Marc Murphy may be the least celebrity-like of all the celebrity chefs. On a weekday morning, as CNN anchors dine nearby, Murphy sits at a communal table by himself at Landmarc at the Time Warner Center, looking like just another patron. He gets up to greet me — we first met when he was FR's guest editor a few years back — and his voice is the only giveaway that he's a VIP. It's assertive, confident, celebrity-like.
Of course, Murphy has become a celeb chef, with regular appearances on Chopped and as a guest on Iron Chef (more on that, and some slightly sour grapes, below). But he still has that sort of everyman appeal and a hardworking ethic that has him avidly supporting two food charities, Share Our Strength and City Harvest, and working on the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership with the U.S. State Dept. Then there's his restaurants, which is why we're here.
Murphy's Landmarc, the original one, in NYC's Tribeca, just turned 10 years old. He has since opened Ditch Plains in the West Village, then another Landmarc at Time Warner, a Ditch Plains on the Upper West Side, a catering company and just recently, a Midtown New American joint called Kingside. He's also about to complete the final draft of his first cookbook, which will be published next year. In other words, he's come a long way since arriving in NYC 20-some years ago and deciding to go into cooking because he didn't want to wind up homeless. To mark the achievement, we're dusting off our What I've Seen format, which forces chefs to think back to how they got started and to tell us how they got where they are today. Here's Murphy on spotting critics, improvising dishes, feeling defeated and more…
What's the bloodiest kitchen industry you’ve witnessed?
In the more figurative sense of hard and difficult work, it was my first job at Prix Fixe when the executive sous chef there was David Pasternack. I was still a kid and he taught me what work meant. I came in late once because I had partied too much the night before and he was like "MURPHY! Why the fuck were you late?" And I was like, I overslept. Overslept? See those two 50 lb. bags of onions? I need you to peel 'em and I need you to slice 'em thin on the slicer. And I was hungover like a motherfucker. My eyes were bleeding. My head was pounding. And then he takes all the onions, puts ‘em in a pot, cooks ‘em down and buzzes ‘em up. It was basically the equivalent of digging a ditch and filling it. That night he pulls me in the walk-in, because that’s where the serious conversations happen, and he goes, Murphy, sometimes you just gotta go home and have milk and cookies.
Which chefs inspired you?
Somebody who influenced me a lot was Sylvain Portay, who was the executive chef at Le Cirque when I got there. Great guy, great chef. Another guy Jean-Pierre Brault, who has a restaurant in Paris, and I worked under him when he was the sous-chef at Le Miravile, and as an impressionable cook, that was two years of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life.
When was the last time you took your staff on a field trip?
I don’t physically take the staff but I have a head purchaser, and every six weeks they go to a different purveyor. They’re going to Dairyland to see their warehouses and they’re going to a farm. They take all the sous-chefs, because I think it’s important. Another type of field trip is getting the chefs together and going out to dinner. The last place we went was David Pasternack’s Esca. His crudos are so awesome.
When was the last time you had to kick somebody out of one of your restaurants?
I had somebody here [at Landmarc] when we first opened, and he was drunk and belligerent and I had to escort him out because he was very rude to a waitress. And then our manager, also a woman, I saw him try to grab her ass. I went over there and I took this guy and called security.
Last time you had a celebrity enter your dining room?
Is Chris Cuomo a celebrity? He was just sitting right there.
"There are places where the reviewer gets all this really crazy different stuff than the regular customers and then people come to your restaurant and are like, What the fuck? This isn’t what I read about."
When was the last time you improvised a dish to instant perfection?
I would say it’s when we opened Kingside because we were working on a fair amount of recipes and the pork shank there is right where it needs to be. And that kale salad. We fucked around with that for quite a while. It’s raw kale with lemon juice, olive oil, shallots and then we dot it with a beautiful goat cheese and green olives and toasted almonds.
When was the last time you felt defeated?
A lot of the times when the Food Network makes me compete in these fucking episodes of this and that. Last time we did Iron Chef it was me and Aaron [Sanchez] and Scott Conant against Michael Symon, Marc Forgione and Geoffrey Zakarian. It was like Iron Chef against Chopped judges. Which was hilarious, because I’m sitting there before and I’m like, dude, it’s their show vs. our show and the producers of their show are here. They’re not going to let us win! Anyway, we got defeated.
When was the last time you spotted a food critic?
I think the last time was when we were getting reviewed for New York magazine about five or six years ago and who’s the big tall goofy guy from New York magazine?
Yeah. And he was standing up at the bar eating and he’s big and tall and he’s like two heads bigger than anybody and I’m like, well, there’s Adam Platt. But to me, it’s not something that we do — try to spot the food critic, play that game. I honestly believe you should be giving an honest review of what everybody’s getting. There are places where the reviewer gets all this really crazy different stuff than the regular customers and then people come to your restaurant and are like, What the fuck? This isn’t what I read about. And nowadays it’s important but not as critical as when I opened Cellar in the Sky or I had La Fourchette. It was like The New York Times, Ruth Reichl would come, and it was like a Broadway show. If they shit on you, you were done. Nowadays you can get a bad review and resharpen your knives and go back out there and do it better.
Do you train your team to pay attention to Yelp or to ignore it?
We ignore it. It’s like picking a scab if you start dealing with that shit.
Why did you want to open another restaurant at this stage of your career, and why Kingside?
Brands are brands, and when you look at Landmarc in Tribeca, which is 10 years old now, I opened that as a bistro with some Italian influences with a really kickass wine list that was affordable — that’s’ what I liked about it. Theyn they wanted one at the Time Warner Center a couple of years later. And now it’s really become a brand in a sense. Ditch Plains is a New York-style fish shack. As a chef and a businessperson, I can’t start making crudos, for example, at Landmarc. It wouldn’t make sense. I can’t start using curries. You work within a box and I already have two boxes. When this opportunity came along to do something different, it’s exciting.
Is it possible to think back to before the first restaurant started?
I think if you take the trajectory of my career and my life as a cook— start there. I started cooking because I’m very dyslexic and I was told I’m pretty much stupid my whole life. I got to NYC and I was 19 years old. I finally got out of high school, which took me forever. So I came to New York and I was crashing on my brother’s couch and I was walking around and homeless people were everywhere and I’m like, “This is gonna be me!” I started cooking because I didn’t wanna be hungry. That’s where I started. Then things happened. I got addicted to the business because being a cook was exciting and I liked it and it was the first time I was doing something where people were happy with my work.
Check out some of Marc Murphy's recipes, as featured on Food Republic: