Marc Murphy spent his early years preparing to become a chef, but he didn’t know it at the time.
When Murphy attended boarding school in New Hampshire at age 15, he’d often get into trouble. Because he was dyslexic—he wasn’t diagnosed until later in life—he struggled with schoolwork. So he goofed off in class as a coping mechanism—and repeatedly landed in the school cafeteria as a punishment.
“The first time I got in trouble, the chef who ran the kitchen said, ‘Take this bucket of soap and water and clean all the table legs.’ I said, ‘Okay! Next?’ He said, ‘You’re already done?'” Murphy recalled during a recent interview. “I thought it was fun.”
He relished the chance to get away from class, learning to crack eggs with one hand and working the dish pit. But he didn’t know then that he would eventually choose a culinary career.
Today, Murphy heads a mini restaurant empire in New York City, with four popular restaurants: Landmarc Tribeca, Landmarc Time Warner Center, Ditch Plains, and Kingside, as well as a catering company, Benchmarc Events.
He’s also a TV food personality. Watching Murphy now on the hit Food Network show, “Chopped,” where he judges contestants’ dishes, one wouldn’t imagine him as a school troublemaker. He is serious and means business when he’s giving his opinions. He remains unfazed when he cooks on special judges episodes, where the experts have to create dishes out of unlikely combinations of ingredients.
That natural composure around the kitchen comes from his background where food was always a source of comfort and adventure. Thanks to his foodie grandfather and to an avid cook in his grandmother, the accomplished chef’s earliest memories are of sharing delicious meals with his family.
Those food-filled memories influence him to this day; in his recent cookbook, “Season With Authority: Confident Home Cooking,” Murphy recreated the dishes that shaped his early tastes.
Growing up in such gastronomic capitals as Rome, Paris, and Genoa, Murphy spent his childhood developing a discerning palate that would serve him well in his later cooking. But it was also disorienting for young Murphy to constantly move from place to place. Food became his solace during the most trying times in his youth.
Murphy was born in Milan, Italy, but because of his father’s job as an American diplomat, the family was frequently on the move. When his parents moved to Villefranche sur Mer, a seaside town near Nice, France, Murphy often visited his grandparents, who lived nearby.
“Mamie” (French for grandma) made big, scrumptious meals for lunch. Young Murphy, then 4 years old, frequently poked around in the kitchen, helping with whatever errands he could.
For example, Mamie grew French green beans (haricot verts) in the garden, and often made a dish where she sautéed them with lots of garlic and parsley. Murphy would set out old newspapers and help her snap the ends off the beans.
Murphy also loved her ratatouille dish, which she often cooked on Sundays along with roasted leg of lamb. “When you’re in the south of France, there’s nothing better than the vegetables in the ratatouille. They’re all grown down there, and it’s a perfect marriage of all of them,” he said.
In his cookbook, Murphy reproduced his grandmother’s recipe based on what he recalls of the flavors. “But it doesn’t taste the same, because it’s not where you were.”
Murphy can still remember those meals he shared with his grandparents, sitting outside on the terrace of their country house. “It just brings back memories. The smell of the area. I remember the driveway into the house had these rows of bushes. I didn’t realize this until I got older, but those were all rosemary bushes. My grandfather used to trim them into square boxes.”
To this day, Murphy credits Mamie as his greatest culinary influence, having cooked alongside her throughout the years.
Meanwhile, “Papi” (French for grandpa) introduced Murphy to what it means to eat good food: every week, he drove about 30 miles west to a shop in Grasse to pick up all the cheeses for the family. Murphy followed his grandfather everywhere, and would often eat so many cheese samples that he would return home with a stomachache.
Every morning, Papi would go to the local “boulangerie” [bakery] to buy fresh bread for breakfast. And at every meal, he would have a big cup of tea.
“It was funny because he sat at the head of the table and he always had a cup of tea that was bigger than everybody else’s. Next to him, he would usually have the table set up with the toaster and the cutting board. He was in charge of cutting up the bread and passing it out to everybody,” Murphy said.
Reminiscing about those moments, it’s as if Murphy can still hear the sound of ice cracking as Papi dropped a block into his tea to quickly cool it down.
Murphy has now picked up the same habit. “Every once in a while, if I’m in a hurry, I’ll throw an ice cube in my tea to get it to a temperature where I can whack it back and go. It reminds me of him,” he said.
Food as Anchor
The first time Murphy was away from family, he quickly understood the power of food to console.
At 13 years old, Murphy attended a boarding school in Rome, spending nine months of the year there. He was terribly homesick.
The meals at the cafeteria served by Italian “nonnas” (grandmas) were the only things Murphy looked forward to. “Here comes little Murphy for the third time,” the ladies would say, when Murphy lined up for more helpings.
