Jenna & Michael Morton: Green Thoughts

LIKE A 21ST-CENTURY GRACE KELLY, Las Vegas businesswoman, environmentalist and philanthropist Jenna Morton lights up a room – or in this instance, a cave.

The grotto in question is the gorgeously rustic European-style dining establishment and wine bar in Wynn Las Vegas called La Cave. Jenna has just arrived for a photo shoot with her husband, Michael; she was a professional model for 10 years, so she certainly knows what she’s doing. She’s also here to work on quarterly financials for the restaurant. Although highly visible in Nevada’s philanthropic circles, Jenna isn’t an emotional counterbalance to her spouse’s business dealings. As president of the board of directors of Springs Preserve, she’s an industry-championing, yet progressive, force in her own right.

For the past decade, she has supported a slew of environmental and community causes. From her fight against storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, to her deep involvement with After-School All-Stars, a nonprofit organization that provides academic, athletic and cultural after-school programs to thousands of students in at-risk Clark County schools, Morton has made it her mission to better Southern Nevada.

“I couldn’t do any of this without my husband’s support,” she insists. “Whenever I’m busy with something, he’s always there to fill in the gaps. I have his support in all areas of our life together.”

Morton’s husband is restaurant royalty. Michael’s father, Artie, founded the legendary Morton’s steakhouses in Chicago. There, Jenna helped with the family business until 2003, when she joined her husband in Las Vegas. At the time, Michael and his late partner, Scott DeGraff, were riding high after developing and operating N9NE Steakhouse, Rain nightclub and Ghostbar at the Palms. Now the Mortons’ lives are paired down to La Cave and a downtown art gallery. Today they are arguably one of Las Vegas’ coolest (and best-looking) power couples – and they’re only getting started.

Jenna has brought a book with her to the shoot. It’s Japanese poet Ryokan’s Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, which begs the question, are the Mortons yin to each other’s yang?

“Well, it’s not yin and yang, which are opposing forces,” says Michael. “We try to complement each other’s strengths, to strive for balance.”

La Cave is a killer experience. It’s as much about elegantly communal atmosphere – hammered gold eyebrow dormers, vaulted ceiling and the comfy rope chairs in the patio area – as it is about the small-plates (or tapas) cuisine and fermented grapes.

“This world is all I’ve known,” says Michael, who, despite recent spinal surgery, looks fit enough to run marathons. “Our greatest strength is the crowd we draw between the hours of 2 and 5. It’s a warm afternoon scene, where you can enjoy a small plate and glass of wine, and meet new people before going out later in the evening.”

Emphasis on shared pleasures sets apart not just La Cave but also the Mortons. Michael is happy to discuss his restaurant and philanthropy, but you can tell he’d almost rather chat about his three young kids. His family lives in a house designed by local architect Richard Luke on the edge of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

“Our kids find all kinds of beautiful creatures,” says Michael, smiling like a kid himself. Diamondbacks, tarantulas, scorpions, a lynx cat. The Mortons are more than content with the beauty of the desert, a place often dismissed as the “Big Empty.” For them, it’s also about surrounding themselves with natural wonders – and talent.

“Michael is great at hiring amazing people,” says Jenna.

“He possesses that special intuition. When you can do that and allow people to grow, it helps everyone achieve balance in their lives.”

After the shoot and a few business matters, Jenna drives to the Mortons’ office/gallery in the Arts Factory — the warehouse structure that has long functioned as the heart of First Friday and the Downtown Arts District — in her “veggie car,” a Volkswagen that runs on vegetable-oil waste. Occupying the passenger seat are an “Oxford English Dictionary” and the book L Is for Lollygag: Quirky Words for a Clever Tongue.

“My kids,” she explains, apologetically. “But I’m also one of those really boring people who likes to read dictionaries.”

No wonder her husband and co-workers affectionately call her “The Professor.” At the office, Jenna lets slip the fact that she’s busy working on a recent White House Urban Economic Forum, where business leaders from all around the state convene to discuss opportunities in the current economic landscape.

“Collaboration is key,” she says. “Michael and I want to build community; not just in the restaurant space. It’s not about taking out of the community, or from it, in a business sense. If we don’t also contribute, what do we have?”

Peace is another passion. What they do at the restaurant extends to the broader community and symbolizes a larger contribution to the collective good.

“It’s really about finding peace with oneself and each other,” says Jenna. “When we operate communally, we have a better chance of finding a peaceful coexistence.”

Previously published by diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Jenna & Michael Morton.