Women Of The Irish Food Industry: Jess Murphy, Head Chef

Women Of The Irish Food Industry: Jess Murphy, Head Chef

This post is the first of many. I intend to introduce you to a new woman of the Irish food industry every week. There are many strong and inspiring women and I am so excited to bring them all to your attention. Naturally, I am over the moon to start with Jess Murphy. 

Jess Murphy needs very little introduction but here we go anyway. With her husband, Dave, she founded and own Kai restaurant, a not so hidden gem in the westend of Galway. Kai has a bib gourmand and Jess Murphy has been voted Best Chef in Ireland in 2018 by the RAI. She is in the papers and on the telly and she works hard to stay her best self. If the Irish food industry had a queen it would surely be Jess Murphy. 

One of the many things I love about Jess is how enthusiastic she gets when she’s talking about other women and their achievements. Yes of course she can talk about herself, that’s part of the job, but she shines when she gets to tell you about others success. Jess is involved with the Galway food festival, and it’s the only festival around Ireland (apart from the Airfield one) which I have seen specifically reaching out to minority communities and immigrants. This really works for me as I firmly believe that we are better together. They are not just invited, they are part of the story as told by the festival and that’s Jess Murphy all over for you. 

I don’t know if you pay much attention to gender balance around you but I do. As I’m all about food, I suppose it is where I notice it most and I find it at best very disappointing. When festival season comes around, I receive press release after press release with photos of the same tired all chefs, doing the same tired all things. And as much as I’m a big admirer of some of these guys, I do get sick of seeing them as the face of each event. I want women to be represented better and more. They work hard and they are just as skilled and engaging as their male counterpart. I want to see more women, and dare I say it, I want to see women of colour too. 

So I got annoyed, as I often do, and I decided to do something about it. I can’t very well put a food festival together myself but what I can do, with my small platform, is to highlight the great women working in the Irish food industry. I’ve written about some of them before, one of those force of natures being Mag Kirwan of Goatsbridge Trout Farm.  But less about me and I’ll let the incomparable Jess Murphy tell you about herself. 

What’s your career path? What did you study and how did you get to be Kai?

I always know I wanted to cook. From about 9 years of age, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was not academic and I left school at 15 and a half to wash dishes. When I was 18 I did one year in a technical college. I travelled a bit, met Dave and moved to Ireland with a bag of tools and a good knife. I talked my way into work experiences in various kitchen and when I got the chance to open my own business, I jumped on it. 

How does your career fullfill you and what do you hope to achieve in the next three years?

I love what I do and where I live. I love the west of Ireland and the ocean and the farmers. I am inspired by the local food producers and it’s brilliant. I love working with the local food products like cabbage and turnips and curly parsley. 

The next year is going to be busy, I’m currently working on a cooking book and I’m hoping to find a good publisher soon. In march, I will hopefully be going to Beirut with the UN. The idea is to meet over there with a Syrian family due to be rehomed in Ireland and follow their journeys.  I’ll be visiting some of the camps and cooking there and will talk with refugees who have started food businesses and see where they are at. 

I’ve also got a pop up in Berlin at some stage. 

What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?

I think something drastic has to be done. I would like to start something, some kind of support or platform. People really need to start talking pushing Irish women more. Talk about them on your social media circles, write about them, engage with them. 

Next year, I intend to mentor young female chefs for the Eurotoque competition. So if they want to come and work with me for a week or two, I will be happy to help them and hopefully get them further in the competition which in turn raises their profile. 

In particular, what can men do to raise the profile of women in the industry?

Neven Maguire is brilliant for this, he always brings his female chefs to his events and talks highly of them. So be more mindful and be more like Neven

Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you.

Christine Walsh who was the sous-chef at Loam for 3 years has been a great inspiration to me. 

Have you had a wow moment to date in your career? If so which one was it and why?

Yes there have been a few. Definitely the day when Niamh Fox opened Little Fox in Ennistymon. I was the co-signer of the lease, her witness. We’d worked together for about 4 years and I’ve always followed her career. She had a 4 months old baby when she opened the doors. She’s a powerhouse. Her success is definitely a wow moment. Winning the bib gourmand, winning the Best Chef in Ireland, being on tv and in the papers for the first time.  Those are big deals. And the Irish Times thing (Jess Murphy is writing a weekly column for the Irish Times for the month of November as part of their food month), that was a wow moment too. And meeting Jeffa from Durrus, just sitting in that kitchen. Those are the important moments. 

What have been your down moments in your career and how did you deal with them?

I’ve had to learn to unblock sinks with an uncurled coat hanger, that was bad. And I had to try and unlock some drains by sucking through a tube. You can guess where that went. Straight into my mouth. Chaffing. That’s bad. 

And then of course the reviews you’re not quite happy with. Normally I wake up with a bit of a routine, I will go for a shower, come back, and just put my head in a pillow and scream my head off. And then you get rid of all that shit energy, you get up and you go at it again. 

What advice would you give your younger self? 

I would say that it’s ok to be you. I only found that out recently. I’d been trying to hide how feral I was when all along people want to know who I am and what makes me me. Just be you. People are interested in who you are not who you pretend to be. 

What are the top skills required to do your job (s) and why? 

Strength, resilience, stamina, and the most important thing that no one teaches you is how to build and run a team. Complete team management is hard but so important.  Our guys are down to four days weeks, our waiters are on the top rates because that’s what we believe in. Your staff is everything and you need to appreciate the people that work with you!

What are the foods you miss from home?

I miss mum’s cooking. It’s not that she’s a particularly fancy cook, but mum’s food has that little extra something. It’s home and it’s comfort and it’s love. I miss feijoa icecream too, it’s a guava apple kind of fruit. But when I’m in New Zealand, I really miss the Irish butter. The milk there is just not the same and costs more than petrol!

What spices and herbs do you use most?

I’m on a curly parsley and white pepper buzz at the moment, so that’s what I’m all about lately. I used to put cumin into everything, but I’ve dialled it down and gone back to the simple flavours of good home cooked food. 

You’ve had the day from hell and you need comfort food. What’s your go to dish?

This one is easy! If I’ve had a crap day, I will go home, put on my unicorn pyjamas, switch on My Crazy ExGirlfriend and snuggle on the couch with the dogs and a big bowl of Dave’s bolognese. It works every time! 

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