“Seeing a smiling face serving you beautiful food … there’s nothing better than that,” Murphy said. He still reminisces about their “cannelloni” (cylindrical pasta stuffed with meat and vegetables) and “vitello tonnato” (veal with tuna sauce).
“It wasn’t expensive stuff, but I just remember the food being great.”
After Rome, Murphy crossed the Atlantic to attend high school at a boarding school in New Hampshire. He sorely missed the pasta dishes back in Italy, so he tried to recreate them on his own.
Teenage Murphy went to the local convenience store and bought the ingredients for a carbonara bucatini (eggs, bacon, bucatini pasta, Parmesan cheese), then cooked the pasta on two hot plates in his dorm. It was the first dish he learned to make, and it was also the first time he experienced the joy of cooking for himself and others.
It wasn’t until years later that he cultivated this love for food into a career. After Murphy graduated high school, he was looking for a job that would keep food on the table. While couch surfing with his brother in New York City, who was attending the Institute of Culinary Education at the time, his brother suggested that Murphy enroll too.
Murphy writes in his book: “I figured, why not? At the very least, if I worked somewhere as a cook, I’d be able to eat one square meal a day. Living in New York had opened my eyes to what it meant to be homeless and hungry, and I worried that was a real possibility for me if I didn’t get my act together.” The fear of ending up penniless pushed him to finally take up cooking, but it was clear that his lifelong connection to food paved the way.
Finding Home in New York City
After culinary school, Murphy worked at esteemed restaurants in Italy and France, but ultimately decided to return to New York City. “To me, the palate of New York is more elevated and more adventurous. It’s always better to cook in New York,” he said.
The city’s diversity and easy acceptance of outsiders convinced Murphy that this was his home. “This was the city that I felt most comfortable with. I love Paris and Rome, but for some reason, I just felt right at home when I moved here,” he said.
At his restaurants, Murphy serves French- and Italian-influenced dishes, with a bit of American flair, bringing together all the culinary cultures he grew up with.
At home, he has established his own food traditions with his two children. As his grandmother did with him, Murphy cooks with his 8-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, making their favorite dishes whenever they return home from summer camp. Having already made grilled lamb chops for his son, Murphy can’t wait till his daughter comes home next week, so he can make her favorite rosemary roasted potatoes.
3 tablespoons fennel seeds
8 garlic cloves, mashed into a paste
5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 (6- to 7-pound) boneless pork shoulder, butterflied
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
1. In a small pan, toast the fennel seeds over medium-low heat until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Immediately transfer the seeds to a mortar and pestle, and pound until finely ground.
2. In a small bowl, make a cure by combining the garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, and fennel seeds until incorporated. Rub the pork shoulder with the cure, making sure you season both the inside and outside of the meat. Using kitchen twine, truss the pork shoulder. Place it on a large plate and refrigerate, uncovered, for about 24 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 450°F; position the rack in the middle of the oven.
4. Place the pork in a large roasting pan. Rub the pork all over with the olive oil and add the chicken stock and wine to the pan. Roast the pork for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the skin starts to get crispy. Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F and continue to roast for about 3 hours, until the pork is fork-tender. Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let rest for about 20 minutes before carving.
Serves: 4 to 6
1 small eggplant (1 pound), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 large green zucchini (1 pound), cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 large yellow squash (1 pound), cut into 3/4-inch pieces
2 small red onions, diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 red bell peppers, cut into 3/4 – inch pieces
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes or 1 1/2 pounds fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 fresh or dried bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive tapenade (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F; position the rack in the lower third of the oven.
2. In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot over medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring, until browned, 5 to 6 minutes. As the eggplant absorbs a lot of oil, you may need to add a pinch more oil if you see the bottom of the pot go dry. Add a generous pinch of salt, transfer the eggplant to a rimmed baking sheet, and set aside.
3. Return the pot to the stove over medium-high heat, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot, and add the zucchini. Cook, stirring, until browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt and transfer to the pan with the eggplant.
4. Return the pot to the stove over medium-high heat, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot, and add the yellow squash. Cook, stirring, until browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt and transfer to the pan with the other vegetables.
5. Return the pot to the stove over medium-high heat, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot, and add the onions. Cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to caramelize, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic with a generous pinch of salt, cook for 30 seconds more, and transfer to the pan with the other cooked vegetables.
6. Return the pot to the stove over medium-high heat, add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot, and add the bell peppers. Cook, stirring, until softened, 6 to 7 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt and remove from the heat.
7. Return all the cooked vegetables to the pot. Add the tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf. Stir and season to taste with salt and black pepper. If you plan to use the Olive Tapenade, salt conservatively, as the tapenade will be salty. Cover and transfer the pot to the oven. Roast the ratatouille for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft and resemble a stew. Stir in the tapenade, if using, and discard the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf before serving.
Recipes from “Season With Authority: Confident Home Cooking” by Marc Murphy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30.