When Patrick “Pat” Morris broke his neck playing high school football, it changed him.
“He got cautious about everything,” said longtime friend and colleague Bob Tursi. “It was trust but verification.”
It was this cautious approach Morris took, Tursi said, and its consistency that contributed to his success as the east’s executive chef. The Latin King restaurant in Des Moinesand in creating iconic dishes like the restaurant’s popular chicken spiedini, for nearly four decades.
Morris died on June 12 at MercyOne Hospice after a long battle with stage 4 prostate cancer, according to his obituary. He was 60 years old.
Morris was born in Ottumwa on January 10, 1962 and attended Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, where he met Tursi and another longtime friend, John Cardamone at football practice as new freshmen.
At the time, Tursi said Morris was outgoing, outspoken, and a talented student and athlete. His neck injury occurred while playing linebacker for the Maroons in his freshman year. He eventually recovered enough to play baseball for the Maroons but was unable to return to football.
“It had a big impact on his high school experience,” Tursi said.
When Tursi acquired the East Side Italian restaurant from his third cousin, Jim Pigneri, in 1983, Morris expressed concern that his friend had bought the restaurant at such a young age. Tursi and his wife, Amy, passed ownership to Whitney VinZanta Kansas City, Missouri-based restaurateur in 2021.
Morris worked at the counter at the Latin King while earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration from then-Grand View College. He worked briefly at Punch after graduating from school in 1985, but soon found her way back to the Italian restaurant.
Morris maintained a relationship with the restaurant’s executive chef, John Colbert, which influenced his own career as a chef. Morris “was influenced by how (Colbert) could make food good,” and knew Colbert was about to retire, Tursi said.
“And in ’87, (Morris) walked through the front door of the restaurant and asked me for an application,” Tursi said with a laugh. “He said, ‘I want to go out there and be in the back. He had a mission.”
Morris learned under Colbert before the chef’s retirement in 1990. Morris had been one of three executive chefs at the Latin King since it opened in 1947.
“You don’t see that anymore,” Tursi said.
Morris was like a trainer in The Latin King’s kitchen
Tursi says Morris’ leadership in the kitchen was akin to managing a sports team.
“He orchestrated seven or eight people behind the line the whole time and he always said there was nothing better than a busy Friday or Saturday night,” Tursi said. “It’s like playing in a football game and I orchestrate all the guys and the guys are with me. I have guys I need to trust.”
And despite Morris’ limited experience as a chef prior to The Latin King restaurant, it was apparent that Tursi confided in him.
“He knew what cooking was,” Tursi said. (Going to him) in this position was a comfort to me. It was a big comfort that ‘OK, I don’t have to worry about what’s going on in the back.'”
Morris was meticulous and dedicated – traits that allowed him to bring to life some of his signature dishes like Penne Regine and chicken spiedini – a skewered grilled chicken breast flavored with Amogio sauce.
“By Pat’s caution, it paid off, because he always did what was best for the restaurant,” Tursi said. “He always put the Latin King first. Quality, quality, quality. Always.”
Morris’ secret to chicken spiedini? Tursi says it was his consistency and selection of high quality ingredients.
“It’s a phenomenal dish,” Cardamone said. “Chicken spiedini is not new or novel…and you can find it in other restaurants, but (he) really elevated it with the way (he) did it. The breading.. .the Amogio sauce they created. It’s really become a destination.”
Morris liked to feed his family, but did not share the Spiedini chicken recipe
Sidney Morris, the second youngest of Pat Morris’ six children, said she used to try to snatch the recipe from her father but was unsuccessful.
“Which, you know, I get it. It’s okay,” she laughed as she recalled her dad treating family and friends with his food.
“He was always bringing things home for us to enjoy,” Sidney Morris said. “When we were younger, we had sleepovers with our friends and he brought us food. It was a highlight when we were younger to have friends and enjoy good food.”
Morris said his father excelled in his career – he was talented, hardworking and respected by his colleagues, bosses and mentees. And despite his demanding work schedule, he has done his best to balance his career with his family, including his wife Alice, children and grandchildren.
“He was a great dad. I’d like to think I have his work ethic, his drive,” she said. “I’m very proud to call him my father. He was respected by a lot of people. It’s really great that he had such an impact on people and will continue to have an impact on people.”
Pat also loved music, and later enjoyed traveling to Costa Rica, where he fell in love with the food, the beach and the culture, longtime friend John Cardamone said.
The cancer diagnosis didn’t bring him down
The news of Morris’ illness came as a “shock” and was difficult for family, friends and restaurant staff, Sidney and Tursi said.
Tursi said he and Pat Morris have developed a more professional relationship over the past 20 years.
“But when he got sick and he stopped working and I sold out, it allowed me to cherish and bring our friendship back on a more personal note,” Tursi said.
Cardamone said Morris had worked hard to fight cancer: “He didn’t let it get him down.”
The wounds from losing their friend on June 12 are still “fresh,” Cardamone said.
“You just hate losing a friend,” Cardamone said. “I loved Pat like a brother. He would do anything for you.”
Cardamone explained a ritual the trio had almost every Christmas Eve.
“We were getting together — and it was hectic at the Latin King on Christmas Eve because there were diners flying in the door — but we were always trying to find 30 minutes,” he said. “(We would open) a bottle of really good wine and the three of us would share a glass of wine.”
“It was hard to know he wasn’t going to survive before Christmas,” Tursi said. “We spent a lot of Christmas together. It was our busiest time of the year.”
Sidney Morris said he missed his father, but he wouldn’t have wanted his death to force his family to put his life on hold.
“He always said, ‘this is the circle of life’ and ‘whatever happens, will happen,'” she said.
Pat Morris liked to make people happy with his food, his daughter said.
“He said it was a great privilege to be part of great occasions and celebrations in people’s lives,” Morris said. “He loved the fact that he could be a part of it in some way and just knowing people enjoyed the food gave him a lot of pride.”