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the sweet scoop
Marc Murphy, Executive Chef and owner of celebrated NYC restaurants Landmarc and Ditch Plains, has certainly mastered the art of multitasking. Maybe you’ve seen him as a straight-shooting judge on Food Network’s weekly hit Chopped, speaking out against hunger at a City Harvest event, or even teaching the ladies of The View how to roast a chicken, but he was still kind enough to sit down with me to discuss his latest projects and new catering venture, Benchmarc Events.
In a town where egos can run rampant, it’s refreshing to meet someone who genuinely cares about making people happy through his food. Marc’s consumer-minded sensibility and laid-back approach to fine cuisine has been thoroughly embraced by diners looking to enjoy refined fare without suffering through stuffy atmospheres or break-the-bank bills.
Marc’s passion is evident, his enthusiasm for his craft is inspiring, and one thing is certain—his welcomed approach definitely seems to be working.
Enjoy our Q & A below.
One of the most interesting things about what you’ve done here in NY is the accessibility you provide to all consumers. How did you come up with this concept and evolve your franchise in such a way?
I’ve been cooking professionally since I was 20 years old and always wanted to work at very high-end restaurants. This was great and I learned a lot, but when it finally came down to opening my own place, my wife and I wanted to do something different. My friends would come in on their birthdays and anniversaries and that was the only time I’d see them in the restaurant. I wanted a type of neighborhood bistro where people would want to come in 2 to 3 times a week. I want to have a lot of high-chairs, be open late, no reservations, the wine to be accessible, the food to not be complicated and for people to have a pleasant experience. We have a motto that we hire nice people, not necessarily people that know how to wait tables. It’s easy to teach nice people how to wait tables, but harder to teach people how to be nice.
…and now you have Landmarc in the Parc. How has that been?
We do Landmarc in the Parc in the summertime and this was our first year doing it. Again, we wanted to help the neighborhood out and give them a place to grab a quick meal to bring to the park. It comes in a box with a blanket and all, it’s very cool.
That is cool! In addition to your restaurants, I understand you now offer on-site catering at your restaurants as well as off-site. What made you want to take on a catering venture?
Yes, we now have Benchmarc Events with a full time sales staff that helps customers put together catering and banquet events at any of the restaurants or any off-site location. Some catering companies won’t even get out of bed for a certain amount of money (understandably since their catering facilities might be outside Manhattan), so I wanted to create something much more available to everyone—we will work with whatever you throw at us. We can cater anything from dinner for 10 people at their home or office to an upscale 150 person wedding.
Is there a standout piece of advice that you received from a mentor and carried with you throughout your career?
Two come to mind. When I worked at Le Cirque, Executive Chef Sylvain Portay told me that if you season your dishes properly, and the hot dishes comes out hot and the cold dishes come out cold, you are better than 90% of the restaurants out there. This is something that myself, and everyone that works in my restaurants, takes very seriously.
Also, when I first started cooking in America, I worked at Prix Fixe in New York City, where Terrance Brennan was the chef, and his two sous chefs where Joey Fortunato (who now owns Extra Virgin) and David Pasternack (who is now the chef at Esca). I was 19 years old and out partying a lot. One day, I overslept and came into work late, hungover. Pasternack was a ball-buster and asked me to come to his office (the walk-in refrigerator). He said to me, “Murphy, you gotta do something for me, you gotta do something for yourself. Every once in a while, you gotta go home and have milk and cookies. Stop this partying stuff…go home and have some milk and cookies.”
Haha. So, did you take his advice?
I was a young kid cooking and the culture was to go out after work. It’s what everyone at the restaurant did. But every once in a while, like Pasternack said to do, I would go home.
If you could take a food vacation to anywhere in the world, where would you go?
You know, I think I would go somewhere I have never been before, where I know nothing about—like Japan or China. I would love to go explore that sort of world. India as well. The food that comes out of these cultures is amazing. Since I grew up in Italy and France and worked all over Europe, other types of cuisines fascinate me. (Note: As the son of a diplomat, Marc lived in Milan, Paris, Villefranche, Washington DC, Rome and Genoa, all before the age of 12—which cultivated an education in French and Italian cuisine)
What do you consider one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken—career-wise or just in general? Seems like you are somewhat of a risk taker.
