With Kai, Jess Murphy has mastered the art of a good lunch. Denise Maguire sat down with the award-winning chef to talk about her love affair with Galway and why she champions Irish food producers…
Galwegians and indeed the rest of the country have Failte Ireland to thank for the arrival of Jess Murphy into Galway city eight years ago. A ‘Move to the West’ ad campaign kickstarted a love affair between the award-winning chef and the city she calls home. “I saw the ad and immediately thought, I want to live there. My husband David was a little more sensible and suggested we visit for a couple of days first. I loved it and never looked back,” said Jess.
Kai, the restaurant that Jess and David run together, will soon celebrate eight years in business. The restaurant has established itself into the very heart of the city, a must-visit for tourists and a regular haunt for locals who know the local suppliers and relish the ever-changing seasonal menu. Earlier this year, Jess was named Blas na hÉireann Producers’ Champion 2019. In 2018, she was voted Best Chef in Ireland in the Irish Restaurants Awards. “For the past 14 years, I’ve been completely staunch about Irish food. I’m Ireland’s food producers’ number 1 fan. I think sometimes it takes someone that’s foreign to come in and recognise the beauty in something. Winning the best chef award was huge. Ireland isn’t even my home country, so it was a great honour.”
Growing up on a large farm in New Zealand instilled in Jess a passion for food. “It was my grandmother that gave me a love for cooking. I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was eight years old. That sense of cooking for people and making them happy, that’s what I wanted to achieve.” Stints in Thornton’s, Guilbaud’s, Bar 8 and a role as a cheesemonger in Sheridan’s came before the decision to set up on her own. “We had €3.10 in the bank and no investors. It was a big decision but absolutely the right one. We begged a bank loan and went from there. It was tough; I forgot to allow for a till in the budget, so I said to the guy selling the till, ‘this is going to be great, just lend me a till for six months, I’ll buy the best one you’ve got.’ So many people were amazing to us.” Dave is front of house while Jess runs the kitchen. “At the start, we had to explain that Dave wasn’t the chef, that it was actually me running the kitchen and creating the food they were eating. Now that we have 24 staff members, the biggest challenge today is team management. Learning to let go and realising I’ve got a really strong team behind me and they’re capable of doing this on their own. I’m 40 years old now so I’ve got to trust people rather than be that chef that has to keep her head over the pot non-stop. I think that learning how to do that is just as hard as learning how to cook.”
Business at Kai is very healthy. “We’ve got the Arts Festival coming up which always creates a great buzz in the city.” Local produce is highlighted across the menu and it’s clear that the relationships that have been developed with local suppliers over the past eight years are taken very seriously. “We’ve gotten to know farmers, fishermen and foragers up and down the west coast. We write the menu every night because we don’t know what fish we’ll get in. That flexibility and freedom lets us be creative in the kitchen.”
Along with Jess, there are currently two other female chefs and one male chef working in the Kai kitchen right now. When I mention that my inbox is flooded with appointment notices about male chefs only, she’s got plenty to say. “There are lots of female chefs out there so if they’re not being sent in a press release, it’s the media’s job to go out there and look for them.” But if they exist, why are restaurants and hotels not shouting about their female head chefs the same way they’re publicising their male chefs? “That’s a good question and it really annoys me. I feel like saying to these guys, put them forward, you know you’ll get more good publicity if it looks like you’re a gender balanced workplace.” A ‘take no shit’ attitude from the very start of her career has created a different kind of kitchen at Kai. “I’ve had a few screamers like we all did in the 90s but apart from that, I haven’t really come across too much antagonism towards me personally as a chef. At Kai, we work as a unit. There’s no bullshit in my kitchen; my lads are always respectful and non-personal.” Chefs at Kai work four days followed by three days off. “They get paid by the hour. I run a really different kitchen to a lot of other restaurants and it works. My wage cost is the same as everybody else’s and so are my food costs. The fact we’ve been in business for eight years shows that we’re doing something right.”
Staff dinners at Kai are an opportunity for all members of staff, from the chefs to the KP and the barista, to get together at the end of a busy shift and unwind. “They really are second to none. Every night we have a family meal and it’s always beautiful. Tonight we have some amazing organic tomatoes coming in so we’ll have a tomato plate with some torn mozzarella and maybe some pork chops. Life is good.”