An American Chef in Ireland, Ballyfin

Auditioning is never easy. If you’re a chef, it’s called a tasting. It’s basically Master Chef without the cameras. And if you’re interviewing for the position of head chef in the most expensive restaurant in Ireland, the pressure is dialled up an excruciating notch further. Ballyfin is a lavish Regency mansion, which has been painstakingly restored by its owner, American industrialist Fred Krehbiel, over a period of nine years, to become a 15 bedroom, five star, luxury hotel. After the departure of former head chef Fred Cordonnier for the sunnier climes of Dubai, the hunt was on to find a chef who could provide food to match the exquisite surroundings. The restaurant is exclusively for guests, many from Ireland celebrating a special occasion, some touring the luxury hotspots of Europe, but all paying for the privilege of 24 hours of luxury, which runs €800 for two people.

How to get hired as the chef at one of Ireland’s top restaurants…

For the tasting, one chef turned up with little more than his chef’s whites. Whereas all the others came armed with a coterie of ingredients and gadgets, Ryan Murphy, a 33-year-old American chef, considered it completely normal to walk into an unknown kitchen and cook from the ingredients in the larder. Sitting in a deep sofa in the opulent gold room of Ballyfin, the lean, camera friendly chef, with intense blue eyes and a statement goatee, tells me about the experience.

“I arrived at night time and when I first saw the building, I thought, ‘this is a nice warm feeling’. But when I stepped inside it was breath taking and I got butterflies in my stomach. I guess before a service you need to have that, it keeps you on your game, but when I got here, I was pretty nervous. I didn’t sleep very much that night,” he says. “Once I got to the kitchen the following day I was fine. I was just concerned about speaking because the surroundings are overwhelming, but in the kitchen I felt at home. But all ovens work differently, even stoves, some have hot spots, and you have to get to know them.

 Sticking to the KISS rule…

There wasn’t a lot of produce in the larder, and I just utilised what was there. I did a starter of a potato and leek soup. My whole idea is, it’s a country house, you want cutting edge cuisine, but you’ve got to still keep it in your mind that it’s a country house. In my style of cooking, I don’t use much butter or much cream, so I used the starch from the water from the potatoes and I emulsified it with olive oil, so it was a very light soup. And I found a piece of cod, so I cut it into a cube and used it as a garnish. It had a hazelnut crust, so your textures are working there, and I made a black olive crumble,” he says.

Murphy’s interpretation of a simple dish like potato and leek soup laced with his Michelin starred skill won him the position. His CV says the rest. Although the chef from the South Bronx had envisaged a career as an American football or baseball player, his interest in food from an early age shaped his future. Applying for a part time job in a restaurant when he was 13 years old and still in school was the beginning of his apprenticeship in the top restaurants of New York.

Working in the top kitchens in the US…

“We have the Zagat guide in the States, and I just went through it and looked at all the restaurants that were in bold letters, because they are the top ones, the cream of the crop restaurants, and I just went around and applied to a few of them,” he says.  “One of them happened to be not too far from the subway station that I used to take to school, and I just went in there every day with my telephone number and contact details and asked for the chef. And I did it every day for about three months. And finally, I’m not sure whether he got so fed up of me or decided that I had a lot of determination, because every single day, he would just send someone to turn me away. I think he got fed up of me constantly asking, so he offered me a job as a commis two. The position was just straining stocks, sauces, chopping up mirepoix, doing all the rough jobs no one else wanted to do, and from there, I just worked my way up. And the restaurant was [three Michelin star] Daniel in New York.”

Murphy was immediately drawn to the intricacies of cooking in a top rated kitchen. “So I just continued working, learning, honing my skills. I snuck into pastry a few times, I have eyes and ears, so I just watched, paid attention and took down notes. They didn’t always want to give out recipes, but I have a kind of photographic memory so, if I see it, I’ll remember it.  I’d go into the changing room and write down the recipes all the time and from there it kind of evolved,” he says.

After four years in Daniel, working full time in the summer, he followed the kitchen crew he worked with to the newly opened Ducasse restaurant, Essex House. “He was the new big chef moving into Daniel’s territory, so there was a lot of rivalry. I hate to say it, but I didn’t know who Alain Ducasse was, all the other chefs in the States I knew, but I didn’t know him. I was interested in the restaurants, not the chefs. When the people I worked with in Daniel decided they were going to Ducasse, I followed them because I liked working with them.

After Daniel, there’s Ducasse…

“I started as a demi chef de partie, and moved up to chef de partie. I worked in different stations; I was the guy that filled in. Which was difficult, but it meant that I saw everything. So it was good for my knowledge but the pressure was very stressful because every day I had to do something new, and remember things I had done from weeks back. In those restaurants there is a lot of stress anyway, but then when you’re changing stations every day, it’s even more stressful,” he says.

“I always like a pretty quiet kitchen. I’m not a person that hollers. In Daniel they never hollered. They would talk to you firmly, sternly, but there never was any shouting. The kitchen in Ducasse was different. I only met him twice but his executive chefs – all chefs are high strung, but they were exceptionally high strung. They would shout, they would throw things; they had no problem grabbing you by the back of the jacket and throwing you out. I was young and  didn’t know any better, so if I didn’t do it, I’d say it wasn’t me.  I learned very quickly that even if you didn’t do it, you just say yes chef and continue and don’t let anything happen again. When you say I wasn’t here yesterday, it doesn’t matter, you’re just wrong, even if it’s your first day you don’t say it. I learned quickly that the chef is never wrong.”

