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After tough journey, Morrow tastes success with Del Sol

JACKSON — It was an early Wednesday morning, and the staff at Del Sol Fine Dining and Wine Bar was busily preparing to open the restaurant for another day. Chef/owner Dowden Morrow sat in the darkened bar, sipping coffee, wearing a t-shirt, warm-ups and flip-flops, looking relaxed.

That’s not to say Morrow was looking at an easy day. After the interview for this story, he would order food. Then, he would go out and look at a potential site for a new restaurant he has in mind. And, of course, in between he would have to insure that his hungry, discerning customers were fed and happy.

It would be another long day. But, that’s all right by Morrow. After all, he has seen his career as a restaurateur almost go up in flames — twice.

“We’re at or a little ahead of where I thought we would be at this time,” Morrow said. “I am happy where we are in sales. We’re looking at expanding, and we’re focusing on catering, outside sales and special events this year. I’m just pleased with where we are.”

Cold ovens

Morrow was born in Brandon, where his earliest memory of food preparation was watching his mother in the family kitchen cooking for parties and special events. After high school, Morrow journeyed to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

Plying his training, he joined Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell’s staff, helping with his campaign and then staying on with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce for approximately five years.

“It was there that I met farmers and specialty food manufacturers,” Morrow said. “When I went in and told (Spell) that I was leaving to study culinary arts, I told him, ‘This is your fault.’”

After gaining the prerequisite culinary experience, Morrow was accepted at Johnson & Wales in Miami. Morrow excelled there, eventually graduating magna cum laude in 2002.However, that degree almost slipped away the year before.

“After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Miami became a ghost town,” Morrow said. “In order to get my degree, I had to do an internship, and nobody was hiring.”

Desperately looking for work, Morrow attended a job fair. He met with a number of restaurants and hotels, but the one he was really interested in was Ritz-Carlton. Unfortunately, it had no interview slots available. So, Morrow just walked up, introduced himself, gave a 30-second self-promotion and left a résumé. He figured he would never hear anything from it.

But, three weeks later, Ritz-Carlton called wanting to do a phone interview. Instead, Morrow volunteered to drive to Naples, Fla., to do a face-to-face. After a lengthy interview, Ritz-Carlton hired him on the spot. With that, his degree — and career — was saved.

Morrow would open two restaurants for the hotelier, one in Naples and one in the Coconut Grove area of Miami. He said he loved the Miami area, and gained valuable experience at the Coconut Grove restaurant, where he filled in for all the other cooks, thus gaining skill and knowledge kitchen-wide.

Home cooking

After working with Ritz-Carlton, Morrow returned home with big plans for a new steakhouse-type restaurant in his hometown. A referendum to allow liquor sales in Rankin County was scheduled, and he felt that was essential for his venture to succeed. He was so sure that the measure would pass that he had architectural drawings rendered and even selected a contractor before the vote.

The measure failed. Morrow once again found himself at a crossroads.

“I was lost,” he said. “I had geared up to build this restaurant. Some of my plans were adaptable, but a lot of it, such as equipment, was designed for that restaurant.”

Pressing forward, Morrow began looking at sites for what was left of his dream. After looking at several locations, Morrow decided on one on McWillie Drive in North Jackson. Del Sol opened in June 2004.

While a little out of the way, Del Sol quickly gained a following. Six months after opening, Del Sol was named “Best New Restaurant” in a poll conducted by the Jackson Free Press.

The eating-public agreed. Drawn by the restaurant’s Mediterranean-influenced cuisine and well-appointed dining area and wine bar, Del Sol, which today employs nine workers and can seat up to 75 comfortably, pulls patrons from as far away as Vicksburg, and one of its best customers is a Wisconsin businessman, who visits twice a month when in town and always brings a crowd with him.

Del Sol’s menu has changed over time. Morrow opened the restaurant after his time in Miami where the South Beach Diet was the craze. He quickly found that his customers didn’t want health-conscious cuisine only, and began augmenting his menu with items such as fried shrimp and onion rings.

So, while seafood is still a heavy favorite among its diners, as well as its soups and salads, Del Sol’s biggest sellers are meat dishes. The six-ounce filet tops the sales list, but Del Sol also offers such intriguing entrees as Pan Seared Medallions of New Zealand Elk and White Marble Farms Pork Chops.

Still hungry

If plans hold, 2007 may be Del Sol’s most momentous. A limitation of the restaurant is its lack of private dining space. To overcome that, Morrow has hired a catering manager charged with boosting outside sales, catering and renting out Del Sol for special events.

In the end, the McWillie Drive location may become a meeting space, specials events venue only. Morrow is currently looking at potential sites across the metro Jackson area to move his restaurant. Plans are still forming, but Morrow envisions a much larger restaurant in either Northeast Jackson or Ridgeland. This would leave the McWillie Drive location to serve as a meeting/special events facility.
Morrow could give no specific time frame as to when this new restaurant would open. However, he said it would take at least six months to work out all the details.

In the mean time, Morrow will just roll with the punches. That may mean standing beside a broken dishwasher, knee deep in dirty pots and pans, or laying on his stomach, soaking wet, while cleaning the kitchen floor. Whatever it takes, Morrow is prepared to see it through.

“I have a buddy who was looking at the restaurant business as a new career,” Morrow said smiling. “I told him to come on in and work with me. He could see what it’s like, and I could teach him some things. He showed up one day at 9 a.m. and followed me around all day until I left at about midnight. He never came back, and I haven’t heard from him since.

“My advice to any young people who are thinking of going into the restaurant business is get your feet wet at a small restaurant, not a chain or large hotel. See if you like it. I can tell them this — it’s not as glamorous as it sometimes seems.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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