Cooking is in LeeWay Morris’ blood.
He’s strayed from his calling a few times — he’s been a repo man, car detailer and factory worker in his home state of Alabama — but then he moved to Snohomish County to pursue cooking full-time. Now, he’s the executive chef at Ellie’s at the Airport in Arlington.
Morris, 34, of Arlington, was hired two months ago to bring some of his Southern-style cooking to the menu. Ellie’s, however, temporarily closed March 26 because of the novel coronavirus. He’ll get back into the kitchen when it reopens.
Here, Morris talks about his roots, arriving to Snohomish County homeless and his favorite dish to make at home.
How long have you cooked professionally?
About 18-plus years. It’s my bread and butter. I’m originally from Alabama, but I’ve been out here seven years now. Cooking just runs in my blood. I learned how to cook from my grandmother and my mom. My dad was an executive chef for the governor of Rhode Island. My brother is also a cook around here.
What did your grandmother and mom teach you?
They never used a measuring spoon. It was all by feel. There were no cookbooks.
Why did you become a cook?
At first, it was something fun to do. I started out as a line cook at Cracker Barrel. I just excelled there. But I got bored real quick, and I started jumping job to job, as far as cooking. I was learning different aspects, so every restaurant I worked at, I retained information.
What made you move up here?
I had a bunch of dead-end jobs back in Alabama. I did repo for a while. That was interesting. It was a little intense, especially down South. But it was legal. I also did car detailing and factory jobs. But it wasn’t productive, so I stepped out on a limb and came up here. When I first moved up here in 2013, I was homeless. I lived out of hotel rooms until I ran out of money. I landed in Stanwood and then, boom, I got a job at Wayne’s Corner Cafe, which is a small mom-and-pop place in Stanwood.
Was it scary being homeless?
Knowing you can’t just pack up and go home, it’s kind of scary. But I’m a survivor. I’m a product of my environment, so I just had to figure it out.
How did you land at Ellie’s?
I normally do short contracts and help restaurants build up their businesses. I’ve also worked at Pub 282 on Camano Island, Buzz Inn in Arlington and Snohomish. Ellie’s fit right into my criteria. They called me and said they needed a heavy-hitter, and I was the guy to call in. I’ve been here for about two months.
What’s it like to serve the aviation community at Ellie’s?
This is a different environment. You see the planes flying in and these are actual pilots getting off the plane coming in to eat. And I’m like, wow, they really flew in and reserved this just to eat. It’s small, you’ll miss it if you drive by, but it’s a really nice place. I love the scenery here. I bring my 4-year-old son out here, and he’s fascinated by it.
Have you ever flown with any of the pilots?
No, I’ve only flown twice, and it was commercial. There’s an interesting story behind that. I was working at Wayne’s Corner Cafe when one day, each customer — there were at least 12 of them in the restaurant — gave me $100 apiece to buy a round-trip plane ticket to go visit my parents. They said, “I don’t care what you do, just make sure you come back because you’re a damn good cook.” I love that memory to this day. That built my self-worth and made me pursue starting my own catering business, LeeWay BBQ. I called it a second chance. I hit the reset button and started over from scratch. I came up here with a car full of clothes and slowly accumulated. I own a food truck now. I’ve got a barbecue grill out in the back.
What’s your key to cooking?
Attitude. If you don’t love it, you won’t be able to produce it. The food starts coming out ugly if you’re mad or frustrated. I keep the same attitude: I’m smiling ear to ear. You make sure your food and your attitude rub off on the environment. You’ve got to be positive.
Tell me how you’re bringing Southern-style cooking to Ellie’s.
That’s kind of why they brought me in. I’m creating specials and putting them on the menu. I’m known for my bacon-wrapped pineapple with pulled pork. That’s one of my go-tos. I’m also working on adding bacon-wrapped meatloaf, pulled pork sandwiches with horseradish and coleslaw and barbecue baked beans to the menu. I have my own barbecue sauce that I call “Mud Rub,” which is a wet and dry combination inspired by Texas and Alabama sauces.
Do you have a go-to recommendation on the menu?
Ellie’s traditional breakfast. It consists of a hashbrown or your style of country potatoes, a choice of bacon or sausage, two eggs and toast. It’s a good, hearty meal to start your day with. You’ve your proteins, meats and starches, all in one dish.
What do you like to cook at home?
My three-day gumbo. It’ll be on the menu pretty soon, too. I get my crawfish shipped up from Alabama — we call them mudbugs down South. There’s also chicken sausage, steak, pork, shrimp, corn, okra, onions, bell peppers and just about everything in the kitchen. But you’ve got add it accordingly, though.
How does it taste?
It’s a spicy dish, but it’s a tolerable spicy. It’s not overwhelming. You can taste all the flavors. But the roux — your butter and flour — is the secret. It’s the base of your soup. You want it to be thick. You want it to slide off the spoon, not pour off the spoon.
What does your son think of it?
He’s my biggest fan.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Ellie’s at the Airport, 18218 59th Ave. NE, Arlington, is temporarily closed due to the novel coronavirus. Call 360-435-4777 or find Ellie’s at the Airport on Facebook for more information.