Ten Years Into a Restaurant Empire, Marc Murphy Is Still Just Looking to Have Fun

Ten Years Into a Restaurant Empire, Marc Murphy Is Still Just Looking to Have Fun
Courtesy Marc Murphy

In the 20 years that the Food Network has existed, it's propelled dozens of chefs to stardom before they've proved themselves in their own kitchens. Despite his prolific career on television, Marc Murphy is not one of those chefs. The Chopped judge has risen steadily within New York's restaurants for two decades -- even while, he insists, his only goal was to have a good time -- and he now sits atop a restaurant empire, an outgrowth of Tribeca's Landmarc (179 West Broadway, 212-343-3883), which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

Murphy's father was an American diplomat and his mother was French. Born in Milan, he spent his childhood summers in the south of France, where he was instilled with a deep appreciation for food. After high school, he moved onto his brother's couch in New York City, and he realized he needed a job. So he went to cooking school and then landed at Prix Fixe, where he got hooked on the energy of the kitchen. "I didn't choose my career, it chose me," he says. "I'm dyslexic, and I was terrible at school. Working in the kitchen, and actually being good at it, was the first time I really felt like I belonged somewhere."

After awhile, his sous chef David Pasternak told him to go get experience elsewhere, so Murphy took the money he'd been saving in the cut-out center of an old book and bought a ticket to Paris. There, he picked up a Michelin guide and knocked on all of the doors of the three-star restaurants, begging for a job. He didn't land one, but one chef pointed him toward a one-star place, Le Miraville, where Murphy spent a year and a half, landing a three-month apprenticeship with Alain Ducasse as a reward.

He returned to New York after that, and he began a whirlwind tour of some of the most exalted kitchens of the '90s: A job at Le Cirque gave way to a sous chef position at Drew Nieorpont's Layla, where he met Georges Masraff. Masraff tapped him to helm Cellar in the Sky at Windows on the World, and then he picked up the executive chef role at La Fourchette, which became a celebrated Upper West Side French restaurant under Murphy's command.

When 9/11 happened, Murphy laid plans to leave town for San Diego, but a friend asked him to help reopen Battery Park's Southwest. The chef met his now-wife soon after, and he put off his decision to flee the Big Apple indefinitely. In 2004, the couple opened the first Landmarc in Tribeca, which they'd initially described as a casual spot they were going to close on holidays so they could spend time with family. Instead, they worked relentlessly, and a decade on, Murphy has five restaurants, a demanding schedule of public appearances, and a leadership role in a number of anti-hunger campaigns. He's also the president of the Manhattan chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.

In this interview, he talks about how TV has changed the industry, his original vision behind Landmarc, and what's plaguing restaurant owners and keeping them from succeeding.  

Ten Years Into a Restaurant Empire, Marc Murphy Is Still Just Looking to Have Fun
Landmarc via Facebook

How has the industry evolved since you started working in it? Where do you think it's going? When I started 20 years ago, a lot of fancy restaurants had a whole different culture that I don't think we can all be proud of. You were held hostage to these grumpy French maître d's. I don't think fine dining is dead now, but fine dining has gotten more accessible. There are still fancy restaurants here, but there are not many where you have to wear a jacket. People are much more educated -- you can't pull the wool over customers' eyes anymore, which is great. The restaurant is also a better environment to work in; that "fuck you get out of the kitchen, you're fired" kind of stuff is gone. To make a customer happy, the waiter has to be happy. It comes from the top all the way down. Shit rolls downhill, and so does good stuff. In the old days, the focus was on the food and the chef. But really, if the lighting, waiter, or ambiance sucks, it doesn't matter how good the food is -- and I think that's something people realize now. So we're trending toward casual and great.

What's the most pressing issue affecting New York restaurateurs right now? Look at it purely as a small business environment, and you'll see why there's a lot of talk about letter grading and paid sick leave. We don't want to seem like a complaining sort of industry, but we're the third largest industry in the country. People need to be mindful of that. When our current mayor was public advocate, he brought a lot of light to this, but health department fines over five years went from like $10 million to $45 million a year. We're not a piggy bank for the city -- we're small business owners. When it comes to regulation, it's not just one thing -- look at the collective whole. The money that you pay to get a liquor license. The food handlers permit. Fines. Taxes. Stack it all up, and it's like, fuck, that's a lot of money to do business in this town. And because of that, I see a lot of successful and proven restaurateurs not opening a restaurant in Manhattan because they're going somewhere else. That's sad to me. This is a beautiful place, and I don't want to see that happen. You don't want to scare everyone away.

