Kai Restaurant have been at the forefront of Galway’s food scene since they first opened their doors in 2011. With unwavering commitment, they have striven to offer excellent food with excellent service whilst holding tight to a philosophy of localism, seasonality, and sustainability. Owned and run by chef Jess Murphy and her husband David, they have gone from strength to strength since their inception, gaining accolades from customers and reviewers alike.
Locavore spoke to Jess about the move from New Zealand to Ireland, the link between food and memories, and the essence of the localism that both drives and supports Galway.
How did Kai begin?
Kai’ is the Maori word for food. In 2011 we opened the door with a simple formula — high-quality produce, preferably organic or wild, sourced locally and cooked intelligently. Dave (my husband) and I found our way to Galway and simply never left. We met in Australia. He is from Carlow and eventually we came back to Ireland; to Dublin at first, and then I saw those lovely adverts for the West of Ireland and really had an urge to go to Galway. We came here and, well really, that’s when we knew Galway was home! I worked with Kevin Thornton in Dublin, and then in Galway in Ard Bia, Sheridans, and Bar Eight. Finally in 2011 I knew it was time I went out on my own (well, with Dave as well, obvs) and so the dream of Kai was born.
Kai Restaurant is nestled between the church and a gay bar down on Sea Road in Galway’s Westend. This alone sums up life in the Galway neighbourhood that is famous for the unique characters that live here as much as it is now famed for its food, pub scene, and café culture. The building was home to a florist before we arrived and transformed the space into what it is today – Kai.
Kai’s stone floors and subtle nod to home interior means that as soon as you walk through the door, you feel like you have been here before. We evoke memories through our food because it is from memories that I am most inspired. There are two things for me when it comes to food – it has to taste great, and visually it has to be amazing.
How would describe your style of cooking, and your food?
It is all linked to memories and nostalgia. Growing up in rural New Zealand, I was always connected to the land and it has always been of interest to me. I was very close to my Nan, and would love to listen to her stories whilst she would cook. My mother had two jobs, where she would both ride horses and cook. The connection between women, the land, and my life in New Zealand are almost now like romantic notions of how idyllic life was. But it forged a very strong identity for me, with the food and the warmth that these ladies passed down through cooking. Which is why I love to cook.
How do you go about designing a dish?
Ingredients, the season, and my mood. It really varies.
Who are your inspirations, and food heroes?
Myrtle Allen is my hero – we need to use what we have and make that brilliant. She said “I know what to do with cauliflowers, soft tomatoes, scraps of meat and old hens. I enjoy using what the world discards.”
You source locally, and seasonally. How strict are you about this? And what challenges and opportunities are presented by this philosophy?
We are local and celebrate this through produce, people, and food. There is no choice at Kai when it comes to using what we have on our doorstep, and making that what we are about. Cooking and using seasonal produce should be standard practice. When we eat and use food in season we are experiencing food at its best. In particular veg, herbs, and plant-based foods have a season. We should celebrate this through our dishes, both in our homes and in our restaurants. We need to respect our ecosystem and know that everything needs time. There are simple and effective ways to ensure that soil, and crop rotation, are paramount in using veg, fruit, and herbs in their rightful seasons.
Nothing is better than knowing that what will be served on your plate at Kai is right at that time. Summer berries shouldn’t be on a menu in December. It is that simple. Local produce will far outweigh foods that have been transported across the globe in order to create a menu or a dish. Local farmers and producers are why Kai is always changing the menu.
We adopted this food policy and mantra for Kai from day one, that is why six years later we are still positioned in the same way. People know they are getting locally sourced produce and are eating animals who have been killed ethically, they know where everything on their plate has come from because me and the team have it only that way. There are no exceptions. There cannot be. Flavour is what people always comment on at Kai, “oh the flavours were incredible.” Simply put, it’s down to creative cooking and fresh, local, in-season produce.
How do you choose which suppliers to work with?
I knew, from working in Galway, the producers, the farmers, the butchers, the growers, the fish mongers. So I took all the people and food I love to Kai. In the West of Ireland we have some of the best produce in the world. Local is just part of our DNA and it is part of Kai’s Business DNA. Working with Bradys Butchers in Athenry, Gannet Fishmongers, Burkes Fruit and Veg, Cloud Picker Coffee, Sheridans Cheeses, Black River Foods from Headford, Jimmy’s Milk from Tuam. Sure, look – it is just how we are in Galway.
You’ve won a number of awards, recently including Best Chef and Best Restaurant Connacht at the Food & Wine Awards. How do these accolades affect your business?
It is really nice to receive accolades from your peers and from people in the industry. The awards are lovely for our families too, as they just know us as Jess and Dave – they are really proud. The awards we’ve won have really helped to bring the Kai name out into the public domain. Also, tourists really love Kai and often know about it from the award wins initially.
The food scene in Ireland, and Galway, has received national and international acclaim in recent years. What is it about the country and the area that brings out innovation and excellence in food?
Food is a collective experience. Everyone needs to eat. It is a great social part of all our lives. Irish people are so warm and welcoming, food, and tea of course, play a huge role in how we all interact. Ireland has the best produce in the world and there are some incredible chefs here making beautiful food. The produce, though, is why food in Ireland is leading the way.
Sustainability, organic food, local food, all seem to be key to many restaurants and businesses in Ireland. Again, why do you think Ireland has embraced these things?
Because it’s not a trend here. It stems from every tradition ingrained in people – there used to be nothing but local. Irish people always pulled from the land, the sea, and now this generation are just embracing age-old traditions and putting our stamp on it. Which is important. Tradition and new ideas is the why Irish food is at the top of its game. Also travel has played an integral role here. I am from New Zealand, so I have all my own traditions that I put into my cooking – but mixed with Irishness. This is also happening throughout the country. It is class.
How does sustainability affect aspects of your business other than sourcing?
Sustainability isn’t just about keep cups and single-use plastics. It’s about sourcing, getting waste management right, and thinking about what you are doing.
A ‘waste nothing’ attitude by all staff, and suppliers to Kai, is our mantra. Working with a company like Walsh Waste – who are so hands on – has really given direction to how we, together, can make things better in reducing, cutting back, or eliminating food waste.
We are currently diverting 100% of our waste from landfill, and 75% is recycled or reused through our mixed recycling (cardboard, plastic, paper), food waste recycling, and glass recycling.
How do you think the coming political changes might affect your business, and Irish food as a whole?
Budget 19 has just been announced and it was not a good one for our industry or the consumer, being honest. The VAT rate has been raised from 9% to 13.5% which means we will have to raise our prices in order to stay open and keep paying our staff. Hospitality is a massive contributor to so many sectors in life, not just food but across a broad range of industries. I feel the VAT rise will have a negative effect on commerce, tourism, and people’s lives. We are facing a future with Brexit, so now our trading links with the UK will be changed forever. Time will only tell, but it is a real time of the unknown in terms of how 2019 onwards will look.
What plans do you have for the future?
To write a cookbook. And to open a bakery using only single-origin wheat, honing-in on skill, and using unique Irish wheat.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
Because I can’t sing!
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