I never was good at following directions and was always the one in trouble at school. When it came to cooking, I guess a little bit of that came over. At one time in my life, some things weren’t going well for me and I left my job at Windows on the World—I had nothing left. However, no matter what happened, I still had my ability to cook and the ability to work hard. You just can’t be scared to completely start over.
Being a chef can be a very behind-the-scenes job, but there’s an emergence of this new Chef-lebrity culture. You’re now a regular judge on Chopped—was being on TV something you aspired to or how did it come about?
Yeah, how did that happen? Well, I did some television spots and morning shows here and there. It wasn’t necessarily something I really wanted to do, but I guess after seeing some tapes, someone reached out to me from Chopped and asked me to come tape some pilots—I said sure. We did one season and the next thing you know, we’re up to season eight!
In the world of food, you just can’t cook food anymore, you just can’t run a restaurant. To make it nowadays, you need to do more. I have 420 employees and about to add another 150 more and it has been amazing to deal with the transitions, but I’m lucky enough to have a great executive team that will keep the restaurants going if I am not around.
Are you a natural in front of the camera or is it something you had to get used to?
It doesn’t bother me to be in front of people or be in front of a camera. There’s no difference in me sitting down with you here or standing in front of an audience and cameras, but if you ask me to recite something from memory, that’s another story. I had to do an opening for a show pilot and they asked me to recite three paragraphs exactly how they were written and walk while doing it. I don’t know how actors do it!
How did you start getting involved with charities like City Harvest? Do you feel strongly that it’s important for someone in your position to give back?
I’ve always worked with City Harvest. Jilly Stephens (Executive Director) is doing an amazing job with the company and I just recently became a board member. It’s not only important for me and the company, but we also want to integrate it into the staff. For example, when City Harvest gets a truckload of food, we will send chefs to their distribution centers and have them do demonstrations to show people some quick and easy ways to prepare some of the foods that are being given out. The next thing I want to do is get the front of the house involved as well, whether it be picking up or delivering food or working soup kitchens and so forth. City Harvest is just a great fit—food, feeding people, restaurants, chefs—it just makes sense.
If you had a day off from work, what would you do?
Just a day!?
Ok, ok! You can have a weekend or even a week—take whatever you want!
I would just surf, eat and drink with friends.
Even though you have a lot going on right now, is there anything else on the horizon?
For now, I think I’ve got enough going on. We’ve got our three restaurants, our concession stand at Pier 1 in Brooklyn (the new Ditch Plains Drop-In), we’re building a second Ditch Plains location on the Upper West Side, catering is taking off and Chopped is going well. I’m also the VP of the NYC chapter of the Restaurant Association and am also on the board of my kids’ school.
Speaking of your kids, do either of your children have any chef tendencies?
My daughter is 7 and my son is 4, so they’re not picking up knives yet, but we play around in the kitchen a bit. They like it and we have a lot fun doing it. They love eating.
There are certain dishes on your menus that seem inspired by youth (such as salt water taffy, the famous Ditch Dog)—are you influenced by your own kids when creating these items or is it just the child in you coming out to play?
Every adult has a little kid inside of them, I know I do. Plus, if you keep the kids happy, the parents are happy.
It seems like Chef Murphy is certainly keeping a lot of New Yorkers happy these days. Marc, thank you again for chatting with me and best of luck with everything!
Be sure to check out Landmarc (Mediterranean bistro fare) and Ditch Plains (casual beach-style cuisine) at:
179 West Broadway
[between Leonard & Worth Streets]
New York, NY 10013
Landmarc [at the Time Warner Center]
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019
Ditch Plains [West Village]
(at Downing Street)
New York, NY 10012
Ditch Plains [Upper West Side]
100 West 82nd Street
(at Columbus Avenue)
New York, NY 10024
Note: First two photos supplied by Marc Murphy