Jess Murphy

6th July 2018

Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Emile Dinneen & Dan Dennison

6th July 2018

Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Emile Dinneen & Dan Dennison

“We’re between the church and the gay bar,” is how Jess Murphy directs us towards Kai in Galway – and a more perfect instruction to find the city’s most exciting restaurant is hard to imagine. Jess and her husband David, a former welder who runs front of house, opened Kai in Galway’s west end in 2011. Since then, they’ve been working wonders with the local produce that so dazzled Jess when she moved over from New Zealand 13 years ago. Pretty much everyone we speak to in Ireland urges us to pay her a visit.

You don’t get off lightly when you spend a day in the Murphy household. First we grab a bite at the restaurant – the salads at Kai are punchy and delicious. Then we head around the corner to Jess’s house, where she gets a roast on the go, squeezing a vast rib of beef into the oven with whole carrots slotted around the sides.

Next we zip over to Ali’s Fish Market to pick up some mussels, which Jess cooks with chicken stock, ale and seaweed to tide us over while the beef slow-roasts. Her whirlwind approach in the kitchen – steaming mussels, layering dauphinoise potatoes with dried mushrooms, plying us with excellent wine, lambasting various food trends – leaves us somewhat breathless on her behalf.

Jess is equally energetic when it comes to championing local producers: since opening Kai, she and David have cultivated relationships with farmers, fishermen, foragers and more up and down the west coast, tirelessly supporting those who meet their exacting standards. It’s hard not to be won over by the couple’s passion, leavened as it is by a refreshingly no-bullshit approach to culinary matters.

A decadent afternoon reaches its apex at dinner, with that creamy mushroom dauphinoise a perfect foil to the monumental rib of beef. The following morning, Jess herds us out to the Blackrock pier in Salthill for a bracing November dip. By the time we leave Galway, we know exactly where to find Jess and her restaurant – though the church and the gay bar are nowhere near as exciting, in our opinion, than the woman cooking up a storm between them.

Continued below...

You grew up on New Zealand’s North Island. Was your family interested in food?

I guess we were, but it was just part of what we did, it wasn’t a conscious lifestyle choice. We foraged because we were a bit poor, you know? We had our own pigs, we went duck shooting. My grandmother used to make her own baked beans and put them in a glass jar, so all I wanted as a kid was to have a normal tin of baked beans from the shop [laughs]. A lot of the stuff we got was bartered, and it still is. I remember my dad, who’s a glazier, fixing some windows for a neighbour. They couldn’t afford to pay, so he got six crayfish and half a loaf of rewena [fermented potato bread] in return – that was way better than money.

Did you go out hunting or fishing?

I grew up in a town called Wairoa, which means “long water”, so we had plenty of fish. And we backed on to a huge forest where there were loads of wild boar. In New Zealand you can only hunt boar by tracking them with dogs and killing them in the bush. You jump on their backs, slit their throats and gut them in the forest. Then take them home and butcher them and make roasts and stews and stuff like that.

Is that when your own interest in food kicked in?

Yeah I’d say so – I wanted to be a chef since I was seven years old. I didn’t give a shit about school, so when I was 16 I left school and started washing dishes at a restaurant in Hastings. When I turned 17 they put me in charge of microwaving the Mississippi mud pie for 30 seconds and adding the squirty cream. I just loved it. Then I went to catering college, and after a couple of years I went to Australia.

The produce in Galway was the best I’d ever seen and not many people seemed to be doing anything with it. You couldn’t give away razor clams when I arrived

Where in Australia did you go?

I ended up in a small mining town called Southern Cross, five hours from Perth. I was the cook at the pub. Twelve miners lived upstairs and I did all their laundry and made all their meals. Basically I was the live-in skivvy. They weren’t particularly nice people, so after six months I moved away in the middle of the night. Next I went to Kalgoorlie, where I cooked at a 24-hour bar and grill. That’s where I met Dave – at a two-dollar bourbon night in Kalgoorlie.

Sounds romantic.

