New Zealand-born chef Jess Murphy has lived in Ireland since 2003 and has been based in Galway since 2005, where she opened her award-winning restaurant Kai with her Irish-born husband, Dave Murphy, in 2011.
Born and raised in Wairoa on New Zealand’s North Island, Jess washed dishes and worked in bars after school to put herself through catering college, then moved to Australia where she met Dave. Together they moved to the UK, then to Ireland, finally making their way to the west and Galway in 2005 after Jess had spent a year working with Kevin Thornton in his eponymous Dublin restaurant.
All through her childhood Jess hand-dived for sea urchins, and growing up in countryside New Zealand, her Hawke’s Bay upbringing had an enormous impact on her approach to cooking and eating. Her mother’s mum was like a second mother to Jess — teaching her how to cook and, because they had a sheep-station, eulogising everything to do with farming and providing the basis for Jess’ respect for farmers and the farming community.
The winner of Ireland’s Best Chef in 2018 at the Irish Restaurant Awards, Jessica was also the Blas na hÉireann Producers’ Champion in 2019, as selected annually by producers all around the country, and is a regular Food & Wine recipe columnist, where she constantly puts Irish produce front and centre. Jess also wrote a weekly recipe column for the Irish Times magazine for over a year. Kai has had a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2018 too, but this is a place built on relationships, not awards.
Jess is passionate about the people, the neighbourhood and the community that Kai is based in and built from, and the restaurant philosophy is to focus on sourcing fresh, organic produce from those local suppliers to create daily menus bursting with flavour, texture and colour.
“Our suppliers have become our friends,” says Jess Murphy, “and our extended family. Kai reflects Galway’s Sea Road and the west’s community of locals, artists and hungry eaters, as well as being a showcase for amazing local farmers, cheese makers and suppliers and that extended family of Irish producers who grow and create mind-bogglingly brilliant and delicious ingredients.”
Formerly a cheesemonger for Sheridans in Galway, Jess has been volunteering at the Irish raw milk presidia in Bra as part of the Slow Food movement for the past 10 years. Growing up on New Zealand’s North Island involved plenty of mallards in the bath, shaving pig-skin with her mum’s Bic razor and swimming into the lake to fetch the game shot by her dad, Carey.
“Since I was nine years old, I knew I wanted to be a chef. I had to wait until I was 20, though, until I left New Zealand with nothing but a suitcase and 1,500 bucks, determined to forge my future in food. I always knew that I would have my own restaurant but this desire only really became a reality for me after I had spent 15 years working as a chef. It has been a long amazing creative road to finally get to Galway and to opening Kai.”
Jess and Dave opened their doors with a simple formula — high-quality produce, preferably organic or wild, sourced locally and cooked intelligently. What’s in season will be on your plate. Food at Kai is vital, bold and delicious, rammed full of flavour and based on the exceptionally close friendships Jess has built with her range of suppliers close by and around the country. This is a place built on good energy, where happy staff and busy kitchen combine to send everyone who visits out the door a little bit more content with the world.
Kai might be the Maori word for food but it has almost become a verb in the Irish food lexicon over the last decade. If you were to ‘Kai’ something, you’d add colour, flavour and provenance. To Kai is to cook food made and grown by people you love, it’s to be bold and generous, classy but casual, to be full of good energy and heart and finesse, and to have the craic. Kai is a restaurant with both heart and finesse, soul and style, at once both reassuringly old-school and refreshingly modern — creative, clever cooking of perfectly sourced ingredients by Jess Murphy and her team in a warm and generous setting.
This year Kai won one of the UK and Ireland’s inaugural Michelin Green Stars, a new accolade for best sustainable practices. Jess Murphy also takes the role model beyond sustainability very seriously. When she is not feeding or minding people, she is quietly fighting for an underdog somewhere here or abroad and has been a formal High Profile Supporter of UNHCR since 2017, travelling to Lebanon and Syria with the UN Refugee Agency to spend time with Syrian refugees selected for resettlement in Ireland, cooking and sharing food with them, finding common ground and documenting some of the food heritage that risks being lost after years of war in Syria. Everything that Jess does has a vitality, immediacy and generosity based on friendship, relationships and respect.