKY GUSTO Chef Garrett Morris of Sichuan Kitchen SLO sells his proprietary chili sauce at pop-up events for $15. The smoky, fragrant sauce is his key dressing ingredient for Sichuan favorites such as dan dan noodles, wontons, and smashed cucumber and chicken salads.

He added that his special concoction provides a flavorful kick to a variety of dishes but does not overwhelm the senses.

"I would rate it at 4 to 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most spicy," he said.

Morris' menu is a reflection of several years spent living in Sichuan and Nepal.

The Los Angeles native received a degree in nutrition from Cal Poly, which included a semester abroad in Sichuan.

"I had no particular reason for choosing Sichuan but soon realized it must have been destiny," he said. "I fell in love with the people, culture, and, of course, the food.

"When I came back to SLO I began cooking Sichuan dishes for friends and sharing my experiences."

After graduating from Cal Poly in 2014, he joined the Peace Corps in Nepal, "geographically quite close to Sichuan, but very different culturally and culinarily," he explained.

"Nepal became my home for the next three years, yet I didn't forget China," he said. "I would even cook Sichuan meals for my Nepali host family. Near the end of my Peace Corps service, I met my now wife, Coco Yang, who is from Sichuan."

KEEPIN' IT REAL Chef Garrett Morris' wife, Coco Yang, is a familiar face at Sichuan Kitchen SLO's weekly takeout dinners at Benny's Kitchen in San Luis Obispo. The Sichuan native "helps me with new recipes and makes sure I don't forget the true taste of [the region]," Morris said. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SICHUAN KITCHEN SLO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Sichuan Kitchen SLO
  • KEEPIN' IT REAL Chef Garrett Morris' wife, Coco Yang, is a familiar face at Sichuan Kitchen SLO's weekly takeout dinners at Benny's Kitchen in San Luis Obispo. The Sichuan native "helps me with new recipes and makes sure I don't forget the true taste of [the region]," Morris said.

After he finished his service, they spent the year in China, where he really immersed himself in Sichuan culture and cuisine.

"When the COVID pandemic began, we were quick to vacate China, leaving only days before the country went into lockdown. We retreated back to Nepal, where we felt we could be safe in the self-sufficient farming community where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer," he said. "After another two years of living in Nepal working on farms, I decided to return to the USA to work and begin the process of a visa for Coco."

Morris landed jobs at Morro Bay's organic Surfside Farm and SLO's Carmichael Environmental, "a landscaping company focused on creating native and edible environments," he said.

In between jobs, he continued to focus on his true passion: cooking and sharing Sichuan cuisine with family and friends.

In 2021 he launched Sichuan Educational Dinner Experiences, then in 2023 officially registered Sichuan Kitchen SLO with a vital assist from Jeff Wade of Slow Money SLO and Ben Arrona of Benny's Kitchen in SLO.

The nonprofit group Slow Money SLO has been supporting local food and farm businesses for 11 years—to the tune of more than $1.8 million in direct loans from partner community members, according to founder and Executive Director Wade.

"For Sichuan Kitchen, Garrett is the first start-up food business to receive a grant from [us] to defray the cost of getting off the ground," Wade explained. "This is different from the loan facilitation program.

"We call this new grant effort the Kitchen Business Incubator program. In addition to our support, connection to resources, and sales opportunities, Garrett received invaluable coaching from [Arrona at his commercial kitchen]."

Wade and Arrona were only too happy to help.

"Garrett brings authentic Sichuan region knowledge to his cooking that makes it both an educational and gastronomic experience," Wade said, while Arrona was more succinct in his praise: "It's great food."

SPICY SPECIALTIES Sichuan Kitchen SLO offers periodic pop-up dinners at Saints Barrel Wine Bar in downtown SLO. Standout dishes on Aug. 11 included Tiger Skin Surfside Farm Shishitos, Chengdu Chicken Wontons, and Sichuan Etto Noodles. - PHOTO BY CHERISH WHYTE
  • Photo By Cherish Whyte
  • SPICY SPECIALTIES Sichuan Kitchen SLO offers periodic pop-up dinners at Saints Barrel Wine Bar in downtown SLO. Standout dishes on Aug. 11 included Tiger Skin Surfside Farm Shishitos, Chengdu Chicken Wontons, and Sichuan Etto Noodles.

Another ardent fan, Sarah Saldo, co-owner of Saints Barrel Wine Bar in SLO, was one of the first businesses to host Morris' pop-ups.

"Flavor-wise, there is nothing that compares to Garrett's food on the Central Coast," Saldo said. "He brings out traditional flavors using locally available ingredients, often showcasing individual farms or local producers in each item. He has a natural intuition on how to alter dishes so that he is always cooking seasonally. Garrett's use of spices, oils, and herbs creates surprising complexity that fills a void on the Central Coast. His food is inspiring, tasty, and always fresh."

He provides pure "edutainment," added Debbie Dugan, owner of Debbie Dugan's Central Coast Culinary, which occasionally offers classes led by Morris.

"My clients love the food as well as his experiences ... in the areas his food represents," she said.

Morris is also available for private bookings.

Gail Cayetano Classick, owner and publisher of Edible SLO magazine, which recently featured Morris and awarded his cuisine an "Edible Approved" badge, solicited his services for her birthday party at Paso Robles winery McPrice Myers "and we were all blown away by Garrett's passion and knowledge of Sichuan cuisine," she said.

She also frequents his pop-ups and weekly takeout dinners, which is tough since she splits her time between Paso Robles and Los Angeles.

"I ... make a real effort because his food is fantastic and there's not much else like it in this county," she said. "Plus, he has such a kind and easy-going demeanor that it's hard not to support him and want to root for him."

Many fans might hope for a future brick-and-mortar, but Morris lives in the moment and is happy with his current work-life balance.

"I have always found contentment in how I am doing things more than exactly what I am doing, as I have so many interests," he said. "I really enjoy serving others, supporting local, working with people, and making connections.

"Cooking has always been one of my main passions. It is such a great way to connect people and fill bellies and hearts. There is something special about Chinese cuisine—it's more than just food, but medicine, art, and resemblance of life's balance."

STEAMED DELICACIES Sichuan Duck Dumplings created by Sichuan Kitchen SLO chef Garrett Morris grace the late summer menu at Hotel SLO's Ox + Anchor. Fresh ginger, scallions, and soy-chili vinaigrette complete the dish. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SICHUAN KITCHEN SLO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Sichuan Kitchen SLO
  • STEAMED DELICACIES Sichuan Duck Dumplings created by Sichuan Kitchen SLO chef Garrett Morris grace the late summer menu at Hotel SLO's Ox + Anchor. Fresh ginger, scallions, and soy-chili vinaigrette complete the dish.

If he were to indulge one dream, he said, it would be "to have my own land where I could grow enough food to host events and show people some traditional growing, preserving, and cooking techniques that I learned in China and Nepal."

He envisions weekly dinners "where people would sit in the garden and have simple, homey Chinese dinners, and perhaps a tea garden and library in the daytime.

"Coco could also do yoga and meditation classes," he added, "to further strengthen human-earth connection." Δ

Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte thinks chef Garrett Morris' Sichuan dishes are the best Chinese she's ever tried. Contact her at [email protected].

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