An Interview by Zhanna Isakharov
“Dad, are you famous?” This question took executive pastry chef Joe Murphy by surprise when his son asked him one day recently. A disarmingly kind man, he sat with me to describe what influenced him growing up and what led him down the path he’s taken to his most recent position as executive pastry chef at Jean-Georges, a role he humbly plays. Murphy was raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, which was surrounded by housing projects, at a time when organized violence was prominent. “I had a great home life, but as a teenager in Brooklyn around that time, most of my friends thought that they were connected. What comes along with organized crime is death and violence. That part of it wasn’t fun.” Since having children, he made it a point to relocate and raise them in suburbia so they don’t experience the same things he did, even though he admitted these experiences affected his personality in a major way.
Everyone knows that Joe’s summers were passed in Upstate New York, where he collected mushrooms with his grandmother and visited farmer’s markets with his mother. However, the reason behind having a summer away from New York City was his father’s desire to keep his children from “playing in the street all summer long and getting in trouble”. “As a teenager, no matter where you are, you get involved with something that you shouldn’t be doing,” he confessed, but being raised as the oldest of three in a “strict blue-collar family,” growing up during the era of hip hop and graffiti was tempting for a young Joe Murphy.
A clear picture of Murphy’s adolescence began to take shape as he spoke of it. A young Joe working in a bakery mainly because there were other teenage girls there, and who doesn’t want to be around teenage girls at that age? “It was a time when what was big in the city really pissed off your parents, like hip hop music and graffiti,” he recounted. “There was graffiti on every drop of the train. Hip hop music was just starting to come out. I would put on Public Access (I didn’t even know what it was), then the Beastie Boys came out and there’s a bunch of white kids that are singing the music that pissed off my parents.” He admits he dabbled in graffiti art, even to the point of getting caught doodling by a teacher, and became so fascinated by it that it eventually propelled him into his career as a pastry chef.
Joe became more interested in the artistic aspect of graffiti while going to galleries in SoHo, where graffiti art transformed into more than just writing on walls and trains. That’s when his father took an interest in his son’s hobby. “He bought me an airbrush, brought me to Pearl Paint to pick up markers, and got me a sketchbook. It’s interesting that he actually was positive about that instead of saying ‘No, don’t do that’,” he reminisced. This all took place as he was working at the bakery and “next thing you know, I started using an airbrush on cakes,” he gloated. From there, his baking career just took off. His grandmother called in a favor at the Culinary Institute of America, where Joe took a tour. As soon as he saw someone there make a bouquet of flowers from pulled sugar, he was hooked.
Murphy has held various positions during his career, but as he looked back, he admitted wishing to have done things differently right out of culinary school.
Times have changed. When I was in culinary school, it was always, ‘you have to work for the best people, build your resume, network, and then eventually you’re going to land a pastry chef gig at a great restaurant’. A lot of that may be true now, but because of social media and TV, that doesn’t always work. So you can work in 5 unbelievable restaurants under great chefs and be rock solid and not be successful. I always felt like, you know what, you love what you do, you work hard, you work for great people, and then it’s going to come your way. Right now, if I had the chance to do it all over again, when I was in my late 20s, I probably would have tried to open my own bakery business, but I didn’t have that opportunity.
Joe did have Fresh, a restaurant he opened along with other partners, which was short-lived because of various reasons, all of which taught him quite a bit about running a business. However, he acknowledged that the experiences he’s had as a result of his career at Jean-Georges are invaluable and have completely changed his perspective on pastry and food.
So what was so startling about his son’s question? “The funny part is that I don’t think of myself as a master in pastry,” Joe coolly confessed to me as I reacted with an alarmed expression on my face. “I still don’t think that I’m successful, probably because it can always be better; what’s good today will be great tomorrow and what’s great tomorrow, in a week will be unbelievable.” Discovering that the executive pastry chef of Jean-Georges acknowledges his success but also understands that things can always grow and change was the pinnacle of my time with him. If Joe Murphy strives to be better, we all can do a little bit more to make our lives and the lives of those around us abundantly better. Joe’s takeaway from life thus far is sweet and simple: “Family. In the end, it’s how you take care of your family. I’ve always had a huge support team around me. My wife left her job so I could do this job at Jean-Georges because she knew that it was something I was passionate about doing. Of course, pushing at work is important, but I don’t think I need to prove anything to anyone else except for my family.”