Jess Murphy – Chef & Restaurant Owner
Jess is a chef and owner of Kai Cafe & Restaurant. She recently won "Best Chef in Connaught" in the 2015 Irish Restaurant Awards, where Kai also won the Best Restaurant in Connaught award.
Tell us a bit about how have you gotten to where you are today?
It's been a long road to getting here if I'm being honest. I left New Zealand when I was 20 with fifteen hundred bucks and a suitcase. I finished college, and had wanted to go to Australia to learn how to cook. Neil Perry was huge at the time and Asian fusion cooking was ginormous, so that was really exciting. I worked in Australia for two years when I met Dave; he was backpacking. It was kind of love at first sight. Then we lived on Rottnest Island, which is an island off the coast of Fremantle. We lived there until we had enough money for my UK visa. In 2000, we flew into Manchester, and lived in the UK for three years. We bought a house over there and got married and thought, 'Right, this is it, settling down' and then I was like, 'No I'm not'. So I flew back to New Zealand for a couple of years, and had a couple of years in Hawkes Bay, where I'm from. I worked there for two years and then just really had a drive to work in Michelin starred places. So the best experience I could get was moving to Ireland because David had an Irish passport and we could live in Ireland and everything was kosher. So we moved to Dublin. I pretty much got a job straight away with Kevin Thornton at the time, which just about killed me. I worked there for a year - it was a great experience. Then after seeing the Bord Fáilte adverts for the west with all the beautiful, white sandy beaches on telly, we moved to Galway. I started my career here in Ard Bia after meeting Aoibheann - this was a brilliant time and really introduced me to Galway Life. I think I worked for her for about four and a half years, so that was kind of crazy in a truly brilliant way.
When did you decide to open your own restaurant?
I was working in Bar 8 at the time. It was so special - so ahead of its time and was just really lovely. I'm sad that it's gone, but I had been kind of frustrated most of my 30s because I needed to open my own place. And one of my friends came here (the building that Kai's in) for a takeaway coffee and told Frank and Alan, who owned it at the time, that I wanted to open my own place and they were like, 'She can have this place!', so I met up with Frank on the Saturday, ran to the bank, begged Pat for a bank loan and just got by with the skin of my teeth.
"I always try to keep my head in the pot and keep it down, keep on trying to make myself a better cook and try to be inspiring to the others around me."
Kai is somewhat of an institution now - was that something you had in mind when you created it?
No, although I do love to think that. For me, I think I'm still a pup in the realm of the restaurants when you compare, say, Ard Bia or O'Grady's on the Pier, which have been there for years. Real old school institutions which have amazing food and amazing service the whole time. I'd like to think that we take care of people and I just try to keep the head down and cook. I don't like to focus on doing anything other than what I'm actually working with.
What about all of the awards you've won. Is there a part of you that goes, 'Yes!'
I'm normally surprised with most of them. Like, last Sunday, I had no one to cover and I worked brunch and Dave and Niamh were already up in Dublin - I had won the Best Chef in Connacht. I was just surprised and the reality is, awards are awards but you're up on stage and you're collecting that award and the next day you're peeling parsnips or spuds or washing the dirt off veg or boning out a pheasant, you know? The worlds are different realms, so I always try to keep my head in the pot and keep it down, keep on trying to make myself a better cook and try to be inspiring to the others around me. We try to learn from each other the whole time. It's more about that than the awards.
What are your cooking influences?
It's from all over the place. I think it's part of my travels. But most of the time, it's about childhood, trying to replicate those childhood flavours. You remember that smell of walking into your nan's house and you're automatically taken back there. It's about food and memory and connecting those two. It's all about the connection really for me.
How would you describe yourself?
Very driven, a hard worker, honest, loyal. I dunno, can I say bad things? You have to turn it on, you have to be a bitch to get anywhere in life anyway, especially if you take any kind of formal head role in any position as a female. You have to embrace the pressure, but you have to make sure that all these receptors are there to take on the pressure load. When you're younger, you take on the pressure and the pressure just spurts out again. Thank God, when you get a little bit older, you get a bit more cop on, you're like, 'You know what? Yeah, that did kind of piss me off but I'm going to go for a 40-minute walk around the swamp and I'll probably snap out of it and I'm probably looking far too deeply into things'.
You said you're driven. What drives you?
Well, I've wanted to be a chef since I was 9. I knew all my life what I wanted to be. I love everything about food, anything to do with making food. I think it's really important. I don't know, I'm just one of those mental people that do that.
What is it about cooking that you enjoy so much?
Different aspects. Pressure obviously, the pressure of service gives you a buzz. If you're making jam or if you're making chutney, that's a really slow process so that's therapeutic because you can think about things while you're making it. Churning ice cream - that's really therapeutic as well or breaking apart an animal that somebody's cared for. Somebody has cared for that animal for up to two years and you need to give it the grace and respect that it needs to go on back into the food chain.
Do you work on instinct or do you think things through?
If you try a Japanese Salted Plum and you're like, 'Oh shit, I need to make that and how can I make that because we're in Ireland and I can't get that. Actually, I'll make it out of that'. Those kind of thought processes, you think about it all the time. But when you're doing the menu, because we write the menu every day, it's pretty much instinct the whole time. We make the menu from the ingredients we get in every day.
The whole creative aspect of that - is that something you really enjoy?
