Pastry Chef Kristen D. Murray of Paley's Place

Pastry Chef Kristen D. Murray of Paley's Place
November 2011

As a little girl, Kristen Murray grew up surrounded by raspberry bushes and fig and kumquat trees. So when Murray tells her story to the diner, it starts with her childhood in Southern California, where ripe fruit was always at her fingertips. Baking with her grandmothers, she would transform those fruits into her earliest desserts.

Her grandmothers’ wisdom and experience first guided Murray, but since growing up, Murray’s professional pastry career has been shaped by many more industry talents. She spent time at Gramercy Tavern with pastry chef Claudia Fleming. And she worked with Chef Marcus Samuelsson at New York’s Aquavit. After Aquavit, Murray she served as executive pastry chef at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in New York. She then moved to Boston to work for restaurateur Barbara Lynch at No. 9 Park. She assisted Lynch in cooking "Le Picnic" with Les Nouvelles Mères Cuisinières to Courchevel, France. Murray practiced her French technique while there and had the opportunity to meet pastry queen Christine Ferber. Recently she returned to France, this time to Alsace, to work with Ferber.

By chance, she moved to Oregon in 2008 for a stint at Lucier in Portland. After Lucier closed, Murray was brought on as a consultant pastry chef at Fenouil and decided to stick around in a city that reveled in local fruit as much as her childhood home in California. Most recently, Murray accepted the position of pastry chef at Vitaly Paley's iconic Portland restaurant, Paley's Place. It’s there that the 2011 Portland Rising Star weaves unexpected flavor profiles (like grapefruit and green almond) and her childhood reverence for fresh produce into inspired pastry creations.

Interview with Portland Rising Star Pastry Chef Kristen Murray of Paley's Place - Portland, OR

Antoinette Bruno: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
Kristen Murray: I am a purist at heart and try to let the ingredients shine as much as possible. I adore interesting textures, flavors, and love to play with temperatures. I enjoy dining out for inspiration rather than sustenance. It is exciting when you are taken to a different place and time through the chef’s vision.

AB: How do you bring that philosophy into the back of the house?
KM: I am diligent with seasonality, involving the front and back of the house in tasting and understanding the root of the idea and history or flavor profile. My mentor used to always say his favorite dessert to make was a perfectly ripe peach. That about sums it up. Nothing should be removed from the source, no matter how abstract.

AB: Tell me a little about your work history.
KM: I was lucky to have a father that was a restaurateur, an amazing grandmother that made everything from scratch, and a great aunt that started taking me to farmers' markets as a little girl. I worked front of the house as a busser at Julienne's, a little bistro in San Marino, California, then moved into becoming a server for breakfast, lunch, and tea service. At night I would work offsite catering gigs with the company and started helping with kitchen duties.

AB: How did you know it was the right environment for you?
KM: I loved the rhythm of the kitchen and the joy our hard work provided for our guests. Soon after, I moved to San Francisco to follow the buzz of food and wine. Baking bread in the wee hours at Noe Valley Bread & Baking Company and working for free day and night, assisting in garde manger and pastry at Alain Rondelli. The pastry chef walked out, and I found myself taking her spot. We went from a bistro to a four-star restaurant during my tenure and the transition was intense, thrilling, and magical. This was my first pastry chef position. Alain was my bridge to working with many celebrity chefs to follow. He helped me to define my style and journey as a young chef and have the confidence to work outside of the box.

AB: What got you into professional cooking?
KM: I fell in love with the theater of cuisine and the depth of soul translated through a dish. It is in my blood. Good food has always been around me. It would seem selfish not to share this precious gift given to me with others.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school?
KM: No, not unless it is a specialized program that is very hands on. I recommend working with someone that inspires you and asking them to mentor you. I tell my students that culinary school is similar to studying medicine. You still need to do many years of field work before you are considered a professional, and the beauty is there is always more to learn.

AB: What advice would you give young chefs just getting started?
To be curious, hard working, dedicated, and driven by integrity rather than ego.

AB: What's the hardest thing you've had to do in your career?
KM: Missing priceless moments with family and friends on holidays or special occasions due to my rigor with work.

AB: What are you most proud of?
KM: Teaching, mentoring, working with people, supporting farmers, inspiring thought, and the successes of my students and past employees.

AB: How do you perceive your role in the local culinary community?
KM: I am fortunate to be one of the few pastry chefs in Portland that is lucky enough to help drive the scene. I am incredibly humbled to be part of the national growth in Portland's culinary scene.

AB: What differences do you see taking place in the Portland culinary world?
KM: The Pacific Northwest is a playground of rich agriculture, and I see more professionals from bigger cities moving here in the hopes of attaining quality of life. Portland is drawing national talent that will help in diversifying the culinary community beyond food carts and farm-to-table fare.

AB: What about the culinary community? Do you feel connected to the chef community in Portland?
KM: Yes. I have only been in Portland a little over three years, and I have met people that took me 10 years to meet back East. There is a wonderful, earnest generosity that is a driving force in Portland. That is very special and near to my heart.

AB: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
KM: With more travel under my belt or toque. And with my own little business that transports you to a place and time that could be found on a little side street in Portland, New England, France, Italy, or Spain.