Firsts + Lasts: Elaine Murphy

The woman behind the Winding Stair in Dublin talks charcuterie, the connection between books and food, and why Ireland is falling back in love with fish.

By / September 2012

Perched alongside the picturesque river Liffey, the Winding Stair first opened in the 1970s as a three-story bookshop and café. Named after a Yeats poem (“Set all your mind upon the steep ascent”) and the 18th century staircase that connects the floors, it was a regular meeting spot for some of Ireland’s most famous writers and artists throughout the 1980s. But after its closure in 2005, a corporate restaurant group purchased the building and reopened a re-imagination of the space under Elaine Murphy’s guidance. She respected the building’s history. She kept the first-floor bookshop but transformed the upper floor into a gastropub aimed at championing the best Irish producers and local fare, a move that has made The Winding Stair one of the most respected and well-loved restaurants in Dublin today.

Although my tight schedule while in Dublin in July did not allow for a meal at the Winding Stair (sadly), I did make it a priority to trek across the Ha’penny Bridge and poke my head into the first-floor bookshop one morning. As a writer and cook, there is something so sacred about the Winding Stair in concept and in the feel of its bones — in the musty smell of old books married with aromas of rising bread, sautéing onions, and braising meat wafting down from the restaurant upstairs.

Browsing the bookshelves feels like a kind of coming home; a writer’s pilgrimage. I dug through stacks of battered books, ran my fingers along their tattered spines, and walked out an hour later with that peaceful post-church feeling and a first-edition of Elizabeth Craig’s 1936 Cookery Illustrated and Household Management for 10 Euro. Its binding is in need of repair and (at 1,000 plus pages) it added considerable weight to my luggage, but as a vintage cookbook collector it is my most treasured travel souvenir to date.

After returning to the States, I caught up with Elaine on her day off and we chatted about her vision for the Winding Stair, her lifelong love of food, and, of course, the first and last bites of her life. Before I had even returned to the States, I knew I wanted to interview Elaine. I sensed a shared kinship there and, although this was the first time we’d ever spoken, there was indeed an immediate ease in our shared language of food and books and that familiarity that comes when you recognize some of yourself in another.

As cliché as it may sound, I love how food tends to do that; swallow up the physical miles that divide us and strip away our cultural differences, leaving us with a dinner table as common heritage and our shared hunger as a secret handshake.

What is one of your first food memories?
It would have been near Cork [Ireland] and it would have been of my granddad. My granddad was a butcher, so I remember eating a lot of really simple cooked meat. Specifically, I remember him showing me how to corn beef. Corned beef is a really Irish dish and he used to corn his own beef and he showed me how to do that.

I used to do that with him from the time I was really really young, four years old maybe? I remember that really clearly, the meat hanging in the butcher shop. I used to work with him. Well, I thought I was helping but I was probably a nuisance. Definitely corned beef. Spiced beef, as well, which is a really Cork thing. A lot of those beef memories are associated with his butcher shop.

Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Dublin, just north of the city center. Food was an obsession of mine since I was a young child, but there really wasn’t an international food culture in Dublin up until the nineties, because we didn’t have a lot of immigration so we didn’t have a lot of influences. Our food was very simple and very local.

You mention food as an obsession at a young age. Where did that take root?
My parents had traveled a bit, so as a very young child I would have had a small amount of international food experience, which was unusual. My parents talk about how I was completely interested in food since I was very young. In fact they tell me that when we used to visit Cork, where my mom is from, I used to sit in the back with cookbooks, even when I was four or five years old, and I would be reading out to them recipes for the whole five hours.

I was obviously obsessed. I would also never order the kids meal option off the menu, it would drive [my parents] crazy. When we’d go to small towns in Ireland and they’d present me with a kids menu, I would ask for the adult menu and always wanted what most people considered exotic food.

When did you know you wanted to work in food or open a restaurant?
I started baking as a lass and at 12 I started baking cakes and pastries for my ballet teacher, who had a restaurant in town. I sold cakes through that restaurant and I loved it. But I was also really interested in politics and academia so I didn’t intend to pursue cooking as a career. I went to Trinity College in Dublin and studied history and sociology, as well as music. I played the piano.

[Restaurants] weren’t a direction I was thinking of as a career, it was just a hobby. But like a lot of students I worked  in restaurants throughout college. When I left Trinity I continued working in restaurants and moved on to work in Dublin’s really good restaurants and managed them. Then in 2000, I opened my own place with an old friend who was chef. After that I just knew it was the thing I wanted to do. I was also interested in writing so I’ve ended up doing some food writing as well. Now, I kind of end up combining my love of food and writing.

After its closure in 2005, how did you come to be the owner of the Winding Stair?
It is very much a part of Dublin history and iconography. It’s got a view of the Ha’penny Bridge, which is a Dublin icon and you’re looking onto the river Liffey. So, it’s just really a gorgeous place. After it closed in 2005, the Thomas Read Group (which is a restaurant group that owned a bunch of pubs) acquired the building and they came and head-hunted me and said, “Could you do something with this?” I said, “Absolutely.”

