Welcome to the first of my Pro Pastry series, where I link full interviews and stories of chefs I’ve worked with here with an allergy-friendly adaptation of one of the recipes in Pro-Pastry: Gluten Free on The Dusty Baker, as well as any stories I’ve done on the chefs for outside sources. In this way I get to bring the many facets of my life working with professional chefs together, and I couldn’t be more pleased to kick off the series today with Chef Joe Murphy.
A lot of the food world is flashy, lately.
With reality television shows, “celebrity chefs” and self-proclaimed “foodies” popping thrice-weekly recipes on blogs and putting out digital cookbooks, one could fear that the attention to detail and time served to create beautiful food of value to be taking the backseat.
But then you meet a chef like Joe Murphy, and those fears are vanquished.
Murphy is a testament to “slow and steady wins the race”. The Executive Pastry Chef at the much-lauded Jean-Georges Restaurant, his background is one of study and honed-in practice. Achieving his dreams took patience; reaping the rewards while keeping focus on putting out plate after stunning plate takes it, too.
In this brand-spanking new interview, Chef Murphy shares how he got to his current four-star seat. Monday on The Dusty Baker, I’ll have a dairy-free adaptation of his crème brûlée recipe as the first in my Pro Pastry: Gluten Free column. And for how he works with ingredients in outside-the-box ways, head to my Hey Chef! column on Serious Eats.
Pastry Chef Joe Murphy:
Slow and Steady, Uphill
In 2002 you had your own very successful restaurant in TriBeCa. Where was your focus at the time?
I opened up Fresh with two partners; I was the pastry chef, the manager, the plumber, the painter, I watered the plants outside, and I really loved every part of it. I’m fortunate that I’ve worked with great people throughout the years; Alfred Portale fifteen years ago, Jean Georges and Laurent Tourondel. Each gave me a different learning experience. But I think in the end every pastry chef wants to have their own shop; their own little Dominique Ansel.
What stopped you from doing that?
Opportunity. When my partnership broke up I was looking to open my own place, but then I got a call that Jean Georges was looking for a corporate chef, and that sounded interesting to me; flying all over the world with him, training his chefs and pastry chefs at their restaurants, and experiencing the world a little bit.
At that time when someone would ask me where I go for the best macarons, I’d laugh and say, “I go to Pierre Herme in France.” It sounded snooty, but it was the truth. I was in Paris four times a year, so when I needed a macaron fix I’d go there. Life stinks, right?!
It sounds very glamorous, but there were also tons of days where I was in the kitchen for thirteen hours. I remember often getting off the plane and going right into the kitchen; if you didn’t sleep on the plane, it was game over for you. We’d work all day, then go out to, say, Gordon Ramsey in London or Robuchon in Las Vegas. It was an incredible opportunity.
What shifted during that period in regards to your skills, heading up a large, international team?
I think I grew as a manager. When you work in one place all the time, especially high-end restaurants, you’re the pastry chef and you have one staff underneath you. But when you oversee multiple units you have to learn how to manage the pastry chef in Minneapolis; does she have the sous chef, or does she not? What’s going on there? How’s the season changing in the Bahamas? Did they get hit with a big hurricane that wiped out all their mangos and avocados? So learning different regions and being able to manage them really helped me grow as far as learning about produce and products.
Also, most people have an idea of what they think a good piece of pastry is, but if you eat at one of the best pastry shops, you know that there’s a big difference. Bread, too, for that matter. I grew up in Brooklyn and worked at a great bread bakery, and I thought that bread was great until I went to France, and had the chance to try a real levain. So that changed.
You then went from being Jean Georges’ corporate chef to working with Laurent Tourondel at the Ritz. What got you outside of your comfort zone there?
I was the pastry chef for the Ritz and helped oversee Laurent’s BLT market. So, again, the menus were market driven. You had to bring your A-game with Laurent. I was never responsible or paid to do a sugar or chocolate showpiece before I got to the Ritz; I’d always done it on my own just because I wanted to know how to do it, but had never had to do one for work before. The second day I was there, they said, “John Melencamp’s coming in, and we want to do a life-sized replica of the guitar that he plays, because he’s being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” So in ten hours we had to sculpt a chocolate guitar, and deliver it to him. It was pretty cool. It was a replica of his guitar with chocolate fire coming out of it. When he walked into the room, he was impressed.
There was a lot of that. The CEO of Louis Vuitton would come in, so they would want a chocolate Louis Vuitton bag. I’d never done anything like that before, the carving chocolate or sugar showpieces, so I found that interesting.
Did learning how to do more sculpting work there add to what you can compose with pastry now?
Not really. We’ll do chocolate showpieces around the holidays or if someone special comes in for a birthday, but for the most part what I do is understand the modern-style desserts but remain old-school.
I’ve seen all of the ups and downs throughout 20 years of being in New York. When I first worked in New York it was all about architectural, tall desserts. I worked with the person who more or less created that, Richard Leach, as his sous chef for four years. Then Gramercy Tavern opened up, and everyone wanted to do flat desserts. And then savory desserts came about. It will all come back, I’m sure. Right now the desserts that are popular may not be tall, but they’re flat and architectural. I try to do a mix of that.