It was. When I had enough money for my UK visa, we flew to Manchester and then worked in North Wales for three or four years. We bought a house there and got married. I went back to New Zealand for a while, to work at a beautiful private boutique hotel in Napier, but after a year and a half I said, “Fuck it, I want to go work with someone with Michelin stars.” David had left Ireland when he was a teen, so we decided to give Ireland a go.

Did you find your Michelin-starred chef?

In Dublin, I got a job straight away with Kevin Thornton. He interviewed me and said, “What’s fine dining in New Zealand?” and I was like “What’s fine dining in Ireland?” He seemed to like the cut of my jib so I worked there for a year. It was probably the most challenging thing I’ve done in my entire life. I worked from eight in the morning till one o’clock at night. I lost six and a half stone. But he was groundbreaking.

In what way?

He was doing Michelin cooking in a distinctively Irish style. A guy would walk in with a bag of pigs’ heads and we’d bone them out and serve them in a pudding for three weeks and then turn them back into a sausage. It was intensely technical learning, and such a pleasure to work there, but I woke up one morning and realised how bloody tired I was, because you can only do that for so long. That’s when we moved to Galway.

Sous vide shows no talent or skill. If you’re going to die, how would you like to die – in a hot pan with butter or in a lukewarm bath? You want to go out in a blaze of glory

What did you make of Galway when you first arrived?

I thought it was great. It seemed like the middle of nowhere, but the produce was the best I’d ever seen in the world and not many people seemed to be doing anything with it. You couldn’t give away razor clams when I arrived; now I can sell seven or eight kilos a day. It was still the Celtic Tiger era, so ambitious Irish restaurants were all about foie gras and truffles. That was the best thing to come out of the recession: everyone stopped for a minute and looked at their own back yard and said, “Oh my god it’s all here, we just didn’t see it. Because we were going fecking mad.”

What had they been ignoring? What kind of produce is Ireland particularly good at?

Any kind of farm meat, especially lamb, mutton and hogget. Obviously the dairy produce: the cheese and the milk from this area are amazing. And then we have the sea: fish, sea urchins, abalone… At the restaurant we boil all our potatoes in seaweed, to put the minerals back in, and I’ll use it to marinate beef or lamb or pork, or I’ll sprinkle it on celeriac.

You didn’t open Kai straight away.

No I worked at a couple of other restaurants in Galway. I was a cheesemonger for a while [at Sheridan’s – see Address Book]. In 2011, the guy who owned the flower shop that is now Kai, said “We want to retire, will you take over this place and turn it into a really good restaurant?” That’s how it happened [laughs]. We opened Kai with €3.10 in our bank account.

That must have been challenging.

I forgot to allow for a till in the budget, so I said to the guy selling the till, “Look, this is going to be great, just lend me a till for six months, I’ll buy the best one you’ve got.” I did that kind of thing a lot at the start. So many people were amazing to us.

What was this neighbourhood like when you opened?

Everyone was like “Oh, I don’t know, it’s kind of a rough area.” There weren’t really any cafes like there are now, it was just Ernie’s [fruit and veg shop – see Address Book] and us. In our first ever TripAdvisor review, some Americans were like, “We found this cute little place and it’s in between the gay bar and the church on the west side of the city”, and we’re like, “Yes! That’s a great way of describing where we are!”

How often do you change the menu at Kai?

We write it every night because we don’t know what fish we’ll get – that’s why they call it fishing, you know? If I come to work and it’s pissing down with rain and it’s cold and windy outside, I say to the lads, “I’m going to put a soup on tonight, because I think people are going to be cold coming in.” Or if it’s sunny: “I think they’ll really like a salad tonight.”

You know John and Mary in Father Ted? That’s me and David working in the restaurant together

Do you pay much attention to food trends?

I try not to look at them, although sometimes food trends are cool. I’m heavily into Sriracha and I was gutted when it became trendy – damn, that was my secret sauce! I’ve always picked wild garlic and nettles and stuff like that, because foraging is just common sense. What would I like to see trendy again? I was going through an old Myrtle Allen book last night and saw a recipe for apple vol-au-vents. That looks like a fucking good time.

What annoys you in restaurant cooking?

