The Woman Has Sass!
"Food has always been a part of my life. I wanted to be a chef since I was 7yrs old - I've always wanted to cook for people."
This is a story of a Woman, a Chef, an Employer, a Creator and an Inspiration.
'The Woman has Sass' is indeed meant in the most positive of descriptive nouns. I could have also used the title 'An Inspirational Woman'. The point I was hoping to make was that which struck me most on meeting Jess Murphy, and that is, that she won't lie down and roll over, she knows what she wants, she has values - especially when it comes to food. If it came down to choosing teams or 'sides' I would most certainly want Jess on mine.
- On Childhood and first memories of Food
Food is very obviously in the bloodlines of Jess' family. Originally from Wairoi, a small rural town with "50% maori population and a lot of poverty", situated in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Jess spent most of her childhood with her grandmother, who owned and worked a sheep farm, which exposed Jess at an early age to the many marvels and delights of food.
"Dad used to go fishing in whitebait season and shooting in gaming season. I used to kill the pigs with dad, so from a very early age I understood the 'Life - Death cycle', that things were raised to be eaten."
"Dad was a local glazier so he would fix windows in exchange for Maori loaves of bread or crayfish. Food has always been a part of my life"
From this early absorbtion into the world of food, Jess realized, at an early age, that food was to be her future, it was who she was and was to determine her outcomes. The path was set from the age of seven.
"I have wanted to be a chef since I was 7yrs old. All I ever wanted to do was go into a kitchen, I didn't give a shit about High School. Food has given me confidence"
- On Food and Creativity
Jess left New Zealand at 20 years old with $1500 in her pocket. Her seminal contact, as a child and whilst growing up, to food has led to her unique and honest style as a chef.
"I have been very lucky in my life, you have to create your own outcomes. The key to successful food is honesty, there has to be an honesty behind the food and you have to be honest as a chef."
I never followed food fashions - The fashion is the season. I don't have an ego, I just cook for people."
Jess' clarity regarding food is inspiring, she strips food back to the basics. There is no pantomime or circus, her approach is quite simple: Quality seasonal ingredients cooked well.
"You put your positive energy into food, it doesn't matter what it is, if you are proud of something that you make, that positive energy is given to others."
The way Jess talks about food is refreshing and empowering.
- On Inspiring People
I was curious to hear if Jess had any suggestions on how people could emulate her approach to food at home - on a budget. The question was considered for a while and then Jess spoke about the Slow Food Movement and the spirit and belief that is the root of it : To respect the food that you eat and to source products locally.
"It's about living by that slow food ethos that I have always been connected to. My parents were like that too, they taught me to be like that. Dad still wears the same old pair of stonewashed jeans, cos he won't shop outside of the local town."
“I see my responsibility, apart from cooking, is that we have a tool here to promote small business', We're creating business all the time for small producers"
Jess went on to say that people should do the same in their homes, to buy their food locally from small producers and growers.
'Buy local, from little people. We are all like hamsters, we all go round the supermarket and half the shit we buy we don't need - I mean I do it, You're in the supermarket and your like i'll have that and that…and we don't even need it"
"I mean all the packaging - Why does a cucumber come wrapped in fucking plastic, its like a little greenhouse for yer' cucumber!"
"Its simple, local food is cheap, but you have to spend some time looking for it."
Jess summed it up well
"It goes in a circle, you support people and they support you, it should be the rule of thumb in every business."
- On Kai
After traveling and living in many different places Jess found herself married to David, (who owns and runs Kai with her), and back in New Zealand cooking. Her aim though was to work in a Michelin Starred kitchen. It was this desire that brought her to Dublin to work for Kevin Thornton. However, the hectic functionality of a Michelin starred kitchen did not suit her long term plan.
"Working in a place like that is like running a marathon for a year. I lost 6 stone, working 17hrs a day. I wanted a break and saw the ads to move West, I saw beaches and thought, that looks like home."
Jess and David moved from Dublin to Galway, The cosmopolitan, multicultural and bohemian lifestyle that Galway had to offer was like a magnet to Jess.