To add to the pressure, Murphy was combining his work in the kitchen with his culinary arts studies at the prestigious Johnson Wales University in Rhode Island. “They had a class schedule from Monday to Thursday, so I used to take the three hour trip by bus from Rhode Island to New York. I used to go down Thursday night and work Friday and Saturday, and I used to travel back up on Sunday. So I worked there part time to put myself through school,” he says.

No food for you! Donald Trump thrown out of his own building…

After graduating, he spent time in California cooking in the lighter style which is typical of the region, before heading back to New York to work in Jean George in Trump Tower, where Donald Trump was famously banished from his own building. “I was in the kitchen at the time, so I don’t know the whole story, only what we heard in the kitchen,” he says. “There was some ego thing between Donald Trump and Jean George. He just wanted a burger. Since it was his building, he wanted more say, to have what he wanted, and Jean George just got him ejected. It was almost like Gordon Ramsay throwing out AA Gill and Joan Collins. He was removed from the restaurant and not allowed to come back.”

Celebrity fracas aside, the kitchen at Jean George was a solid training ground. “Jean George is a fantastic chef, he is one of the godfather’s of cuisine,” says Murphy. “All the kitchens were very professional but that kitchen was really streamlined. It was cut throat, but at the same time it was very disciplined. Everyone knew what they were doing. We communicated almost silently, it was like a synchronised ballet, but it was very calm and quiet and I think that’s the best way you can produce food. I was there for about three and a half years.”

Murphy’s career continued overseas in Michelin stared restaurants in Austria and Sweden, followed by the Savoy in London and the Lowry Hotel in Manchester. His plan for the food at Ballyfin is to keep it true to the region and true to the season. “I want to try and utilise as much as I can from the walled garden,” he says. “I can’t be wholly self sufficient, but as much as possible, all my produce is going to be local. It’s going to be Irish produce. I don’t want stuff from France, stuff from Italy, stuff from the UK, I want all my produce from right here, or from the ocean.

A walled garden with seasonal produce…

“Darina Allen’s sister Liz looks after the walled garden. I have a list for her for different things I want her to grow. I like her and I get along with her perfectly, she knows what she’s doing which is good. She takes care of all the vegetables and I want someone to be the same as I am about produce so that’s great,” he says.

Murphy who has been given carte blanche and no budgetary restrictions to develop his daily changing menus says that he intends to take some of the Irish classics and make them modern and lighter. ”A lot of Irish food is farmer food, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he says. “If I was working on a farm I’d want food that would stick to my ribs and give me protein and energy for the rest of the day, because you’re going to work all day. I want to take that type of cuisine and break it down and make it lighter, I don’t want people to fall asleep at the table and feel they have to walk around the property four or five times afterwards. I want people to feel satisfied and feel like they’ve had a culinary adventure around Ireland. And feel satisfied and full and not have that over stuffed feeling.”

Irish produce is the important thing in his dishes…

Murphy is excited to be working with the prime quality ingredients that Ireland is famous for, but says there are some misconceptions outside of the country about the quality of cooking here. “The rest of Europe, the chefs say, Ireland has such wonderful products, they just don’t know what to do with them, how to use them in the right way, how to enhance the flavours,” he says. “I don’t think that’s right. There’s a lot of talent in this country. They think of Ireland as years and years ago, like the way Britain was, but England has really evolved and people have taken notice. But Ireland has been hidden in the shadows, and I think there’s some great talent here, and nobody has recognised it besides the Irish, which I think is really a shame. And the lamb that I’m sourcing from the Connemara Hills and the Comeragh Mountains, you can’t get it outside the country. The flavour is very distinct, it’s just beautiful. People always talk about Pyrenees lamb in France, but I would definitely say that Connemara Hill lamb is right up there with it, if not better. And we’re using Dexter beef which is a true Irish breed; the dairy produce is great, and in Ireland, there’s perfect growing weather, a little bit of sun and a lot of rain.”

But will the experience be worth the cost of staying in Ballyfin? “Yes, it’s one of the most expensive places to stay, although a few places in Dublin are pretty expensive to eat,” says Murphy. “I feel that anyone who comes here is going to get their money’s worth. It might be expensive, but you’ve got to look at everything behind it, the surroundings the service, the quality of the food and – I’m not bragging – but the quality of the cooking from start to finish. There’s a lot of time and effort put into the experience here. The price tag might look high, but I think it’s pretty reasonable compared to what’s put into it. The experience is breath taking.”

The inside track from Ryan Murphy…  top restaurants and who he rates

Top of my list for restaurants is Le Bernardin on 51st Street in New York. The food is absolutely exquisite as well as Eric Ripert is one of my favourite chefs. Bottom line is, I love seafood. The other restaurant I love is 777 in Dublin. The food is very tasty, light and fresh. The atmosphere is very relaxed and fun. Great food, great drink, great time there.

My influences are: Daniel Boulud the first chef I worked for which created my core of food knowledge and started me on the flavour combinations. As well as Alain Ducasse where I learned a lot of the classics but new twists to them. Though my favourite chef would have to be Pierre Gagnaire for his unusual take on food. I love his style of food. He is like a mad scientist in the kitchen but makes everything work perfectly while still staying true to the roots of his cooking. Then Thomas Keller for his modern take on classic cooking. As well as his attitude towards his staff and the food. He is very professional, low tempered (calm and cool) though he has had the best restaurant in the world for a few years running a time ago. He now has two restaurants in the World’s 50 Best. He has proved that a chef does not need to scream and act like a maniac to execute superb food.

My Favourite cookbooks are The French Laundry by Thomas Keller and Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

When it comes to styles of cooking, I love to eat and cook light healthy cuisine; modern classics with many small courses so I can try to give the guest an exploration in the gastronomy world.

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