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Riding the wave of COVID as a head chef in London

In light of reopening on the 19th May following a long period of closure due to lockdown, down to earth, London head chef, Ben Murphy, shared what it’s really been like over the past year, from being absorbed in a 90 hour work week in the kitchen to shutting the restaurant doors with no idea of when they would be back open again.

You may have heard of Ben Murphy, head chef at London’s Launceston Place, perhaps you’re a foodie who follows his Instagram which showcases his dishes, techniques and activity, or maybe you caught him recently on the BBC’s Great British Menu?

If you aren’t familiar with him, you will be as the 30-year-old with a passion for creating unique, attractive, complex dishes has been named ‘chef to watch’ by the Good Food Award and is climbing the ladder to becoming one of the UK’s most talked about chefs.

Ben said: “To keep myself sane I had to keep a routine, on a normal day in the restaurant we would have 7am as our breakfast service, 12pm we would serve lunch and the evening we would be preparing dinner and serving, so going from that routine to sitting watching Netflix was a huge shock to the system.

“I kept to my morning routine by structuring in a run, and looking for inspiration and experimenting in my own kitchen at home.”

The staff from Launceston Place who would usually see each other almost every day kept in touch over Facetime, planning the changes they would make to the menu when the day of having customers back finally arrived so there would be no surprises when that day finally arrived.

With the first month fully booked since launching their opening date, Ben said: “They say the come back is stronger and we are definitely ready to show people what they have been missing out on. “The concept of the restaurant has changed, customers now have more choice with their dishes, for instance if they want more fish than meat or vice versa this can happen, or if they wanted more vegetarian dishes, or even if they wanted to have two or three deserts - the customer gets to pick.

“We’ve increased the choice that we offer on the menu as well as the design, so I’m excited for people to try that. When you visit, expect good vibes and change that’s for the best.” He added: “It was really hard, not being able to be in the kitchen but I found inspiration online. Instagram plays a huge part in this, there’s a big foodie community and I would experiment at home with videos, techniques or concepts that I’d seen to put a spin on it and make it my own.

“I love to create complex dishes. In fact a lot of my customers find me on Instagram, they will see me post a dish in the restaurant and then book in so they can try it for themselves!”

In the first UK lockdown, where restaurants were shut from March until July last year Ben kept busy by delivering the fine dining experience to people’s homes. In just over two months he’d cooked 54 dinners privately so families and couples could experience something special.

Ben said: “Cooking in people’s houses was a good way to keep me sane, as adjusting to lockdown was really tough.

“I would take with me the food I had prepared at home in my car with plates and cutlery from the restaurant and then cook in people’s houses. I got to experience working in a range of different kitchens, some really luxury kitchens.

“It was something different which kept me on my toes, I had a lot of fun doing them.”

On the flip side of having fun and experimenting through lockdown Ben also felt the unfairness of the situation as he witnessed friends close the doors to their restaurants permanently due to administration.

However, with this bitter blow also came a sense of community, support and closeness that prior to lockdown had been more competitive.

Ben explained: “Working as a chef you are constantly competing in the industry, but with lockdown we all really looked out for each other especially in terms of mental health, I was speaking to people I had never met before offering them advice and guidance and I too was reaching out to chefs I admired for it too.

“The community became a lot closer than we ever were. Whilst there was a lack of support from the Government there really was a lot of love in the industry.”

As he prepares and plans for the big reopening Ben spoke about what he has learnt from the experience. He said: “Moving forward I want to live every day as if tomorrow is never promised, we didn’t expect to be in lockdown and for it to last so long so all we have is today.”

Ben also reflected on the good vibes mentality that he promotes in his kitchen, he said: “We are a really close team, we are all on the same wave. “If someone was going to work in my kitchen I wouldn’t be looking for their skill but I’d be looking at their vibe. I can mould and teach them the cooking skills but I need to know that they know when to have a laugh and banter but also that they can be serious too. “We have a really good vibe in the kitchen, if we are preparing we will have music playing and have a good time, and then when it comes to service we are on our game and serious.

“If I’ve got the speaker I will be playing some hip hop or R n B but we listen to all sorts! Sunday’s are definitely the day for slow jams!”

Since becoming head chef four years ago Ben has gone from strength to strength in the industry, he hopes that the future will see the restaurant will be awarded a Michelin star.

Ben said: “The lottery ticket for me would be achieving a long overdue due Michelin Star and continuing to bring good energy to what I do.

“Since I became head chef it’s made me more aware of what other opportunities there are in life, you can become so obsessed with being in the kitchen and the buzz you get from the kitchen and doing a busy service, but there is more to life, I’m 30 and still single, I want to find someone who understands my career and the hours, so that I can find balance, it’s really important.

“Happiness is the most important thing!”

With more success on the horizon for Ben, if he could look back with the knowledge he has now and give his younger self some advice it would be to niche his skills in the kitchen.

He said: “If I could go back in time and give any advice to the younger me it would be to work out what you’re really interested in, what it is you want to do, what hours you’re prepared to work.

“For me I have always been really interested in Michelin and find dining, creating food that is really complex and looks amazing on the plate.

“I would say to myself not to take anything for granted, I didn’t expect to get into the industry and I am nowhere near where I want to be, every day I am learning - I’m like a sponge absorbing information.”

You can experience Ben’s cooking by booking a table at Launceston Place, his favourite dish is the Vegetarian Celeriac dish with truffle, mint and pecorino, a recipe that has been evolving since it first appeared on the menu four years ago.

You can book and look at the menu online here

All images credit to Ben Murphy, Launceston Place

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