Determination, Passion and Success – Dublin’s Powerhouse Restaurateur Elaine Murphy
“I jumped at the chance to create a restaurant there. The Winding Stair site had a special place in my heart, having spent many college years there drinking coffee and pondering (student!) life. My idea was that it should be a ‘grown up’ version of what it had been, not too fussy and with a definite nod to its literary and cultural history.”
I love The Winding Stair bookshop and recently visited the restaurant for dinner with my friend. This iconic venue serves incredible wholesome dishes created using the finest Irish produce.
One of five owned by Restaurateur Elaine Murphy (the others being The Legal Eagle, The Woollen Mills, The Washerwoman and The Yarn), it was one of my favourite dining experiences this year.
So, getting the chance to ask this impressive woman some questions about her life, career and passion for food was definitely something I relished.
Speaking about her newest venture, she says: “I love it and the critical acclaim has been so refreshing. It was a labour of love to open it but I hope it’s been worth it. There is nowhere nicer on a cold wintery evening.”
She adds: “It’s so cosy and inviting and the glamorous weekend menu (inspired by all your favourite grown-up dishes from the seventies) is just what you want to eat on a rainy grey January Sunday.”
Admitting that she doesn’t have a work/life balance, Elaine says that this isn’t exactly a bad thing: “Someone once said, identity, passion and staff are the three most important things in running any business and so, because passion is at the heart of it, the two parts of my life are really connected.”
It’s not the glamorous life that many people believe it to be, and so you really must remain in love with what you do, as well as learning and honing your craft and knowing what you don’t know.
I previously spoke to Elaine’s head chef, Ian Connolly, who spoke about the nose-to-tail approach to food, something that it just as important to Elaine, as is root-to-leaf:
“Though it may seem like an unfashionable time to suggest it, nose-to-tail, as an ethos, is as much about sustainability as a plant-based diet is. It’s about using every part, not wasting and also creating really interesting and delicious food.”
On the topic of food, Elaine explains: “Food is so so important. Extremely important. I do feel it defines a landscape, a culture even but, that said, I’m completely aware of the privileged nature of such discussions about food and the need to remember the politics around it, the politics of labour, distribution, scarcity, security, ecology, poverty, sanction. We can’t have a macro discussion about food, or its prominence or significance in any culture without contextualising it against that background.”
“On a micro level, it’s the first route to travel for me, the way I get a sense of a place, a travel itinerary and the way I get to meet people I connect with. I think that my food ethos could best be described as honest. The Winding Stair, The Woollen Mills, The Legal Eagle, The Washerwoman and The Yarn are all about local, Irish, simple, honest food.”
The produce must shine from the plate without too much ‘cheffiness’ or ego! We source, where possible, from within the island, so, apart from lemons and coffee and most of the wine, you can have an entire meal sourced from within our shores.
“I believe that food can be political and we must pay some attention to the conditions in which it is produced, both from a labour, human and animal welfare perspective. Transport, production methods and a decent working environment are all as important as the final product and, and as players within the industry, we must be conscious of that. Having said that, taste, quality and excitement should be at the heart of everything we buy and serve. I really hope that we can leave behind high ‘concept’ food and return to tasted and quality being at the centre of our ethos.”
In her 2016 interview with TheTaste, Elaine stated that “the Northside is neglected by everybody”.
She believes that this is still the case because “in terms of after dark, it’s an incredibly quiet area. We need a good planning mix, late night activity, some re-development and a conscious effort to level the playing field between north and south inner city”.
When I asked Elaine if she had any advice for people at the beginning of their careers, she stated she thinks “it’s more important to ask questions than give advice” and know what’s involved:
“You may not be cut out for the industry. It’s hard, sweaty, late, unhealthy and tough as nails. You will not get rich. You will most likely not get famous. You will get bad knees and calloused hands. Will you still love it? Most importantly, work in a restaurant first. As a chef, as a porter, as a waiter, and as a manager. Deal with a full restaurant, on a full moon, with a water shortage, a power-outage, a no-show chef, an un-accounted-for booking, a boorish host, a broken toilet, a kitchen porter walk-out and a valued concierge on the phone demanding a table for a ‘VIP’. Are you still in? Do you love people? If the answer is yes, then go for it.”
I think being clear about your identity is incredibly important. Know who you are and what you do and stay true to that. You can’t be all things to all people. Never apologise for being passionate and even emotional about your vision because this is what sets you apart from others.
When you have your own business, it’s important not to “ask any of your staff to do something you haven’t or won’t do yourself” and if you’re planning to ‘take a step back’, be sure that you “spend a lot of time at the restaurant” before you do this.
Try to involve yourself in as many aspects of the restaurant as you can but try not to micro-manage – it’s hard to find that balance.
I’m always curious about which part of someone’s job they love the most. For Elaine, “making a difference in our staff’s lives is a favourite part for me. From allowing them to progress to watching them grow creatively (not always in hospitality but always facilitated by hospitality), being a solid base and a reliable and steady constant in their lives, particularly if the outside world is a challenging space for them.”
Of course, second to that is the unequalled feeling of a room full of happy diners. A night where you have made a customer happy and have a sense of a welcoming space for staff and customers alike is amazing. The sense of achievement on opening night is also wonderful for me. Seeing the labour of love in design and concept development and seeing it reach fruition is wonderful. It is a truly emotional connection and not just a job for me.
And her least favourite part of the job? For Elaine, “any creative industry is highly personal and criticism is extremely personally affecting. With so many chain and group roll-outs happening in Dublin, people forget that many of us smaller restaurateurs, even ones with more than one restaurant, have a deeply personal connection to them. They are labours of love and are like my children and so constant commentary and criticism weighs heavily.”
As we’re well into the festive season, I wondered what this impressive lady gets up to over Christmas. She says: “I love the Christmas dinner and days with my family. We do the same routine every year, at home in Dublin where I grew up and I adore it. That makes me the happiest in the world and is my favourite meal of the year. My mum’s stuffing and ham and turkey are may absolute favourite things to eat in the world. Bar none.”
Looking to 2019 and Elaine, who isn’t planning on slowing down anytime soon, is making preparations for times ahead, explaining: “We are going to consolidate our now five restaurants (that’s a lot!) and also take a breath as the VAT rate increase hits us.”
She adds: “I am not sure if the Government understand the implication of what they have done. There will be job losses and restaurants on their knees. It was a very short-sighted decision and one which won’t be without huge consequences for jobs and the industry. Personally, I would like to travel and learn more and we have some potentially exciting plans for The Woollen Mills and The Yarn. Watch this space!”
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Named Best Break Out Travel Writer at the 2018 Travel Media Awards, Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.
A big people person, especially when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, Sarah loves interviewing chefs, food producers and more.