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Community cooking

Wednesday, 1st February, 2017 9:56am

A strong sense of community in the heart of Galway’s West End is Kai’s recipe for success, Head Chef Jess Murphy tells Rebecca Maher on a visit to the award-winning restaurant.

At age 10, New Zealander Jess Murphy knew she wanted to be a chef.

“I’ve always known what I wanted to do. I always wanted my own restaurant as well, from when I was 16. I knew I would have my own place one day,” says the head chef and owner of Kai in Galway’s West End.

She left school at 16 to pursue a career as a chef and undertook training in
her home country before leaving in 2000 for Australia, where she continued her
training. She also worked in England and North Wales before returning to her
hometown of Hicks Bay to run a boutique hotel.

“When you start off and you’re young, you need kitchen experience so you’re moving from kitchen to kitchen all the time so it was really vital leaving New
Zealand and getting that experience overseas,” she explains.

What advice does she have for anyone thinking of forging a career as a chef?
“Just go out and do it.” Asked how she ended up in the West of Ireland, Ms Murphy says, “I ran the hotel for a year and a half and then realised that I was
far too young and needed a bit more experience so I decided I was either going to go to London or Dublin.”

She weighed up the pros and cons of the two capital cities before settling on Dublin where she worked under Chef Kevin Thornton, the first Irish chef to be named in the world’s top 50.

Comparing the West of Ireland to New Zealand, Ms Murphy admits she was "suckered into” a Fáilte Ireland advert promoting living in the West.

So she moved to Galway, working in Ard Bia, Sheridan’s Cheesemongers
and Bar Eight on the docks before the opportunity to
open Kai presented itself.

22 Sea Road was home to a florist before the restaurant and a chance encounter between a friend of Ms Murphy’s and the florist led to Ms Murphy taking over the building and transforming it into the award-winning restaurant she runs with her husband David today.

As with any business, opening up Kai in 2011 came with its fair share of challenges. Asked what the toughest part of starting her own business was, she replies, “Probably opening up with €3.10 in my bank account!”

However, she was determined to make her idea work. “I knew I could cook and I knew my food was good and I knew I had that confidence.” The head chef says she doesn’t consider herself a business woman and made the decision to hire people who could help her.

“You can’t go into a kitchen and work 12-14n hours a day and run upstairs after a 14 hour shift on a Saturday night to be looking at VAT returns. What you have to do is focus on what you’re good at and then employ people on top of that to cover your weaknesses.”

With Galway set to hold the Region of Gastronomy title next year, Ms Murphy
says it’s an exciting time to be involved in the local food scene, adding that designations like the Region of Gastronomy and the European Capital of Culture 2020 will be particularly important for local producers.

Looking to the future, 2017 is shaping up to be a busy year for the restaurant
and its head chef, who has “lots of plans”. “There are a lot of exciting things coming up.” Ms Murphy will travel to Norway later this year and has also been invited to Barcelona in March for the Parabere Forum, an annual event that gathers thought-leaders in the field of gastronomy, food and nutrition.

Leading chef Massimo Bottura is also set to release his cookbook ‘Food for the Soul’ in which Ms Murphy is the only Irish participant “He’s the best chef in the world so little ole Kai in Galway is going to have three recipes in that book which is really exciting.”

The Kai Cookbook Club, which has been running for the last five years, also lets diners experience some of Ms Murphy’s favourite cookbooks. “The cookbook club allows diners to taste and experience dishes and flavours from some of the best known cook books in the world,” she explains.

“It is like stepping inside that book for one night only. We love doing them as we can also immerse and become a little obsessed with the cookbook for that entire month,” she added. The club kicked off yesterday, Tuesday, and tickets for are available in-house in Kai on Sea Road.

The club is an example of the ethos at work in Kai. “I wanted a neighbourhood restaurant where everybody felt comfortable that we just produced the best of what we could with local Irish producers,” says Ms Murphy.

She has always been conscious of ensuring she supports small Irish businesses. “The slow food ethos really connected with the business so everything from buying my spuds from Ernie’s to getting my napkins and my laundry done on the laundrette on the corner to my herbal teas being made in Health and Herbs, it had to be a business built around the West End community.”

For details on Kai, SeaRoad, Galway contact kaicaferestaurant@gmail.com or 091-526003.

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