You may know Marc Murphy as a judge on Chopped or from his frequent appearances on other TV shows. You may know his Benchmarc restaurants, Landmarc and Ditch Plains. But you probably didn’t know that before he enrolled in cooking school in his early twenties, and did his first internship, Murphy was just a regular kid dealing with learning disabilities, struggling to find his way. In his first cookbook, Season With Authority: Confident Home Cooking, Murphy explores his early life through food, while teaching readers how to cook along the way.
Born in Milan to an American diplomat father and a French mother, Murphy spent his formative years living around Europe. He started elementary school on the French Riviera and moved over and over again, about every two years. That would be tough for any kid, but for Murphy, a dyslexic and natural lefty (which was considered sinister — pardon the pun — throughout Western European history), it was even more difficult. Throughout school, the famed chef was told he was dumb, that he’d never make it through university. Murphy compensated by becoming the class clown.
The constant moving was not easy, but growing up on the continent benefited Murphy in the end. Between his mother’s and grandmother’s home cooking and restaurant trips with his grandfather, Murphy developed a strong palate at an early age. Where most kids are thrilled about a trip to Mickey D’s, Murphy was most excited about fine dining establishments. He even had developed his own system for categorizing eateries. “It was a real special deal to go to a nice restaurant,” says Murphy. “Restaurants are categorized by stars, and I used to categorize them by how many glasses were on the table. One glass was like a bistro, two glasses and it was a little fancier, and if it had three glasses, holy cow, this must be real fancy.”
The nonna cuisine served at his Genoa boarding school furthered his love of food. He fondly remembers the Italian moms in the kitchen making cannoli and other home-style dishes. They loved him — he’d frequently reappear in the line asking for seconds and thirds. When he came to boarding school in the States as a teenager, Murphy was missing the comforting pasta dishes from Italy. To soothe himself, he started cooking for himself, making simple dishes like carbonara in the dorm’s common rooms.
When he finally graduated, he ended up on his brother’s NYC couch. Unsure what to do next, he paid his rent through cleaning and cooking. Murphy worked as a handyman during the day and would come home every evening to experiment in the kitchen. “I remember there was a soufflé period,” says Murphy. “I bought a large soufflé thing and I was making everything I possibly could in soufflé. My brother at one point was like, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ He was like, ‘Why don’t you go to cooking school, you seem to like it.’ ”
Murphy took his advice. He enrolled in a three-month program at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now known as the Institute of Culinary Education, or ICE). He excelled. A visual learner, Murphy aced his practicals (though unsurprisingly, his written tests didn’t go quite as well). Where other students had never tasted a rare steak until the age of 23, Murphy found himself at a great advantage from the restaurant and food experiences he’d had as a kid. It was the first time in his life he felt like he was good at something.
A job at Terrance Brennan’s Prix Fixe solidified his confidence. His second day in, he was thrown into the fire of the pasta station, where he churned out dish after dish in seconds. Murphy quickly grew addicted to the rush of service. After a short while, a group of VIPs came in for dinner. Sous chef David Pasternack threw every other cook off the line aside from Murphy. The two of them took care of it together. Murphy was overcome with an unfamiliar feeling: success. He was officially part of the team. And for a kid who was constantly moved around and told he wasn’t good enough or smart enough, he finally felt like he belonged. “Growing up when you’re terrible at school, it was difficult, it was trying,” says Murphy. “Like any kid struggling with dyslexia, I overcompensated with being a goofball. I was the class clown and had terrible grades. So that’s why when I came out and found something I actually like doing, lo and behold something people actually thought I was good at, I was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’ It was the first time I did something right kind of thing.”
Between his class clown tendencies, extroverted personality, and frequent moves, Murphy eventually found himself with another advantage: He was good on television. He appeared in small parts on different Food Network shows, and found he had a penchant for entertaining — and little self-doubt (not the case with the start of his cooking career). Murphy’s laissez-faire approach must have translated well to viewers, because someone in the organization singled him out as a good judge candidate for the show Chopped; 300 episodes in, the show has reinforced Murphy’s reputation as one of New York’s top toques.
Through his journey to stardom, Murphy has become the poster child for overcoming — or learning to deal with — dyslexia. Because of his learning disability, he feels like he’s just stumbled through life, choosing to do what makes him happy. When he was asked to give a graduation speech at his niece’s specialized high school for dyslexic kids, he opened up about his experiences and the ways he’s learned to deal. “In my speech to them, I said, just go do what you enjoy; if you really enjoy doing something, the success will come with it; you’re going to move up the ladder pretty quickly. You’re not going to have to struggle with it — and I think that’s why dyslexics have an advantage, we do what we do and gravitate toward stuff, because we want to be happy. I think it’s an advantage,” he says.
