Jess Murphy of KAI on the importance of pushing the next generation of Irish foodies forward
Here, we catch up with Jess Murphy, the owner and head chef of Galway's Michelin Bib Gourmand Restaurant, Kai.
When it comes to the Irish food scene, Jess Murphy’s got her finger on the pulse. Hailing from New Zealand, Jess has been living in Ireland since 2003, and her appreciation and respect for every single step on the Irish food chain has only grown.
The mastermind behind the foodie creations at beloved Galway restaurant Kai, Jess is big on cooking with love. Adamant that the ideal dining experience requires an even split of tasty grub and top notch hospitality, there’s no room for snobbery on the menu here.
So, we thought it only fitting that we catch up with the woman herself on the role food — in all its many iterations — plays in the life of Jess Murphy. From early days spent crumbing fishcakes in her grandmother’s kitchen to sourcing and preparing each dish in Kai, read our interview below…
What are your earliest memories of food?
That would have to be my grandmother’s roast lamb. We’ve always had a roast in the house because there were so many of us, and we would need sandwiches as well. There was just constantly a roast in the oven.
How would you describe your relationship with food?
I think the best way to describe my relationship with food is a little obsessed. I’m obsessed with everything about it; how it grows, what it grows next to, how I cook it — the whole shebang.
What was the first meal you learned to cook?
The first meal I learned to cook was fishcakes. I have memories of crumbing them with my grandmother back in the day.
What’s your go-to breakfast?
People always say that porridge is great because it will keep you feeling full until about 12 o’clock — but I eat it, and within half an hour, I’m starving! I always start the morning off with a protein shake with kefir yogurt, Lion’s Mane mushroom powder — which I think everyone should be on, it’s fantastic for cognitive thinking — chia seeds, and loads of fruit.
If you’re impressing friends and family at a dinner party, what are you serving up?
It honestly depends really, but I do love doing a whole fish on the barbecue at summertime in Galway. Then if it was raining outside, I would go for a rib roast of beef.
Who is your culinary inspiration?
Rory O’Connell, he’s an absolute icon. There’s something about the way that he cooks that somehow just transports me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s simplicity, ease, and flavour.
What would your last meal on earth be?
Definitely macaroni and cheese, it’s just the perfect meal. It’s great if you’re happy, great if you’re sad — ideal for your last day on earth!
What’s your go-to comfort food?
On my day off, roast chicken.
What’s the go-to quick meal you cook when you’re tired and hungry?
Because I’m surrounded by such good stuff at Kai, I try not to eat crap. Myself and my husband Dave — a lot like Leo Varadkar and his partner — are big into meal prep. So, when we want something quick and easy, we’ll just pull it out of the freezer. It could be an organic chicken curry, a nice broth, or some chicken noodle soup.
I realise I may be alone in this, but I would go to WA Café and get some sushi. Something like a teriyaki chicken roll — anything that Yoshimi Hayakawa makes.
Sweet or savoury?
Savoury, all day every day.
Fine dining or pub grub?
Pub grub, one hundred percent — no one wants to sit at a table for four hours.
Favourite restaurant in Ireland?
I absolutely adore The Farmgate in Cork, and I know I might be contradicting myself saying that I don’t like fine dining, but I love Lignum in Galway. I always have such gorgeous meals out there and the hospitality when you come through the door is absolutely beautiful, not at all intimidating. They do Sunday lunches, so it’s a great place to try if you’re freaked out by fine dining. Proper Galway hospitality.
Best coffee in Ireland?
My top favourite coffee would be Cloud Picker, because I love the taste and flavour, but once again, they’re not snobs. When I say to them that my customer base enjoys scones and cappuccinos in the morning, they don’t bat an eyelid, they do what suits us. Their sustainability programme is excellent, and that’s a huge focus for us.
Go-to beverage accompaniment?
My new thing at the moment is Valentia Island Vermouth with Poachers tonic. Both made in Ireland, both super class.
What’s your favourite thing about cooking?
My whole thing is that when I cook food, I cook food for people, and I just adore that. In Kai, we have an open pass, so we can actually look out and see people enjoying themselves — that’s just the most fulfilling thing. Also, I have full control over the food that I buy, so even if you are just having fish fingers, or ice cream and a piece of cake, I bought every single ounce of those ingredients and I know exactly where it’s coming from. I know that you’re getting nourished. We cook with love, we’re not robots, and we put a lot of really good energy into our food, and I think that you can always taste when food’s been made with love and respect.
What are your thoughts on the Irish foodie scene?
I think a lot of people are struggling right now, with inflation and everything that goes with it, but I really believe we have the strongest food scene in the world. We have the best producers, the best land, and the best dairy in the world. I think, being non-Irish, I can see that more clearly. Sometimes you have to come from a different place to see and appreciate its beauty. For me, it’s Ireland, and it’s always been Ireland. Every day I’ll get a text from someone new, who’s producing something new.
Is there room for improvement?
We need to start pushing our young ones forward. I feel like I’ve had my time, and now it’s time to push my team forward. Whether or not it’s online or in person, there’s so much space to do more of that.
Compliments to the chef — Now’s your chance to sing the praises of a talented chef, beloved restaurant or particularly talented foodie family member.
I absolutely adore what Ciara is doing at Ursa Minor in Northern Ireland. Then there’s Sarah at Seagull Bakery in Tramore — she’s an absolute hero. There are so many women doing truly amazing things; Paula McIntyre, Alice Jarry from Rúibín, Paula Stakelum is the frontier woman for chocolate making here in Ireland, and of course, all the ladies on my team inspire me every day.
Secret ingredient — What, in your estimation, makes the perfect dining experience?
For me, the perfect dining experience involves a lot of really good butter. Good butter can hide bad bread. Also, we all need a Dave. Dave, my husband, works front of house at Kai and Irish hospitality is so important. We constantly hear about the food, the food, the food, but we never hear about the people who work front of house. Our whole team at Kai, they’re the ones who make the whole dining experience. You can cook until the cows come home but sometimes, you’ve got situations where things go wrong and that’s when our stunning front of house angels step in. They make the customer feel welcome, and they make them feel at ease. That’s all part and parcel of it. The food is 50%, and the hosting is 50%. The thing that made me fall in love with Ireland was the hospitality.
If you want to find out more about Jess Murphy, visit KAI’s website, or stop by 22 Sea Road to see for yourself.
Imagery via Nathalie Marquez-Courtney