Kristen Murray: The Provincial Poet
Updated: Mar 6, 2022
Maurice | Portland
Romantic, pure, and refined are barely worthy to describe Chef Kristen Murray or her pastry lunchonette Maurice, she's a provincial poet that takes cooking with love to a higher level.
By handling each ingredient with special care at each part of the process, something truly special happens and the result is transcendental. The cold Portland, Oregon wind goes straight into your bones so after a brisk winter walk downtown I was relieved to end up at Maurice, a French and Scandinavian pastry lunchonette. French provincial touches decorate the whitewashed wood furniture and marble breakfast bar making the space feel vast and bright, despite its cozy size.
There is a lightness in the air even with the scent of fresh butter crusts, pickled herring and citrus. It’s easy get distracted before you're struck by the quiet beauty, hidden behind flour and thick-rimmed eyeglasses humming away in the center of the room: chef and owner Kristen Murray.
A tiny kitchen with limited everything (she has just one small oven) was Chef Murray’s opportunity to create an organized, functional space with divine flow. Marie Kondo would’ve passed out from the genius of it all.
A philosophy of beauty, respect, and cooperation make the charming Chef Murray someone to follow, especially for the #GirlsGen tribe, both in and out of the kitchen.
"If you were washing carrots and you threw them, it would impart some sort of agitation, everything has to be handled with care, with thought, throughout the entire process."
What does being a chef mean to you?
I get to be a conduit. I get to bring the translation of what my imagination and the season is. I’m really sensitive to energy and emotion and the romance of falling in love with something with being seduced by something...teased by something.
How is tech affecting kitchen life?
When I opened I had some techie things, I had a sous vide machine and an immersion circulator to do all the things...but I had no space. It’s an old European model that would be best served without any wifi or modern techie things. And so I sold them all within the first year-and-a-half, and I have survived outside of that with induction burners without a hood with just a very sweet kitchen that’s like an industrial home kitchen.
Is there something you just have to have in the kitchen, no matter what the budget?
What does it mean to be a successful chef?
God every day is different. My success lands in the joy and sometimes that’s almost more important than the numbers even though yes the numbers really matter to make the business succeed to be able to bring that joy...but it’s the joy. It’s seeing people return often. It’s not always making the press and the publications but making the seats for all of those who come in between the press and the publications.
Is there something you have to have just your way in the kitchen?
I’m a neat freak. Everything has to be very clean, very thoughtful. My first chef was Alain Rondelli in San Francisco where I was his pastry chef in the 90’s. He helped me understand that everything has a soul. If you were washing carrots and you threw them, it would impart some sort of agitation, everything has to be handled with care, with thought, throughout the entire process. I’m really maniacal about that...and fun...but really maniacal about that.
If you could get chef whites custom made by any designer, who would it be?
What advice do you have for girl chefs entering kitchen life?
Yeah. Tons. Where do I start? The biggest one I would say is to be true, to be authentic, not to try to be something you’re not to fit in. To come every day fresh. Sometimes we as women we tend to hold on to things and it’s important to understand which battles to fight and which ones will hurt you down the road. To really take everything as an education and a pressing point to move forward. Not to get jammed up in the politics of the male and feminine in the kitchen but more the professionalism, the craftsman, the dilettante that comes back and does it better every time. To be emotional but in a thoughtful way. And to stand up for yourself. It’s not ok as a woman to not feel like you have the same strength that a man does.
What do you mean? What kind of strength?
It can be emotional and physical. Working in bakeries over the years it was always fun to see how I could maneuver something and it was often balancing it on something versus the guy that would throw his back out showing he could lift it. I think women are especially smart puzzle-piecers right out of the gate.
In Italy and most of Europe, until you are a “chef” you are considered to be in “the gavetta”. It’s something unites aspiring chefs and an experience that seasoned chefs look back on, a period they are happy to have conquered...
Huh..I like that!
...yes, maybe similar to how basic training is looked at in the U.S. military.
Is there a gavetta in the U.S.? If so what was yours like?
Ohh gosh..heartbreaking and exciting. I grew up in kitchens were you would get broken every day. It was really intense and hard and things would get thrown and said against you, kind of the old-school way that it was. I try to compliment and also give criticism so you’re building, you’re not floating.
Does that work?
It does sometimes. I think the gavetta for me was feeling like a seed and understanding all the different layers with all the different mentors that were helping me to be strong enough to do my own thing. Moving from cooking to pastry was kind of forced on me oddly enough when ----- pastry chef walked out and I was thrown the key and told to retard the brioche dough, I didn’t understand what that meant or I had helped her. I came back at 3:00 in the morning to retard the dough. the next day was baking brulees tempering chocolate and let that sit, letting the brioche rise. It was all of those thing orchestrating together. As a line cook I would have all of my mis en place and guns loaded for service but it made it nice to know I could come back to something. It felt like everything came together even if I wasn’t ready to be a chef
What is the normal path of an aspiring chef in the US?
You stage or you go to cooking school. I often tell people don’t go to cooking school. It’s like being a doctor, you still have to do your internship and just because you graduate school doesn’t mean you all of a sudden earn a salary and you get to be in this place. You’re just a buck.
So would say this is the American chef's gavetta?
yeah! But it’s a very ugly gavetta, like raw. To understand the humility of it. Staging with someone you respect, you like, showing up, taking it all in, writing notes. Documenting, showing in your book that you have respect not just for yourself but for the person that’s putting their time and energy forward. That’s huge. That’s another pet peeve, if I take the time to share the show and someone doesn’t document it on their own time it’s a big...yeah. And jumping before you’re ready.
How do you know when you’re ready?
You don’t. You have to make mistakes and learn from them and then you’ll get better. Listening to the craft and joy of the people. If it’s not your thing and you shouldn’t be a chef, there’s plenty of other things out there. There’s more space for those of us that love it and are lifers.
Dress: Oscar de la Renta
Shoes: Saint Laurent