"It was very bohemian in Galway, I love different cultures, different people…you know, there is always a story behind someone from Galway"
Jess had a couple of jobs in Galway, at Ard Bia Restaurant and head chef at Bar 8. It was while she was at Bar 8 that she returned from a trip home to New Zealand. She was 32 years old, had a bit of money and realized that she needed a change.
"A friend came in here for a coffee (we are sitting in Kai), was talking to the owner, and he said, tell Jess to get in contact with me, if she wants this place she can have it."
Following lots of negotiations, herself and David signed on the dotted line. They then got together with designer and architect, Stephen Walton to work on a refurbishment, they managed to be very creative on a tight budget and created just the look that they had envisaged.
Jess believes that Kai has been successful since its opening because of the honesty of the food.
"We have a strong team, we know where everything comes from, I can ring the fishmonger and get the name of the boat the fish came off. That is the key."
Although nearly all the produce Kai uses is organic and sourced locally, she says she does not over advertise this, going over the top with 'buzz words'.
"We haven't advertised that we are organic or sustainable, all that is bullshit, I try to stay away from words like organic, local and what’s that other bastard word I try to stay away from..?"
She appears to be right, there is no need to shout about the ingredients, it seems to be clear to the customers that keep returning that it is raw honest to goodness food that comes out of the kitchen.
There is more to Kai than just the food, It's a community, we buy some veggies in Ernies down the road, we get our locks from Collerans round the corner, we use the local launderette, all our scones that are left are brought to the Crane or other local Bars….Its not just about you or the restaurant or any of that shit, cos there is no glory in working a 16 hour day."
- On the Future of Food
Jess had two main issues that she would shout about if she were to climb on to the rooftop of Kai: Food Waste and the food that is served to sick people in Irish Hospitals.
"Food Waste is a scandal, in NZ we give everything to pigs, we test stuff to make sure it is safe and all, here it goes on the landfill."
"We try to waste nothing here in Kai, we use the stalks of rainbow chard and braise them down. Chefs aren't getting taught how to do this, I have chefs coming in here and they don't know how to soak lentils, Its about education."
Jess recognizes and is not afraid to highlight the fact that others within her own profession are some of the main culprits when it comes to Food Waste, especially Irish Food Waste.
"I have a friend in Dublin and she says piles of Irish food is rotting away because chefs won't buy Irish produce."
"You know I said to a Chef recently, why buy fucking scallops in Klmore quay, forget them use a fish caught locally that is more sustainable."
When she was a teenager in New Zealand, Jess worked for a time in a Hospital kitchen. While she acknowledges that New Zealand doesn't have the best health service in the world, she respects that all the food cooked in this hospital was cooked from scratch.
"If I had a message for the Irish government it would be to sort your fucking food out in yer' hospitals. If you look at the hospital food we are feeding sick people in Ireland, we are making them more sick. Farmed salmon is flown in from Denmark at 24c a portion, that’s not supporting local economy! We should go back to our roots. Food should be made from scratch, why aren't we cooking and feeding patients in Hospitals Irish cabbage, turnips, bacon, potatoes?"
- On the Future
I think what I found inspiring about Jess is that she makes it all seem so easy. It's her simplistic and honest approach to food.
She says that she probably should not be "so much of a blinding optimist", As an outside observer, from what I can see, I don't think that this has led to many epic fails for her in the past.
Jess' next project is in the shape of A Cookbook - 'Gin and Gherkin Juice'. Work is to start on this next month. I for one will certainly look forward to flicking through the pages.
I asked Jess if she had any other plans
"I would love another restaurant…"
Watch this space.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jess Murphy a couple of days before Kai Café and Restaurant won the accolade of best restaurant in Connaught, at the Food & Wine Magazine Annual Awards.
Jess' upbringing, exposure and familial relationship with food may go some way to explain the journey that led Jess and her husband David returning to Sea Road, Galway - a long way from Wairoi, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand - with this prize.