The Winding Stair as it is now was my idea and my concept. In 2009, that group got into trouble with the economic crisis and I wanted to save the restaurant, even though their pubs were closing. So a man named Brian Montague came along and we decided to partner up and to purchase the Winding Stair. We made sure that nothing really changed, just the ownership. The chef and the team all remained the same. It was great; it was a real triumph for us – an independent restaurant over a corporate group. It was wonderful to have it fully in our possession.

Tell me about the history of the Winding Stair.
It was a space where an awful lot of filmmakers and poets and writers would have come. It was a place I came myself as a college student. The building itself had this very industrial factory feel to it and I knew when I got there that you couldn’t put modern cuisine in there, it really needed to be simple and local.

How does the building’s history inspire or inform the cuisine?
It was always a place really close to my heart as a reader and writer and lover of art and literature. But when I went in, even when it was empty, the building just speaks to you of craft and creativity. I don’t know if you can imagine it, but it’s a room that feels scholarly. There’s stripped back floors and exposed blackboards. The room had also been filled with books. When it was a café there was a bookshop on every floor. We basically reopened the bookshop downstairs and I kept all the books in the restaurant.

But it really felt to me like it had to be about craft and local producers and creativity and it really had to keep that connection between food and literature; of individuals creating something with their hands. I knew the food couldn’t be “chef-y” and that it had to be about the produce, devoid of ego. When I arrived they were serving traditional pub-style food, which is very much an English tradition, so when I got there we thought let’s take that style but make it about local Irish food. So I found a chef that was on the same page and we took it from there.

What do you consider your signature dishes? How do they reflect Irish cuisine?
One of the things I love is our Irish charcuterie board and Irish smoked fish platter, really simple. Both of those dishes are real celebrations of our local producers. On the charcuterie board we have six types of charcuterie all from Ireland and it amazes me the people who come in, even Irish people, who say they didn’t know Ireland had a charcuterie industry.

The charcuterie board has an amazing chorizo from West Cork, a smoked and air-dried lamb from Galway, a venison pistachio salami also from Cork. I love serving a platter of those, especially if it’s a group of Italian [diners]. And with the smoked fish platter we’ve got a smoked oyster from a producer in Whitlow, an amazing gravlax from western Ireland.

We also have this really simple haddock dish that people adore. It’s a hand-smoked haddock and cooked in milk, which is a really traditional Irish way to cook fish and it reminds diners of their mom’s Friday fish dish. Traditionally, they used to poach it in milk to take the salt out. We poach it in milk and turn that into a kind of béchamel [sauce], serve it with a vintage cheddar mashed potato and grilled white onions and it’s absolutely delicious. It’s the ultimate comfort food and the kind of thing you dream about when you’re not there.

How would you define Irish food?
It’s a tough one. If you ask an Irish person about food, a lot of them don’t have good things to say, but when you really push people you’ll find an abundance of really interesting little dishes.

We don’t have a climate for the sort of produce you can get in the U.S. We have a lot of root vegetables and a really good meat industry. Briskets and lamb shanks, long slow cooking of cheaper cuts of meat are a big part of our cooking as well. We also have great fish. I think we’re beginning to fall back in love with fish. There was a time in our history when we really didn’t use fish enough.

We have a really nice tradition of smoked and cured meats and we also have a good tradition of desserts and sweets. It is a simple food and really, right now, [cooking] is about going back to the basics and Irish food really works with that. Home-cooked comfort food is in fashion. That’s what people are after. They’re into cooking at home and being with their family. Food is really just going back to what [Irish food] is good at.

What’s coming up for you? Any new projects on the horizon?
There’s something very exciting on the horizon. We’ve just bought the Woollen Mills, which is the building next door to us. It’s a very iconic building as well. It was a woollen mill, obviously, and had been in the same family since the 1800s. We’re just about to complete on that. It’s going to be another food outlet and all about really simple food, all about the produce, breakfast, lunch, and dinner and there will be a bakery as well. I’m really excited about that.

What excites you about the Dublin food scene right now?
We’ve got some great little barbecue places springing up. We’ve also got a farmer’s market on Saturdays in the city center that has a fantastic oyster stall. You can just sit there and have a glass of sherry and some oysters.

If you could have one, final dish before you die, what would it be? Why?
I think it would have to be Italian. Italian or Thai are probably my two top cuisines. I go to Sicily all the time and Sicilian food, with its North African influence, is simply amazing. So, I think it would have to be something like a Sicilian couscous dish or one of their swordfish dishes.

Just that combination of Italian and North African is truly amazing, because they’ve got the North African spices and amazing Italian produce and pasta. It’s one of the few places in Italian cuisine where you have fish and cheese served together. Sicilians will do a prawn dish with grated parmesan no problem, whereas Italians would never do that.

Couscous and then cannoli. It would definitely be something like that. I’d have to finish the meal with cannoli.

 

Martha Miller is the food columnist for EthnoTraveler. Her writing and recipes have appeared in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, Smithsonian.com, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

 

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