To help him write the speech, and several others, Murphy hired a specialized speechwriter. Rather than give him note cards that he’d struggle to read, she used pictures to help Murphy get through. And now, whether at City Harvest or his niece’s school, his tailored notes help him maintain a self-assured air while speaking in front of crowds. “When I did it for the dyslexic kids at the school, when I was done I said, ‘As you can imagine as a dyslexic kid who has a hard time reading, I was nervous. This is how I did my speech.’ I turned it around and showed them all the pictures. It was great.”
Murphy sheds light on his experience as a line cook, executive chef, judge, and celebrity in Season With Authority. Through Chopped, he gained a keen understanding of the biggest mistakes made in the kitchen, including, first and foremost, lack of seasoning. Through the book, Murphy intertwines his personal story with explanations of flavors and technique. He candidly explores his early struggles with school and dyslexia and breaks down the cooking process through easy-to-understand instructions with accessible ingredients. For anyone who wants to learn to cook or get a little inspiration, it’s a worthwhile read.
Salted Caramel Pudding
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes in the kitchen — you could end up with something truly amazing. This pudding was initially going to be a salted caramel tart, but the tart shell just wasn’t coming out the way I wanted it to. We kept testing and testing the recipe, and I just wasn’t happy with it. Frustrated and defeated, I took the tart shell, crushed it, and sprinkled it over the filling. I was going to eat my failure because what else was there to do? With that first, perfect spoonful, I knew that’s what the dessert needed to become — a parfait-style pudding with a crunchy, salty crumble. The tart failure wound up being the best “mistake” I’ve ever made, and it was a great lesson: Out of your seemingly failed kitchen endeavors, you can always reinvent the dish, give it a different name, and serve it to your guests, and no one will be the wiser.
For the Caramel Pudding:
2 cups whole milk
½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
6 large egg yolks
½ cup (3½ ounces ) granulated sugar
⅓ cup (1¾ ounces) cornstarch
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
1 (6-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
¾ teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, plus more for garnish
For the Pretzel Crumble:
½ cup ground pretzels
½ tablespoon (¼ ounce) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
Whipped cream, for serving
Make the Caramel Pudding:
1. Combine the milk and vanilla bean seeds in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch. Whisking continuously, slowly drizzle the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the pan and set over medium heat. Cook, whisking continuously, until the custard has thickened and starts to boil. Cook, stirring vigorously, until the custard becomes thick and pudding-like, about 1 minute. At this point, everything will happen very quickly; you might need to cook your custard for 30 seconds more — just watch the consistency. As soon as the custard begins to feel thick, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter. Immediately transfer the pastry cream to a large bowl set over a bowl filled with ice and water. Let cool, stirring, for 5 to 10 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. You can also place the plastic wrap against the surface of the pudding to avoid a skin forming.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F; position the rack in the middle of the oven.
3. Place the condensed milk in a 1-cup ramekin. Place the ramekin in the center of an 8x8x2-inch baking dish and fill the baking dish halfway with hot water. Cover the dish tightly with foil and carefully transfer to the oven. Cook the condensed milk for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until caramelized, stirring every 20 minutes. While the condensed milk is hot, carefully strain it through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl. Stir in the salt, cover, and let cool. Fold in the condensed milk mixture. Cover the pudding and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Make the Pretzel Crumble:
4. Preheat the oven to 350°F; position the rack in the middle of the oven.
5. In a bowl, combine the ground pretzels, butter, sugar, and flour and stir until the mixture looks like wet sand. Spread the crumble on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes, or until crisp. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool.
Assemble the Dish:
6. Spoon a little pudding into the bottom of a sundae glass and top with some of the crumble. Repeat two more times, then do the same until you have six parfaits. Top each with whipped cream and garnish with flaky sea salt before serving.
NOTE: To make whipped cream, chill a large, clean bowl in the freezer along with a whisk. Remove from the freezer and pour the heavy cream into the chilled bowl. Beat the cream with the chilled whisk until stiff peaks form. You can fold in a little sugar if you like, or whip the heavy cream as is, unsweetened. You may also whip the cream using a hand mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer. Chilling the bowl and whisk attachment beforehand produces a more stable whipped cream.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 30, 2015