Ben Murphy has drawn on the influence of Pierre Koffmann to create a trendy, modern French menu, says Lisa Jenkins
The Only Way is Essex, for all the philistines who haven't seen the Bafta-award-winning show).
It may be Murphy's name above the door, but the 26-year-old chef has a little help in the form of the backing of restaurateur Steve Andrews, owner of the pub and restaurant portfolio the Blue and Grey Group.
Visiting midweek in early May - just nine weeks after Murphy had opened the doors to his first solo venture as head chef - the restaurant was busy and frequented by a mixture of more mature guests during the day and the affluent 25-plus contingent by night.
The food leans towards a more traditional fine-dining environment, which should come as little surprise considering that Murphy has spent time in some of the best restaurants in the world and has been mentored by chef Pierre Koffmann.
"Pierre has definitely influenced my cooking," says Murphy. "But he also helped me develop my style. Inside and outside work, he's been a great friend. When I was working in France with Michel Guérard at Les Prés d'Eugénie, he'd come and get me for a break and we'd head off to his house and spend time with his family - he's my food-father."
Guérard's head chef, Olivier Brulard, arranged a second French connection for Murphy after this by securing a position with Eric Fréchon at Le Bristol in Paris. And so expectations were high for food at the Woodford.
The chef and his brigade do not disappoint. As well as set lunches for £19 or £24, there is a four-course tasting menu for £55 and an eight-course tasting menu for £130. This includes appetisers of pea lollipops and red pepper and tomato jam pastries (the Woodford's take on a Jammy Dodger), as well as chicken liver parfait, pain d'epices powder and blood orange; textures of beetroot, raisin and red-vein sorrel; seared scallop, coconut and celeriac; monkfish, banana, shallot and red wine; veal cheek, parsley and almond; and a dessert of textures of chocolate, milk sorbet, chocolate Aero and lavender.
Monkfish, banana shallot and red wine
The lobster mayonnaise, peach and fennel dish (£17) is spectacular, served with lobster bisque that epitomises Murphy's cooking style, which he describes as trendy, modern French. "I make the classics the right way and do my fish and meat prep, but I've learned quick ways of doing things, which keeps my team engaged and interested," he says.
"You have to keep your team's attention to stop them from getting bored - too few menu changes can mean you are doing the same thing all the time and you need to keep the chefs motivated. I've got good people with me and I want to keep them."
Murphy, when pushed for his favourite dish, chooses his new duck, honey, coffee and sesame dish (£23). "This has been a really good seller with flavours that you don't expect to work but actually do," he says.
The chef also enjoys working with herbs. "I love combining herbs in desserts as a refresher, which helps the customers' palates for the upcoming courses," he adds.
Ham hock terrine, pea ice-cream and pea purée
Murphy believes pastry is one of his strengths, perhaps because of his training at Westminster Kingsway College, where he received a distinction following a three-year catering and hospitality course. Pastry chef Romain Mouy (ex-Les Prés d'Eugénie) is part of the team and Murphy credits him with adding an elegance and freshness to his desserts.
For a multi-award winning competition chef, who lists a World Skills Gold Medal Crown (2011), Young National Chef of the Year award (2012) and five stars from The Sunday Times critic AA Gill among his achievements, Murphy is considered and modest.
"The Woodford is not mine," he says. "But I'm still learning. I have autonomy over the dishes I create, but can call on other expertise as and when I need it. The Woodford has allowed me to create dishes that I hope are memorable. We want our guests to have a dining experience with drama and we want it to be a foodie destination."
With another past Westminster Kingsway College student, William Yarney, out front as restaurant manager, the Woodford promises to be one to watch. Murphy is part of the new guard - a gentle chef who obviously respects his kitchen brigade and front of house team. The only way is up.
Chicken, radicchio and basil
Chicken liver parfait, pain d'epices powder and blood orange
From the menu
- White asparagus, pea sorbet, lime and shiso £9.50
- Salmon, cucumber, apple and dill £11
- Potato ravioli, mushroom, onion and a truffle essence £19
- Cod, courgette, lemon and elderflower £22
- Rhubarb, herbs, vanilla and tonka bean £9.50
159 High Road, South Woodford, London E18 2PA
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