I don’t want to be known as the guy who makes a quenelle, a crumb, and something squiggly on the plate. This restaurant is about taking a classic technique and putting a twist on it, most of the time something Asian inspired; Jean Georges is one of the leaders in that fusion. So maybe making a terrine with roasted plums and the stone fruits at the market, and then serving it with a brown butter ice cream–kind of classic–but then putting tweaks on it to make it more modern. That’s all we do.
Is there something you do easily now that would have been a challenge were you to take this job years ago?
Many years ago I was asked if I was interested in being the pastry chef here, and I didn’t think I was ready for it. I feel like to take on a restaurant of this caliber you need to know almost everything so you can train your staff and execute well.
Where did you feel lacking at that point?
At that point, fifteen years ago, I was lacking in knowing about classic French pastries, because I was trained by Americans who, like I said, did the architectural thing.
Over the years when I was in the corporate position I got to work with Jean Georges and learn what he likes and how to understand his palate. That was one of the other great things about traveling with him to his restaurants; if we ate a dish and it was his dish, he would explain why it worked for him. Most young cooks don’t get that. I was fortunate that the person who taught me how to make a foie gras torchon was Jean Georges, not a sous chef or a chef de cuisine. I worked as quickly as I could at my work so that I could work with him and learn how to do that stuff. So I was ready for this position when it was offered to me again.
Other than general parameters of what you have to do with combining classic French technique with somewhat Asian ingredients, are there parameters you place yourself within?
Here there’s no holding back, other than acknowledging our customer base. We have a client base that averages 30-65 years old, so maybe the 65-year old person doesn’t want to eat sweet pea sorbet. We acknowledge who’s sitting in our dining room, but otherwise if I present something to Jean Georges and he thinks it’s delicious, we’re going to do it.
We talked earlier about dealing with allergies. How have the increase in dietary restrictions affected – positively or negatively – production in your kitchen?
I’m fortunate because we have desserts that are made of four components; there may only be four items on the dessert menu, but there are four pieces to each of those items. So say someone comes in and they have a dairy allergy; we can pick and choose from some of our tastings. If I’m starting with plum soda in one dish, I can take that and work it into something else, with maybe the Cherries Jubilee from the other dish. We never plan on it, and I don’t think about allergies when putting together a new menu, but it kind of works that way.
Say someone comes in and wants a sugar-free dessert; that’s tough to do. We do it though, with maybe a soufflé for them. We feel them out to see what they want, and if they want a soufflé at the end of the meal we’ll do that for them.
Does that annoy you at all?
It doesn’t annoy me, because people are spending a lot of money to eat in our dining room and we’re here to accommodate, so whatever they want, we’ll give them. If they want a bowl of strawberries, that’s fine. What is annoying is that we have a two-hour window between the time you first sit down and when you get your dessert. If someone says they want a sugar-free dessert at the last minute, it’s almost always impossible to accommodate with something phenomenal to blow them away. It turns into a fruit plate. We want to accommodate with something special, but we need the time to do so.
You have a team for 14 and are very much a restaurant that can accommodate. Is that comforting to you personally, the ability to do that?
Sure. There are two people that do bread baking (one bread is gluten free), and one and half people for ice cream and sorbet; all of that gets made every day. Then we have production and service people for our two spaces; the café and fine dining.
Then we also do our petit fours. A big part of the meal at the end is you get the parade of petit fours, from marshmallows to bonbons to macarons. We’ll go through four to five thousand pieces, just on Saturday! And every drop of it is a giveaway. We have a chocolate room downstairs we call the “free room”, because it’s all the petit fours, and we don’t make a dime from it!
That’s a very magical room!
The chocolate companies love us for the amount of chocolate we go through.
You’re a born and bred New Yorker. What feels good about the pastry scene to you right now?
I grew up in Brooklyn, and growing up my grandfather–I call him the Original Foodie–would go to one place for his cannoli, one place for his bread, and he’d shop around and like certain things from certain places.
For a while I think New York lost that, with a Starbucks on every corner. But now all of these little tiny places that we lost are starting to come back. So what excites me is seeing that again. If someone says, “You know what, I like that ice cream parlor more than this one, so that’s why I’m going there”, that reminds me of childhood. I think what Dominique did is pretty genius; he took a bakery concept and made it into something more interesting than anything else I know of in the city. You go in there and you see different products; you don’t see the same old brownies and Black and White cookies. That’s what I think is interesting now.
Other than the managerial and production aspect, what is challenging or a place you want to grow? In the making of pastry right now, where are you trying to push yourself?
My style has always been simple. Even though we have four different components on the dishes, for the most part they’re all pretty simple. We’re constantly trying to improve on our chocolates, come up with different techniques for sorbets and ice cream. With my career it’s been “slow and steady uphill.” So, honestly, the four stars is always something I’ve wanted to be a part of. So what’s next? I’m not sure.