This is part two of Robin Wheeler's Chef's Choice profile of Robin Murphy of Baileys' Chocolate Bar, Rooster and Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar. Part one is available here; part three, a recipe, can be found here.
Did your family cook when you were a child? If so, what meals stand out? My mom was a great cook and did the majority of the cooking in our house. We ate a lot of comfort foods and very small portions. Chicken fricassee over converted rice with a lot of fresh lemon stands out as my favorite. My stepdad was a master pancake maker on Saturday mornings and always made the batter the night before. I have very good food memories.
How old were you when you started cooking? I was a fairly hyper child, and I remember being allowed to "help" when I was around eight years old. I don't think I got to help too many times after that.
What was your first kitchen job? My first kitchen job was when I was eleven years old. I resided in a group home and they offered jobs to all of us so that we could have some spending money. I made $1.25 an hour scrubbing pots and pans in the dining-hall kitchen. In hindsight I wonder about the child labor laws.
Did you attend culinary school or college? I didn't attend culinary school, but I did attend college. I was very fortunate to have two apprenticeships in California for baking and pastry and that was like taking a crash course of what you might learn in culinary school; I loved it.
What do you eat? I tend to gravitate towards vegetarian foods: hummus, veggie burgers, grilled veggies, etc. I love rice, pasta and potatoes.
We'd be most surprised that you eat _____. I eat very few sweets, with the exception of hard candy. I don't crave cake, ice cream or doughnuts. Sad but true.
What do you cook at home? I'm really not home that much, but when I am it's usually comfort food. I love chicken and dumplings, English muffin pizzas, any kind of rice dish and sandwiches.
Local chef who most impresses you? Christopher Lee. He juggles three menus and restaurants and does it very well; I could learn a lot from him.
Favorite restaurants elsewhere? Jack's Urban Eats in Sacramento; Postrio in San Francisco; Lombardi's Pizzeria, Little Italy.
Your favorite food city? San Francisco.
Favorite recent food find? If you drink a Red Bull while eating pretzels, it tastes like the Frankenberry cereal from the '70s.
Most essential ingredient in your kitchen? Kosher salt.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it? Mushrooms from Ozark Forest Mushrooms, Missouri Ozark Big Springs region. They're beautiful and fresh with every delivery.
Five words to describe your food? Simple. Approachable. Tweaked. Substantial. Craveable.
One food you dislike. Seafood is not my friend.
One food you can't live without. Pasta.
What's the first rule for your kitchen staff? Less is more; don't make it complicated. That goes for the food, as well as how we interact with one another.
What ingredient will never be allowed in your kitchen? Liquid smoke.
Culinarily speaking, St. Louis has the best... Environment for going out on a limb and trying new twists on food. St. Louisans will brave a new concept and embrace it. They tend to be loyal followers, once you show them that you're trying to do right by them.
Culinarily speaking, St. Louis has the worst... Interpretation of a realistic portion size. The Midwest is known for hearty dishes and large portions. It's hard to dissuade folks from that mindset. We make everything from scratch for all of our restaurants. We use quality local meats, local and imported cheeses, locally grown produce, etc. My California background has been ingrained in me, and while the portion size may be perceived as petite, the flavors and quality are significant.
Culinarily speaking, St. Louis needs more... Street food vendors. Tamales, noodle carts, popcorn and hot peanuts, walk-up pizza-by-the-slice joints. Your best tip for home cooks? Make large batches of chicken, beef or vegetable stock and freeze it in ice cube trays, bag them up in Ziplocs and pull them as you need them. It works for pesto, too.
Your favorite after-work hangout? Work ends? I did not get that memo.
One person, dead or alive, you'd love to cook for? I'd get a kick out of cooking for Rosie O'Donnell. I think she'd dig our food.
Favorite kitchen tool. ThermoWorks Super-Fast Thermapen with three-second readings. Fantastic!
What's next for you? With what I know of Dave Bailey, it could be anything at any time! He has set the bar fairly high for success, and I'm excited to be a part of whatever he has going on.
What inspires you? It's usually one ingredient that anchors what I'm wanting to do with food, and then I just build around that based on what I'm craving. If I start to salivate while I'm thinking about a dish, then I know I'm on the right track.
Chefs who inspire you? Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake, Cat Cora and Bobby Flay.
Favorite cookbooks? Demolition Desserts by Elizabeth Falkner; anything written by Rose Levy Beranbaum.
Proudest professional moment? I'm proud of what we do all of the time! Even if something is an epic fail, I'm proud that we tried it and that we'll make it better (or learn from that mistake and walk away whistling from the scene of the culinary crime).
Favorite music to have in the kitchen? If I'm alone I usually have episodes of Spongebob Squarepants playing in the background. If I'm not alone, I let my amazing kitchen staff listen to their iPods or whatnot.
What's on your pizza? If I'm in a New York mood, then just plain cheese with extra tomato sauce; West Coast mood it'll be red pepper coulis, cream cheese, caramelized onions, crushed red pepper and a chiffonade of fresh basil.
What's in your omelet? I prefer scrambled eggs with cheddar, ham, tomatoes, red onion and a smattering of green onions -- all atop a mound of hash browns.
What are you drinking? Red Bull, Gatorade and water. Pepsi once in a while.
What's the most surprising food you've eaten? Chocolate covered ants that we made for Zoofari.
What's the best request you've gotten from a customer? A customer and her family would drive two hours to our restaurant once every couple of months. She always requested to start with the passionfruit cheesecake dessert, because she didn't want to be too full at the end of the meal. That was pretty cool.
Most difficult lesson you've learned in this business? Going into a new kitchen is hard enough as it is, but it's even harder if you're impatient and demanding. You'll be hard-pressed to find alliances if you come in with the "I'm here to fix all of your problems" mentality. Starting a new job with humility and genuine interest of the system in place will take you much further in the long run. You can build on a positive attitude and need to establish that from the get-go. Change comes later, after you take it all in patiently and with careful planning.
When did you know for sure that the chef's life was for you? I was a barista at a coffee shop, and when a baker quit I was offered the job. I loved the planning, the attention to detail and the method of it all. The bonus was being creative, but within the confines of culinary-science rules. I knew then that I could do this for a long while. Cooking keeps my brain busy.
Baileys' Chocolate Bar 1915 Park Avenue; 314-241-8100
Rooster 1104 Locust Street; 314-241-8118
Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar 1004 Locust Street; 314-241-8141