Despite a faultless career in the glare of Sydney's cooking limelight, Lauren Murdoch is more at home in smaller, more intimate kitchens, as Yasmin Newman discovers.
When Lauren Murdoch packed her bags and left Felix, one of Sydney’s hottest CBD restaurants, the big question on everyone’s lips was where was she going next. The chef – one of the few women in top positions but among Australia’s finest chefs regardless of sex – now mans the stoves at The Restaurant at 3 Weeds.
Her new post sated our curiosity, but it engendered another question: why the shift?
A look at Murdoch’s stellar career helps explain the speculation surrounding the move.
In her early days, she trained at MG Garage under Janni Kyritsis, one of Sydney’s best.
Later, she nabbed a role as head chef at Potts Point darling Lotus, then part of Merivale, the city’s burgeoning hospitality group that was then about to go nuclear. When Merivale opened its multi-million dollar flagship complex Ivy on George Street, complete with laneway eatery Ash St Cellar, Murdoch joined the ride on the wave of stardom as the venue’s head chef. Then, to top off an already lunar trajectory, Murdoch was asked to head up Felix, which opened a few years later. The French bistro thrived under critical acclaim and constant numbers, and Murdoch was cemented as a household foodie name.
The fame and status that come with a media machine like Merivale would be hard to give up for many. Isn’t that what all chefs are after these days? Sure, they want to cook great food, but they want their names splashed in every magazine and daily newsletter, too, right? Not necessarily.
Murdoch doesn’t shy away from the limelight, but she doesn’t seem to covet it either. Working for a conglomerate was a boon for the chef, but it came with downsides, too.
“Merivale were great to me – I’d recommend working for them,” she says. “Here [at 3 Weeds], it’s just more real. You don’t get hundreds of emails a day and it’s easier to get things done when you don’t have so many people telling you what to do.”
3 Weeds is a one-venue pub with an attached fine-dining restaurant in Sydney’s inner-city Rozelle. Murdoch says the main driver for her departure from Felix was its size, coupled with her own preference for smaller joints. She also concedes she is less a manager, more a chef – or at least prefers it that way.
“I actually really enjoy cooking and I felt I wasn’t doing that much at Felix, and I missed it.” She left with no hard feelings but also with no plans for the future other than to take a small break, travel and figure out the next step.
Admittedly, Murdoch was tentative about stepping out of the kitchen. She mulled over how long was too long before she may be forgotten. In the end, she took six months off, with her new role at 3 Weeds lined up about halfway through.
“A friend of mine told me this job was coming up and my sister also lives in Rozelle,” she says.
For Murdoch, it was a no-brainer: it was small (65 seats), the owners were great, she had creative free rein and the restaurant had clout. 3 Weeds has had a stand-out career of its own, garnering several hats under its chefs over the years.
“It has always had a very good reputation,” Murdoch agrees. She signed on the bottom line in January 2013 and hasn’t looked back.
It’s clear she’s happy with her decision. The chef is radiant at 3 Weeds – she bubbles with energy and enthusiasm, and her wholesome yet elegant bistro fare is Murdoch at its best. Every facet of the new venue seems to excite her, from the dinner-only service (which leaves her more time to experiment) to the carpeted space (better acoustics). She’s found a groove here and she plans to stick around.
A revamp of the restaurant decor is in the works, with more colour and an eclectic feel planned, which she will play an integral part in. In the kitchen, Murdoch is constantly tweaking her seasonally changing menu. She reveals she has little interest in owning her own restaurant, relishing the steady paycheque and the creative freedom most chefs dream of.
While Murdoch inherited 3 Weeds from chef Leigh McDivitt, his team was also set to leave within a couple of months. The transition was a challenge for the chef. She describes opening a new restaurant as “terrifying” and starting a new job not far behind that; she likes routine. At Merivale, the same crew followed her from Lotus to Ash St to Felix – something almost unheard of in the industry.
Despite her self-perceived shortcomings, Murdoch, as expected, landed squarely on her feet and found a cracker new team. Among them is a female sous chef, which Murdoch is enjoying. “It’s great to have another girl; it’s that friendship you sometimes miss.” The male domination of the industry doesn’t bother her from a discrimination viewpoint – she’s always felt like a part of the team – but she would like to see more women come through for balance and camaraderie.
When implementing a menu overhaul, a whole team’s departure can have its upsides, particularly when there are stylistic differences. Murdoch describes McDivitt’s food as more intricate and heavier on new techniques than her own.
“I’m getting kind of old school!” she says.
Murdoch admits she’s always loved the classics.
“I think my food is what you’d probably cook at home if you had the time and patience. Ok, maybe a little bit better.”
And rightly so. The chef may not employ foams and soils, but there’s technique aplenty in what’s she serving up. At the moment, a sublime kangaroo fillet teamed with large roasted golden beetroot and a whole steamed peach stars on the menu. It’s heartwarming yet refined, and beyond anything cooks do at home. Murdoch also says she “cooks like a woman”. What does that mean exactly?
“It’s a generalisation, but men tend to cook more mathematically; women more intuitively.” There is less show and more nurturing and satisfaction at play in the latter, too.
She may like to keep it classical, but does it ever get repetitive? Murdoch says she finds new ways to keep it fresh; it’s the signature dishes that become tiresome. Already, she feels bound to the pea tortellini and lamb brains; whenever there’s mention of retiring them, she’s met with pleas to reconsider. Behind closed doors, she’s chuffed the brains are so popular.
“I really like them. It’s a great dish if I do say so myself.” Apparently, a nine-year-old came especially for them, which makes it official: offal is in. Murdoch showed the young girl around the kitchen, much like she greets diners in the restaurant who come looking for her, whether it’s old customers who have followed her along her career to new folk who are taken by her food.
Murdoch is a chef, no doubt, and a fantastic one, but she has the soul of a cook. The pleasure she gets from cooking good food for hungry people is something that you can’t help look upon and smile. While Murdoch left Hollywood for an indie production, her own glow (and the limelight) seems to follow her everywhere. •