After dusting himself off from his Great British Menu defeat, Ben Murphy won National Chef of the Year 2023. Here's how his life has changed since gaining glory
"Sometimes you have to take a knock to get better," says Ben Murphy, chef-patron of Launceston Place in London's Kensington. In 2021 he questioned himself after becoming the first of the south-east competitors to be eliminated from the Great British Menu kitchen, albeit in a particularly high-scoring heat. Less than 18 months later he is the 2023 National Chef of the Year and the D&D-owned restaurant he has headed since 2017 is fully booked.
He says: "I originally applied for National Chef of the Year because I liked the brief [a seafood starter and main course incorporating British or Irish venison] – that was important – but also coming out of not doing as well [as I would have liked] on Great British Menu, I wanted to know my worth and know I'm still worthy of achieving something. It was also for the restaurant as well, because the dishes I cooked in the competition were exactly what we do here. So it meant a lot – not just to me, but to the team as well."
Murphy impressed the judges with his menu of butter-poached pollock, radish and Oscietra; followed by Lake District young fallow, watercress, onion and Batek pepper; and a dessert of clementine, honey, tahitensis vanilla and yogurt – dishes evocative of his style of fresh and restrained British cooking, built on a classical foundation.
He says he "zoned out" during the competition, relying on his knowledge of the dishes and finishing eight minutes early. His memories of the award ceremony are similarly vague. "I don't actually remember much," he says. "I've seen on Instagram that I was a mess and crying." He was accompanied by his mum, who left the event at the Berkeley hotel in London with his winner's plate under her arm – "She knew it was one I'd wanted for a long time."
Exactly 10 years before being named National Chef of the Year, Murphy had been awarded the title of Young National Chef of the Year. Throw into the mix the holding of the award ceremony at the Berkeley, where he had made his first steps in the industry, and it's no surprise it proved an emotional evening. This year  also marked 50 years of the Craft Guild of Chefs and a particularly star-studded guest list was gathered to see him receive his prize, including former winners Gordon Ramsay, Russell Bateman, Alyn Williams, Hrishikesh Desai and Steve Groves.
The road to NCOTY
Murphy's passion for cookery was ignited in food technology classes at school. His formal training began at Westminster Kingsway College, after which he joined Koffmann's at the Berkeley as a commis chef, where three-Michelin-starred doyen Pierre Koffmann became not just his mentor but "basically family".
"When you build up trust with someone so much, it's hard to let go of that. Koffmann's was the evolution of everything I had learned at college; it was core classical techniques perfected," says Murphy.
After four years at the Berkeley Koffmann himself drove his protégé to the south of France and a job in the kitchen of fellow three-Michelin-star chef Michel Guérard at Les Prés d'Eugénie.
"I always wanted to work in the ultimate places, so I went to work with the best," says Murphy. "I did a year in the south of France, but it kind of broke me a bit – it was tough."
After completing 12 months in the south of France his head chef Olivier Brulard sent him to Paris and the kitchens of Epicure at Le Bristol, where he worked under Eric Frechon.
"It taught me a level of maturity and respect for the people showing me what to do; that they were taking their own time. I think everyone deserves a chance and I genuinely went to learn."
A year later Murphy returned to London and worked at the two-Michelin-starred Greenhouse for 10 months with Antonin Bonnet before heading across the Atlantic to Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park. In 2016 Murphy was back in the capital, opening his own restaurant, the Woodford in east London, which he says, "went really well for the first 10 months" before "things just went wrong". He adds: "It was a learning curve. I got involved with the wrong people and maybe I was too young and wasn't ready."
Murphy left the Woodford after 10 months, during which it had scooped plaudits and awards including the Evening Standard's Restaurant of the Year and a five-star review from the late The Sunday Times food critic AA Gill, who wrote "the skill of the kitchen is exemplary". Achieving that critical success had taken its toll – Murphy recalls sleeping on the office floor to give himself time to freeze lollipops for the next day's service – and on leaving he took three months out to "revaluate" and "reset".
He says: "[That time out] allowed me to realise that there were other opportunities out there. When you're working so many hours you forget there are other restaurants. I caught up on sleep, I started eating properly. That's so important and chefs don't do that enough... then the offers started coming in."
A new start
Among those offers was one for the position of head chef at D&D-owned Launceston Place in Kensington. Murphy would have full creative control of the kitchen, with a promised refurbishment to allow him to put his stamp on the restaurant.
He says: "When I first came here it was a bit shaky and there was a learning process. The kitchen is downstairs so I had to work out how we could create a menu where dishes have to travel upstairs on trays. The first couple of years were a learning curve, but now we're in a situation where it's solid and we're fully booked pretty much every day, which I think is any chef's dream – to have a fully booked restaurant that's making money."
