With a coif of spiky sandy hair bouncing around as he speaks in a slightly refined surfer-dude patois, Marc Murphy comes across as one of the chilliest—and friendliest—restaurant entrepreneurs and television personalities in the business. We’re meeting in the Tribeca conference room of Benchmarc Restaurants, Murphy’s restaurant group and catering company that has grown in under a decade into a 550-employee force in the gut-check NYC restaurant world.
The anchor for everything is Landmarc, a West Broadway star that the chef grew from a raw duplex space on a little-trafficked stretch in downtown Manhattan into a wildly popular urban brasserie that was very much ahead of its time. Think dishes like bone marrow, roasted branzino and chicken liver cavatelli served in a slick dining room crowded with the moneyed clientele the address now draws regularly. A second location in the Time Warner Center, triple the size and spectacle, opened in 2007, followed by the upscale seafood shack Ditch Plains—with locations in the West Village and Upper West Side. There’s also a seasonal pop-up that runs in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Phew.
And if that wasn’t enough work, Murphy also stars as a guest judge on popular TV show Chopped, having filmed nearly 200 episodes of the Iron Chef-meets-Price Is Right competition.
To kickoff Food Republic’s first-ever guest editor week, we spoke with the tri-lingual chef and all-around interesting guy about culinary school, his early career in fine dining and what it’s like to be the boss. Check back today and all week long for Murphy’s curated posts, marked by the rubric “Marc Murphy Week.”
How do you feel about being guest editor for a week at Food Republic for a week?
First of all I love Food Republic, I think it’s a great website that gives a really great energy. It’s a niche that’s sort of missing in our world, which I like.
Thanks man. So if you could launch your own publication, what would it look like?
It would address concepts that people talk about. There’s so much written about stupid stuff. It’s sort of like People in a way. You never read an article about a dishwasher that worked his way up to be a sous chef who’s immigrated to this country, or a dishwasher who’s been working all his life and put his kid through college. Nobody seems to care about those stories.
What do people care too much about?
I actually had this conversation with [Food Republic co-founder] Marcus [Samuelsson] once. If him and I got into a fight at a party—started pushing each other around—everyone would write about that. They’re not going to talk about the hundreds of thousands of dollars we raise for charities and helping Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.
We’ll be interviewing the founder of Share Our Strength later this week…
I’d also like to see a section about the real business. If you’re a waiter or busboy or a dishwasher, there are laws being passed that jump into the owners’ pockets, which affects the rest of the company. I have 550 employees. When a bill came down the line called Paid Sick Leave, we did a study of what it would have cost our company. It would have been $190,000 a year. Well I can’t just create $190,000 to give to the government, so it’s going to either hurt the customer or hurt the employees, so I think the employees should be aware.
Everyone’s like: “Oh, the big boss, he’s taking all the money.” Well, guess what. This is not a money-making business. The restaurant industry is about love and passion and it’s a low margin profit. And people, they’ve got to start realizing that a lot of these things that are happening to us affect our employees and our diners as well.
Let’s go back to the start of your career. What made you sign up for culinary school?
I was 20 and didn’t know what to do with myself and I found this cooking school and decided just to go and check it out. I didn’t really know what to do with my life and I thought, “Well, if I learn how to cook, at least I won’t be hungry.” So I went and it was really just fun. I felt kind of bad, because I didn’t take it all that seriously because there was a lot of partying to be done.
I was living in New York, in my twenties. What are you gonna do? I honestly don’t think I ever studied once. If you get a bad grade in cooking school, what’s the big deal? I’m gonna go get a job and they’re gonna say, “Oh you got a bad grade on this test?” I just thought it was fun learning how to cook a bit.
What was your first job like?
I worked for Terrance Brennan at Prix Fix, where I got paid $241 a week for working six days a week, 12 hours a day — and I had so much fun. I was like, they pay me to do this? This is kind of cool. It’s like your first job when you’re a kid.
What was so fun about it?
I was working garde manger to start. I never thought about it really. I just thought this is a good place to pass the time and earn some money so I can go out and drink. I loved the screaming. The yelling. The cutting. The burning. It was all “fuck you this” and “fuck you that” and “move your ass.” But at the end of the night, we’d all end up at the bar, buying each other beers. It didn’t matter how much you pissed each other off at work, that was work, and now it was like, we’re just hangin.
When did you make the jump from being in the back of the house to being an entrepreneur and starting to own your own businesses?
I always ended up going high end. I moved to Paris and worked there for a while. I moved back to America and worked at Le Cirque and all these places. And then I ended up working with this guy named Abraham Merchant and he opened up a place called La Fourchette on the Upper East Side. I ran that place for about two years. It was in an awful location, unfortunately, and got great reviews.
Then I started helping him out in other places. We opened a place called Chinoiserie and then he opened a place, Southwest, and had all these Merchant bars. I sort of fell into the business aspect. He trusted me and I trusted him, and we really worked well together, and I would always be that guy in the kitchen helping him out. He taught me a lot about running the business. As I always say to people, when you work in the restaurant industry the most important thing is to do openings and to work with your peripheral vision open, because you’re going to learn so much. Cooking is one aspect of it, but running the restaurant—you have to learn how to fix the toilet for god’s sake. You’re basically a babysitter, a teacher, a plumber, an electrician, a cook, a business person, a bouncer.
And what inspired you to open the original Landmarc?
We decided to get some money together and we bought the little building down in Tribeca. I built it with a friend of mine. The one thing I had never done in a restaurant business was the accounts payable—the paychecks and stuff. You figure it out. Six months into it I was like, ok I think I’ve got a handle on this. Let’s hire somebody else to do this crap because we were getting really busy. And we ended up getting very busy at that place and we still are.
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