"My passion for food will never leave me": Top Lancashire chef Breda Murphy on her 'honest-to-goodness' upbringing, adapting to Covid, and the recipe for success
Peruse any supermarket aisle or chain restaurant menu and chances are that it won't be long before you come across the words 'organic' and 'natural'.
Such buzzwords have become go-to labels in the wild and wonderful world of food in the modern era, with brands falling over themselves to promote their processed products as wonderfully wholesome.But, amidst the noise, it can be easy to forget what truly 'organic' and 'natural' food looks like.
Unless it's Breda Murphy doing the cooking, that is.
Born in County Carlow in rural Ireland, Breda has culinary excellence in her blood, with her mother having worked as a chef in Dublin at the Irish President’s residence. Over the past 25 years, she has established herself as one of the North West's most prominent chefs, spearheading The Inn at Whitewell's emergence as a culinary hotspot.
And she credits her salt-of-the-earth upbringing for instilling in her a passionate dedication to the sound principles of good, local produce and proper, traditional cooking methods.
"My history in food is nothing posh but my passion for food will never leave me," she explains. "I grew up with a very strong influence from my parents and from the countryside; we weren't paupers, but money wasn't plentiful and we farmed, so we were always self-sufficient in relation to potatoes, carrots, pigs, sheep, cattle, onions.
"The creative side of it was my mother, who made sure no two meals were ever the same," adds Breda. "If it was bacon and cabbage one day, it was bacon chops the next day with onion sauce and parsley from the garden. I never knew any different; when I started to get older and saw how other people ate, I realised how lucky we were."
Food also brought the family together.
"Food united the generations," explains Breda. "It was an opportunity for younger people to listen and engage. I'm not painting myself out to be an angel, but I've got four children and none of mine have ever sat and watched TV whilst eating. If somebody's taken the time to cook a meal and you sit there shovelling it in watching TV, I'd be absolutely livid. It's so unsociable."
In 1991, with tentative childhood designs on becoming a criminal investigator shelved, Breda went to the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork where she trained under Darina Allen for three years. It was there that she realised her upbringing centred on 'simple, honest-to-goodness food' gave her an innate understanding of what made restaurant-quality meals.
"Food is all about nurturing the body - you'd never put diesel in a petrol car, would you?" she says. "I'd taken it for granted, but Ballymaloe confirmed the importance of simple food cooked well and, while it was terrifying to begin with, I absolutely loved the experience. It was about the basics, not Michelin-star cuisine, but preparing something and seeing the end result and the reaction on people's faces was so satisfying."
After crossing the Irish Sea and working at Kensington Place and Clarke’s Restaurant in London, Breda moved to Lancashire in 1995 to become a chef de partie at The Inn at Whitewell, a position she held for two months before being named head chef.
"Richard Bowman [father of Charles, current owner of The Inn at Whitewell] sold Lancashire really well," says Breda when asked why she decided to head north. "I'm from the countryside and, in the North West, I made connections with local suppliers just like at Ballymaloe. And the area is stunning: everything was all there on our doorstep.
"While the job was still high-pressure, you could get away and walk on the fells, which gives you head space," she adds. "In a professional kitchen when service starts, you go to a different level. It's a lot of shouting and pressure; it's like when you're doing a really good workout and you push yourself beyond your limits. To function at that level, you're almost outside yourself.
"To get that far as a female is a hard slog anyway, and then to turn out meals of high quality at high volume is a lot."
After almost a decade at The Inn at Whitewell which had brought a multitude of awards, Breda decided to take a year out to travel Australia and Malaysia and to reassess.
"As a head chef, you get to the point where you have to make a decision because the job doesn't allow much time for anything else," she explains. "The year gave me time to reflect on perhaps doing a bit less and not be tied to the stove seven days a week so, when I returned, I hired a kitchen and provided the in-house meals for conferences at Clough Bottom.
"My homemade jams and marmalades were always popular, so I started doing home deliveries and then Booths approached me and it went from there, really," says Breda, who founded Food by Breda in 2006 with her husband Guy Purves, whom she met through his Clitheroe-based marketing and design company Ginger Pumpkin.
Over the subsequent 10 years, Food by Breda became a beloved deli and catering business. Named as the best cafe in the UK by the Good Food Guide in 2012 and highlighted as one of the best places to eat in the country by both the Restaurant Guide and The Times Magazine, it also won entry into the Michelin Guide before being re-branded as Breda Murphy Restaurant in 2016.
"We started the cafe and I wanted everything to be 'back to basics' - you can mess about with food too much," says Breda, now in her 40s. "I was always keen on the mainstays like your fish pies, beef bourguignons, chicken liver pates, tagines - stuff I've always had on the menu and which you need as day-to-day midweek meals.
"Everything was small steps and it's evolved over time," she adds, with Breda Murphy Restaurant named Restaurant of the Year 2019 at the Lancashire Food & Drink Awards. "We're very fortunate because we had the opportunity to start small and build from there as our family grew, which has been great. We found a balance between working and family."
During Covid, the restaurant closed but the kitchen stayed open, offering pre-orders, takeaways, and collections which proved extremely popular (they sold an average of 120 Friday chippy teas each week in the third lockdown). After the initial shock over what lockdown would entail, Breda says that the past 12 months has been about pivoting to survive.
"The last year has been a real slap in the face, as it has been for everybody," she says. "When the announcement came three days before Mothers' Day, it was disastrous. I thought my whole world had fallen apart and I couldn't see how we were going to get through it what with business loans, suppliers to pay, and 10 members of staff.
"We had to start again," she continues. "We had to survive, and it was all about being flexible because there's no point in whining. That first weekend, we were ready to go with home deliveries and collections and we haven't stopped since. Steady away, we're doing quite well."
On top of their pantry, which sells an eclectic mix of homemade food and cakes, wines and Champagnes, Irish and local chocolates, truffles, hampers, and gifts, Breda has also launched a nationwide, restaurant-quality frozen ready-meal delivery service in lockdown, offering classic meals such as pies, beef bourguignon, lasagne, curries, and a range of desserts.
"The frozen meals came from me being at home every day and cooking for six, which makes the creative side of things hard," she says. "It's all 'what's for lunch, what's for dinner?' and you're just thinking 'good God, give me a break!' I knew loads of other people would be in the same place so I thought I'd make midweek classics which people would want and need."
As lockdown restrictions are eased, life as a business owner is starting to resemble something more conventional for Breda, who had a marquee on the car park and served 110 meals on the first Saturday they were allowed to open for outside dining. Slowly but surely, a sense of normality is beginning to creep back in.
"Everything was taken overnight but, little-by-little, things are coming back," she says. "To see people out, even with their blankets wrapped around them, has been great. It's uplifting. It's the simplicity of good food in a nice environment. What more do you need than a bit of food, a bit of fun, and a bit of craic?"