Absolutely. There's two things for me - it has to taste great and visually, it has to be amazing. I don't mind if it's not 100 per cent as long as the taste and the flavours are there. But you get that by buying quality. What we get is the Rolls Royce of ingredients.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I'd say having a happy marriage - that's one of my biggest achievements. Actually, us being able to work together and hitting a balance, because not many people can do that. It's full on - but being able to cope with that and we're solid now with each other. So it's pretty cool. I suppose I just think there's so many more achievements to come. Obviously, Kai is my biggest professional achievement so far. I always think about things and say, 'It was great to win that'. I'm really grateful, always grateful, but you have to keep on the same standard.
Does it feel good to have your own place after working for people for a number of years?
It feels nice and you always go, if I had my business, I wouldn't do that, or I wouldn't do this. I'd try to pick quality of life over certain aspects of the restaurant trade because when you work in the restaurant trade, you're everybody's. Everybody complains to you, and we're not talking about staff, we're talking about everybody like delivery drivers not being able to get parking. But there are certain little things that you can do to change things. We always have a staff dinner together, we always sit down, have a glass of wine or a cup of tea and we always try and have a chat about how the day went, try not to bottle up things too much. We have 22 staff working here, so we have to be on top of it to make sure everyone's OK and their standard of life is good because that just portrays what we are to the front of house and the back of house. I think you can taste food that's been cooked by upset chefs or by chefs that don't give a shit. You can always taste love in food. You know that from your mum, from stews, something simple like brown bread. You know there's love in it rather than somebody just making it and whacking it on the tray.
Any exciting projects in the pipeline?
In the next couple of weeks, I'm going to Italy for the Slow Food Cheese Festival. I go every two years. It's really cool and I get to work with all the Irish raw milk cheese makers and producers, which means you get to support the little guy when you go over. So you could be talking about St Tola Goats Cheese to Bellingham Blue. I'm really into raw milk - it's like a really nerdy highlight for me because I used to work at Sheridan's. I used to be a cheesemonger for about three years - I absolutely loved that job. And then after that I'm driving to Milan to cook at Refettorio Ambrosiano (Ambrosiano Soup Kitchen). Basically, Massimo Bottura from Osteria Francescana has made a soup kitchen out of the Milan Expo 2015, so we take all of the food waste from the kitchen and then we cook for 100 refugee families; it's an absolutely amazing project. I think I'm the first woman to go. René Redzepi has been there, Dan Barber has been there. Mark Moriarty has just been there, so that's amazing.
Who or what has been your greatest influence?
Probably my grandmother. We owned a massive farm and she cooked for shearers. The way that she handled everything - she used to have ducks and chickens and she had such grace and elegance and respect for the animals that got passed on. Then there's Julia Child and Alison Holst, to modern day people like Seamus Sheridan, who really got the spark burning for me when it came to, 'Did you know where this is from? This is raw milk cheese and you know what we're doing in Ireland with it and how this is made?'. He really took me under his wing. I had the background obviously from Kevin Thornton, who taught me so much about Irish food. And the great chefs I worked with before that. So they'd probably be my modern day influences.
What are the most important things to you in life?
I suppose happiness - to be happy with your lot, because if you're not happy with yourself then you're never going to be happy. As women, it kind of sucks because you battle that every day. But I'm generally happy at the moment.
Your favourite cultural city or place?
It'd probably be Porto in Portugal. It's beautiful. It's untouched by anything. It's down and dirty. They still serve tripe and they still serve chicken blood sausages and it's just the way they are. It's not trendy. They're the real deal and I love the Portuguese for that.
What would you like to see happening in Galway with respect to food?
I'd love to see some urban gardening in the city - using wasted space as gardens. Food education for kids - that would be number one. To have a garden in every school, that would be amazing.
I think a food market would also great. We have the capacity now to have an open food market where traders come in and as restaurateurs, we can actually walk up to the market and buy our cheese that we need for the day like they do it in Europe. It would be great to see those people that stick it out in the cold and the rain and freeze their asses off every Saturday and Sunday having a nicer environment.
What impact do you see culture having on Galway City and the role that food plays in it?
With Food on the Edge, one of the things I'm going to talk about is immigration, food culture and how the next generation is going to affect the Irish food culture, which is going to be an absolutely amazing kind of mix. I've just been to Melbourne and it's like a melting pot over there. They opened their doors in 1970 to the Lebanese, the Greeks, you name it and they all came over and wow, what they've done for the Australian food culture is absolutely amazing. And slowly, that's going to happen to Ireland - it's really exciting. Gone are the mixed restaurants. No longer will we see a Thai restaurant doing Nasi Gorengs, we'll see Malaysian restaurants opening up specialising in Malaysian food. We might have a Nigerian restaurant. Obviously these guys are going to use local farmers and butchers and use butter and all sorts of bits and bobs. Kai is five years old and everyone knows the word Kai, which means food in Maori. If that can happen, what else can happen? It's going to be very exciting.
How important do you see food festivals such as Food on the Edge being to Galway?
Food on the Edge is important because it gets a lot of like-minded people together and it's in the West, which is absolutely amazing. We're basically having the festival in the middle of a fruit bowl because it's in October. All the blackberries are going to be out, all the sloes, all the damsons, all the game is going to be in. It's the best part of the world to go to in October, especially for chefs. It'll be really cool to see what certain chefs from, let's say, the State's or Iceland bring into the mix. There's a lot of great chefs coming over. It'll be interesting to see what they see in Galway and great to hear what they think or what they love about it. It'll be huge for the food culture aspect of Galway 2020 too.