How has TV changed the industry? The television part of the restaurant world is fantastic. What the Food Network has accomplished in 20 years is amazing. It's educated our country about food. Twenty years ago, someone living in the middle of the country probably had no idea what an artichoke was or what to do with it. Of course, some people go to cooking school and think they're going to be on TV right away, which is a problem. But it's given others a platform, and with that recognition comes responsibility. I have to uphold the standards of my restaurants. And I can talk about causes I care about. I can go to a charity event, and someone will pay $40,000 for me to cook at their house. I take that philanthropy very seriously. The other thing television has done is created more jobs. There are more food writers. There are culinary producers on Chopped. That wasn't a job 20 years ago; it didn't exist.

How has the rest of the media evolved? How has that changed the industry? When you talk about media and restaurants, you have to include social media and blogging, and that's both good and bad. When I first started running restaurants, we waited for the Times review, Observer review, and the New York magazine review. All hell would break loose if you didn't get a glowing review in all three. They were the be all end all. That's changed a lot -- there are so many more people with opinions. The standards at restaurants are much higher, too. But even a restaurant that gets a bad review in the Times can survive. You do the best you can every day, but what happens if it's that one reviewer that gets the error from the kitchen or waitstaff? When people complain about restaurants I say, I'm sorry, what business are you in that everyone is doing everything exactly right every day? And everyone's an expert! I can't even imagine a doctor or a lawyer trying to perform under this level of scrutiny.

How do you cope? Don't take it personally, take the criticism, and fix it the best you can. If you have an employee not doing something right, look at yourself first. We're like salmon swimming up river -- I love what we do, but the press has to realize that this is our side of the story.  

Ten Years Into a Restaurant Empire, Marc Murphy Is Still Just Looking to Have Fun
Landmarc via Facebook

What do you wish people knew when they sat down to eat? I'm not one to shove information down people's throats. If people come here and enjoy it, that's great. If they want more information, I guess they should know the work our industry does with charity. They should know what the Restaurant Association does -- we're fighting for the good of everyone. And they should know that I'm open until 2 a.m. here at Time Warner -- I want the kids in the neighborhood to come here after a shift and have a bar that's not a place where people do shots and throw up in their shoes.

What was the original behind Landmarc? How has that evolved? My original vision is pretty much the same vision I have today: I wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant that you would be able to come to two or three times a week. The food wasn't too complicated -- you could do it at home -- but we did the dishes, and we had a really good wine list. I worked in high end dining for a long time, and I wanted a place my friends would come to all the time. I didn't want to see them on their birthdays and anniversaries and that's it. I wanted it to reflect me and the way I want to live and the way I want to eat and entertain. Have things changed? Well, Landmarc is a bistro with Italian influences, and that'll never change. Seventy percent of the menu never changes, and that's important. With a really good bistro, you know what you're ordering before you leave your house. And it's gotta be consistent -- if it doesn't taste the same as last time, you're screwing up. It's a great casual restaurant with good food and good ambiance.

People look to you for certain aspects of leadership. What do you want to be your legacy to be? Maybe that I fostered a good place for people to work and grow and support their families. And that I've had a big influence in charities that I'm a part of -- Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry and City Harvest. Getting America to eat better is an endeavor I want to work on, but I'm still trying to formulate that plan. Maybe my legacy is that I've helped a lot of people.

Where do you go from here? My goal has always been to have fun. Deep down, that is still there. I don't want to do another project unless I'm having fun. You have to love what you do.

Any advice for people starting out in this industry? The first thing you have to do is to find out if you like it. Before you go spend the money on cooking school, ask a chef to stand in the corner of the kitchen for two days just so you can see if you like the energy. If you've never worked in a restaurant, you have no idea. Understand what goes into this job if you're going to do this. And understand you're going to be working when your friends are out having fun.  

Ten Years Into a Restaurant Empire, Marc Murphy Is Still Just Looking to Have Fun
Landmarc via Facebook

Best place in the city for a drink: The Lamb's Club. Or I'd go old school and go to an old hotel. I like the pomp and circumstance about it.

Best place in the city for a special occasion: Esca. I love that place. I could eat there every day.

Best place in the city when you have no occasion: Barbuto. Extra Virgin. Crispo.

Quintessential New York City restaurant: Oyster Bar. If I'm on the east side and near Grand Central, I go in for a dozen oysters.

Underrated person in the industry: The Restaurant Association. They do so much for our industry, even for people who don't know they exist. They stick up for what we do. Even the guy who owns restaurant and doesn't have the time to fight the fight, he's benefiting from the work they do. It's a thankless job.

Underrated place: Caffè Storico. It's actually run by Stephen Starr. It's a beautiful room and the food is always great, and you never read about it.

Something you wish you could change about the industry: I wish we could make it easier for operators to operate. If you go through the process of opening in this city, it's like lifting a mountain. I wish everything was more centralized.

Dish you could eat forever: Carbonara.

Person you'd like to cook for: Winston Churchill. I don't what his palate was like with all those cigars he smoked, though.

Person you'd like to have cook for you: Jacque Maximin. In the old days. When he was young in crazy.

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