Launceston Place offers a tasting menu (six courses at £72) an à la carte lunch menu (£33 for two courses, £39 for three); a chef's tasting dinner menu (£95) and an evening à la carte menu (£68 for three courses). Murphy also stresses that "we do have expensive wines, but also cheaper wines". The multiple entry points ensure a broad appeal that may not have seemed essential given the restaurant's gilded postcode.
Murphy says: "When people come here, I want them to feel like they're at home, to leave full but not bloated, and to think they've had really good value for money. The meaning of fine dining, I think, is more in the mise en place and the way we execute things rather than being in one of the most expensive areas in London. Our guests and their feedback and reviews are the most important. The neighbours come in two or three times a week, which is amazing."
Murphy's style of cooking has evolved in his six years at Launceston Place. He says: "What we do is very refined, very consistent, very solid. It's big on flavour and maximising every ingredient. Flavour is always first, then it's thinking about the vision behind the dish and whether the customer will get it, then it's how I get my personality in. There are certain dishes that guests will talk about over and over again, such as a celeriac dish we have that's been on the menu for five years. All we've done is refine it. It's beautiful – why touch it?"
The dish sees celeriac salt-baked at 78°C for 14 hours before it is chargrilled and finished with brown butter. Mint oil and crème fraîche are added, along with a rich and sticky truffle ragout, with the front of house team grating Pecorino cheese tableside to complete.
Other dishes take inspitation from the chef's childhood memories and inject an element of fun, such as the ‘eggs and soldiers' of sourdough bread and chicken liver. Murphy says: "This amuse bouche is a childhood memory – or the posh version. It's flavour combinations that I like to eat. Scrambled egg foam, salty sourdough fingers and rich chicken liver parfait are, for me, a great way to start a meal."
Inspiration and ideas for new dishes can come from social media, a visit to another restaurant, a surplus of an ingredient or simply something that sparks the imagination of someone in the team. Murphy says: "It's very collaborative. It never used to be, I used to be very independent and wanted to do it all, but I've learned to give the guys the opportunity to step up and have more input because they're supporting what I'm doing and it makes them feel good to be bringing stuff to the table. Everyone is equal here."
Building a foundation
It's obvious that creating a positive working environment in which his team are encouraged to learn, develop and take care of themselves is central to Murphy's vision for the restaurant. Launceston Place is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, with all team members given three days off a week. The back of house team begin their shifts at 9am and will usually be finished by 10:30pm, and Murphy stresses the importance of everyone sitting down for a family-style meal twice a day.
He says: "That's something I think I can take credit for: bringing individuals together to produce good food in an incredible environment. We have bad days – everyone does – but it's how you adapt and come back. Wednesday is our hardest day because we're doing everything from fresh and sometimes that's challenging. Sometimes you have to take a knock to get better, but there aren't too many knocks here."
In 2019 Murphy was made chef-patron of Launceston Place, taking on a share of the business. He says the move to co-owner made him "feel it was mine even more" and has seen him scrutinise the business in a different way. "Hitting targets is fine but it's made me look closely at everything, I was always firm on wastage but now it's ‘should we use truffle?' and ‘is that too much caviar?'."
At the age of 32, with multiple accolades to his name and a formidable mentor who continues to encourage and inspire him, Murphy is refreshingly frank about the next thing on his to-do list: "My goal in life is for this restaurant to have a Michelin star. I think it's overdue and it would tick a massive box, probably the last one I need to tick because National Chef of the Year was one too. The team really deserve it and it would mean a lot to them, which makes it mean even more to me."
What the NCOTY judges said
Anthony Demetre, chef-patron of Michelin-starred Wild Honey St James
"This year's competition was extremely close between the top three and the level of cooking was huge. All the finalists should be proud of making it to the last eight. The panel debated long and hard on who would be crowned this year's winner. Ben's menu had it all: technique, seasonality, flavour and overall balance. That's not to say the others didn't, but his just edged it."
Aktar Islam, chef patron of Michelin-starred Opheem in Birmingham
"Ben had a clear and defined style. The cooking of all the elements were seamless and all in perfect harmony. His cooking showed a level of maturity. It was clean, precise, and favour-filled."
From the Launceston Place tasting menu
- Egg and soldiers: chicken liver, sourdough
- Celeriac: mint, Percorino, ragout
- Monkfish: cauliflower savory, vin jaune
- Venison: quince, butternut, sausage
- Marshmallow: verbena, lime, wild rice
- Tart: clementine, Tahitian vanilla, Timur
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