I hate gelling agents and all that crap, I think they’re just lazy. Sous vide shows no talent or skill. If you’re going to die, how would you like to die – in a hot pan with butter or in a lukewarm bath? You want to go out in a blaze of glory.

How often do you cook at home?

Pretty often. Sunday night is pints night with friends, so we’ll eat whatever pub food is going or a pizza on the way home. But I cook on Monday nights and I make breakfast every morning before going to work.

What do you have for breakfast?

Porridge with stewed apples, made with Irish oats and water – I don’t like it made with milk, which is weird because I’m such a dairy queen. Every week I’ll buy a different bag of coffee and brew it up with a Chemex and drink about a litre of that each morning. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day for me, because otherwise you’re going into the kitchen starving and you can’t think properly. There’s usually five different things going wrong so you need to be mentally prepared.

On The Menu

Dinner with Jess and David Murphy
Galway, October 2017

To eat:

Steamed mussels with ale and dillisk »
Roast rib of beef
Roast carrots
Dauphinoise potatoes with dried mushrooms »

To drink:

2015 Casebianche “Il Fric” Rosato Frizzante – and various other wines

What’s it like working in the restaurant with your partner?

You know John and Mary in Father Ted? That’s me and David. At first it was really scary. Dave was a fabricated welder and he left his job to follow my dream.

This was his first ever experience working in a restaurant?

Yeah, aside from helping us out at weekends. I guess what happens in service stays in service. There are points where we’re like, “Oh you’re so annoying.” You need time apart. Every so often I’ll have a night off while he’s working, so that’s when I get my opportunity to binge-watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and any crap on TV that we wouldn’t normally watch together – because David is more of a foreign films and documentaries person.

So it’s TV dinners all the way?

I’d like to say that on our nights off together we sit at the kitchen table and light candles and enjoy a really old bottle of Rioja or something, but it’s like, fire on, TV dinner lockdown. We deal with people all the time, so most of the time at home it’s just like, silence. And it’s cool to be silent sometimes.

Do you invite people around for dinner?

We do what we call a roast beef night. This happens randomly maybe four times a year, and we don’t invite anybody in advance. I’ll just send a few texts around saying, “I’ve got a massive roast beef, is anybody in town? If so, come to our place, seven o’clock.” And the most random people turn up.

I can’t touch the skin of peaches. It’s the feeling of the furry skin against my nails that I can’t bear

Who cooks, you or David?

Without wanting to sound like a complete control freak, I do the cooking. We’ll have some starters and then the beef for main and maybe vanilla ice cream with strawberries for dessert. I’m not a big desserty person, I’d rather have four starters and a main.

What’s a dish that you make at home when you’re short of time?

Jacket potatoes with beans or cheese. Who on earth would turn down a jacket potato? Toasted sandwiches also. It’s basically a panini – I can’t wait for paninis to come back into fashion.

Do you have any food aversions?

Yeah, I can’t touch the skin of peaches – or apricots or kiwis. It’s the feeling of the furry skin against my nails that I can’t bear. There’s a word for it [haptodysphoria]. But my favourite dessert is peach melba, so that’s a real conundrum for me. It’s heaven and hell, all in one dish.

Kai is at 22 Sea Rd, Galway;

Follow Kai: Instagram | Twitter


Posted 6th July 2018

In Interviews


Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: Emile Dinneen & Dan Dennison

More Interviews

Mitch Tonks – Over lunch at his Dartmouth restaurant, the seafood maestro talks about jellied eels with his granny, his morning grappa routine and why the British are scared of cooking fish

Louise McGuane – The owner of Chapel Gate whiskey makes bacon and cabbage with a twist, illuminates the lost art of whiskey bonding and outlines the perils of having 24,000 litres of alcohol in her shed

Gill Meller – The chef and author roasts chicken with wild garlic and beetroot in his outdoor oven while discussing his fascination with home kitchens, daily eating habits and the rise of veganism

Elisabeth Luard – Over a lunch of potato salad and pimientos, the revered food writer talks about hallucinogenic tea in Uruguay, the importance of Spanish cuisine and why painting is the key to her writing