Ben Murphy is the wunderkind of British dining and Food and Travel’s Breakthrough Chef 2016. He tells Mark Sansom about his stellar chef’s education and his ethos towards food
Ben Murphy was born in Brent Cross in 1991. Despite being raised on potato smiles and turkey dinosaurs, he won the NZ-UK Young Chef’s Culinary Challenge and a WorldSkills gold medal aged 19 and Young Chef of the Year, Young Spanish Chef of the Year and Young National Chef of the Year aged 20. Now 25, he’s worked at five three-star Michelin restaurants. He opened The Woodford on the east London and Essex border in March this year, and is a serious contender to receive a star in the 2017 Michelin Guide.
It isn’t the first time that Food and Travel has been in our Breakthrough Chef of the Year’s dining room. Cast in hues from deep blue to purple, it’s one of the warmest spaces in the country and could easily qualify as a fitting tribute to the late Prince. However, this hasn’t always been the case.
The last time I was here it was a try-hard Essex nightclub and I watched as four no-neck door staff carted a wide-eyed gentleman through a fire escape.
Thankfully, no ghosts of its sordid past remain. What 25-year-old Ben Murphy and the team behind his restaurant have done with the space in the short time since it opened is nothing short of remarkable.
The Woodford has sent a seismic swell through UK restaurant cognoscenti. And if nothing else, it’s made critics look outside the Circle Line.
AA Gill, arguably the country’s most eminent restaurant writer, and certainly the most acerbic, gave The Woodford five stars for food and four for atmosphere.It’s been years since he issued such an accolade.
‘I had no idea who AA Gill was,’ admits Murphy, sitting in a well-cut leather biker jacket with tattoos creeping above its neckline and beneath its cuff. ‘Our PR didn’t even send us his picture as they thought he wouldn’t bother coming in. When we heard, we were all over the CCTV and saw that he was there in opening week. We were bricking it. The experience was awful back then. Compared with what we do now, it is worlds apart.’ He’s not being fair. When we reviewed it a month after it launched, it was our best meal of 2016 and it remains so now.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the restaurant got off to a flyer. Murphy’s pedigree is without question and his CV reads like a roll call of the best restaurants in the world.
He won a WorldSkills gold medal in 2011, which saw him take a placement at three-star Michelin Arzak in San Sebastián. He then took the UK Young Chef of the Year award and Young Spanish Chef of the Year title in 2012. The mere fact that Spanish judges gave an Englishman the award over homegrown talent is an accolade in itself.
In terms of restaurant education, he has clocked up a supernova-grade 19 Michelin stars in the nine years since he started cooking. That’s two stars at Pierre Koffmann at The Berkeley (where the eponymous chef became his close friend and mentor); three at Michel Guérard in the south of France; another three after a year at Epicure in Paris; three each after stints at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park in New York; three at Arzak and a casual two in the year he spent at The Greenhouse in Mayfair while plotting The Woodford’s launch.
What he has accomplished at the age of just 25, other chefs would wait a lifetime for but you’d never guess it from his humility and softly spoken demeanour.
Murphy’s story is a heady mix of hard graft, fate and immense ability. It started in 2007 when a promising football career was derailed through injury.
‘I was having trials for QPR at 17 but I was never that big,’ he says. ‘I came up against an absolute unit of a guy. He lent on me going for a header and then I felt my collarbone crumple beneath his weight. I was devastated at the time but, looking back, I guess you could see it as luck.’
Almost immediately, he signed up to Westminster Kingsway College, which boasts a certain Jamie Oliver as its alumni. But does he want to follow in his footsteps? ‘No. I want to make
my own mark,’ he says.
It was at Westminster where he met William Yarney, who now heads up the front-of-house team at The Woodford. ‘Will’s personality is incredible,’ says Murphy. ‘He was the first name on the team sheet when I knew we were launching. We worked together at Koffmann’s. When I went to the south of France, Will worked in bars at The Shard but the way we think about service is the same.’ Together they make a formidable ensemble and embody the restaurant’s ethos: classy but informal.
New breed of chef
Murphy’s buzzword for service is ‘interaction’. Not just from the front-of-house team but chefs, too. Canapés are delivered by a member of the brigade, who explains the menu to guests.
‘Chefs interacting is the next big thing in dining,’ he says confidently. ‘In too many restaurants, chefs are miles away. I expect my team to be well-turned-out and to speak as clearly and be as well-mannered as the front-of-house guys.’
He is clearly proud of the unit that he has created behind the pass. When discussing his brigade, the adjective ‘solid’ keeps cropping up. Has it been a struggle getting a good team together? ‘We’ve had ten to 15 guys who couldn’t hack it, and people who didn’t want to travel to the edge of London but what I’ve got now is excellent,’ he says. ‘I’m the oldest of the ten in the kitchen and everyone is fully signed up to what we want to do. We work from 8am to midnight most days and you need to be committed. I’ve worked every shift since we opened seven months ago. Last Sunday was actually the first time I’ve eaten in the restaurant.’
Service aside, it’s Murphy’s cooking that’s winning the real plaudits. ‘I have been lucky to see what goes on in three-star kitchens, see the techniques these chefs use and how they approach food. It’s one of the reasons why I want to keep my brigade tight and not take on new staff – I don’t want people to see what I can do.’
His lobster course on the tasting menu comes in seven ways; his peach, six. But this doesn’t mean it’s technique for technique’s sake. His kitchen isn’t packed with centrifuges and dry ice. In pride of place is his Big Green Egg barbecue next to what looks like a children’s toy.
‘The best kitchen kit isn’t necessarily the most expensive,’
he says with a wry smile. ‘Want to see my favourite piece of tech?’ He skips off to the kitchen like an excited teenager. ‘Toys R Us, £7,’ he smiles as he proudly presents a purple pottery wheel. ‘It takes some practice but you can create these amazing concentric-style circles on the plate.’ Murphy’s plating verges on art – it’s almost like an illusionist revealing his trapdoor when you see that these Michelin-level plates are the product of something so simple.
An inspector calls
Indeed, the Michelin Man is very much in Murphy’s mind. At the time we talk, the unveiling of the 2017 guide is a month away. He says he’s not lost sleep over it but I’m not convinced.
‘I know they’ve been in about four times. One of them came up to the pass and grilled me for about 15 minutes. I had checks coming out of my ears but I wanted to tell him how committed I was to the restaurant; they don’t want to award a star only for a chef to move on.’
Despite many people viewing Michelin as antiquated and not reflective of the modern restaurant scene, for a man like Murphy, for whom the visit from an inspector has been given a God-like reverence, you can see where he’s coming from. ‘It will show where I’m at personally,’ he says. ‘Previously there’s always been a chef above me but this is all me. If I don’t get it, it will at least show how to improve.’
If I were a betting man, I’d lump on Murphy getting a Michelin star and all the trappings of success that come with it. He’s already the poster boy for modern British food and has barely kicked off his stabilisers.
Expect to see much more from Murphy in this year’s Michelin Guide and beyond.