Jeanne Carlson and James Murphy

Mrs. Murphy & Sons


Jeanne Carlson is the chef and James Murphy is the general manager of Mrs. Murphy & Sons in North Center.

What makes Mrs. Murphy & Sons a modern Irish restaurant?

JEANNE CARLSON: It is a new trend in the United States but old news in Ireland: local, farm-to-table, traditional, awesome ingredients used in simple and innovative ways. I think that really describes Irish cuisine. Honestly I never had any specific interest in Irish cooking, but as I’ve learned about it I’ve fallen in love with it, and it’s not too different from New American cuisine, from what’s going on here. Even though I’m not Irish, it’s still right in my wheelhouse.

JAMES MURPHY: The restaurant was my dad Jim’s idea, his vision. He had bought a home in Ireland that was managed as a rental property in Dalkey, just south of Dublin, and he was passionate about the food. I remember the first time I went there, he wanted me to try the grass-fed beef, how it tasted different, that kind of stuff. The first few times when I was pretty young I don’t know that I quite got it, but this was his dream.

Ireland’s food scene is a lot more developed than it was twenty, thirty years ago, it’s changed quite a bit. But even then, the quality of stuff my dad could get at the local pubs in Dalkey... that was his dream, to have a place doing that kind of simple food, but using great fresh ingredients. It’s something underappreciated about Ireland, the quality of the dairy, the stuff that they have because of the climate and the location, and how their agricultural system has developed. It’s centered around small-scale farming in a way that it just isn’t in the US. We’re coming back to it but it’s something that never changed there.

JC: Yeah. Here, it’s trendy, it’s hipster, you have to pay a premium for it. There, it’s just normal. Everyday ingredients that you get at your neighborhood store are world-class.

Do you find that authentic Irish cuisine is underrepresented in Chicago?

JM: I think people’s opinions of it tend to be a little skewed. An Irish pub throws a corned beef sandwich on their menu, and we do a wonderful corned beef and cabbage here, but corned beef and cabbage originates in New England, the way I understand it. I think people forget that Ireland’s an island, that they have such great fresh seafood everywhere.

So how do you build a menu that’s authentically Irish but also acknowledges traditional Irish-American food?

JC: It is a challenge. People definitely have preconceived notions about what Irish food is, but hopefully you can introduce new things to them. Our customers love seafood, that’s one area. Right now my soup of the day is a Dublin Bay prawn bisque, something that people might not be too familiar with.

JM: We had an outrageous review from when you had a Dublin Bay prawn dish on the menu years ago. [laughs] Some guy insisted, “These aren’t prawns,” and we said, “No, these are Dublin Bay prawns, it’s a langoustine, it’s a colloquial name for it but, like... Google it.” [laughs]

JC: Not to mention all the people that get upset when the shepherd's pie doesn’t have ground beef in it.

JM: We’ve been here nine years now, and I think people have caught on to what we do. And we’ve evolved over time, we’re continuing to evolve.

JC: I think we were a little bit ahead of the curve at the beginning. The whole gastropub trend hadn’t caught on yet.

Would you label this restaurant a gastropub?

JM: I don’t really like that word, but I think that it works. I know we’ve had a lot of discussions about it internally in the past. The problem is that the American notion of what a “pub” is isn’t expansive enough.

JC: Yeah. The problem with the term “gastropub” is that’s a trend. We want to be a little more timeless.

JM: I think you can point to pubs in Ireland that serve excellent food, that’ve been there for a long time, that are family owned. In Dalkey, there’s a place called Finnegan’s, they’ve been family-owned since the 1970s. They do an excellent lunch, been doing it forever, that’s normal. They’re a pub, but would you call them a gastropub? No. And I think that’s a little but more in keeping with what we’re trying to do.

Why is it so important that you visit Ireland yourselves?

JM: I try to go as often as I can. I’ve got an infant daughter seven months old at home so it’s a little challenging, but since I came in and took over last year that’s something I feel strongly about. I want to make sure we get everybody on our long-term staff over there and take them around, at least for a little sampling of some classic pubs, some classic food. It’s one thing to explain it to people, it’s another thing for them to experience it. It helps people understand what we’re trying to do.

JC: It certainly did for me. It’s one thing to know intellectually, but then to really be there and see how awesome all the ingredients are, how good everything tasted. You hear about terroir and stuff…

JM: It’s all about that butter. [laughs]

JC: It is. Irish butter is the taste of Ireland. You taste that and it takes you back… you can taste the green.

Do you try to reproduce Irish cuisine as faithfully as possible, or does some level of adaptation need to happen?

JC: Some things you try to fully recreate. Right now we’re working on our brown soda bread. We are working to get that taste and that texture.

JM: It’s pretty close.

JC: I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get it exact, but I’ll try. Other things are interpretations. The food culture in Ireland right now is very similar to what we have here, people are very interested in international cuisine and ingredients from all over the world.

JM: Burrito stands are a big thing in Dublin right now. If there’s one food trend going on in Dublin it’s burritos and Mexican food.

JC: But the soul of Irish cuisine is letting great ingredients shine through. You might be making a traditional recipe like a brown soda bread, or a burrito using Irish lamb and Irish cheese. It’s similar to what we’re doing here.

Can you get the quality ingredients you need from purveyors here in the Midwest?

JC: Sure. We’re lucky here in the Midwest, the climate’s different but we have the lush grass, all the dairy and meat and stuff. Right now we’re focusing on Irish cheese a little bit, but I would say that great local Midwestern cheeses are something analogous to what you’d get in Ireland. Definitely local, pasture-raised meats are going to be just as good as you’d get in Ireland.  If you imported some lamb from Ireland and served it, that wouldn’t really be in the spirit of Irish cuisine. It would be more in the spirit to get whatever is freshest and best locally.

How about specific Irish cooking techniques?

JC: One thing I’ve been working on since last month, I was just thinking about it more this morning, is that I’m interested in learning how to smoke with turf. It’s a unique Irish ingredient, peat. They call it turf. I’ve been experimenting, smoking haddock and smoking beef with the turf. Ireland doesn’t really have a tradition of haute cuisine, it’s more simple, home-cooking techniques. Unpretentious.

These days, your barbecue ribs get a lot of attention.

JM: The ribs became our thing kind of by accident. When we opened we certainly did not have ribs on the menu.

JC: If RibFest hadn’t been up the street we probably would never have had ribs.

JM: It’s thrown by our chamber of commerce, a block and a half away. We did RibFest a couple of times and won the popular vote.

JC: That goes back to James and his dad. Our rib recipe is based on what Jim did.

JM: Pretty much. I remember as a kid going up to Michigan with my dad and my brother and him making ribs. The way that we make ribs is not… the barbecue purists think it’s nonsense, they can’t understand why we’d cook ribs that way, but I think what we do is more of a… I hesitate to say a style, but it’s like Chicago-style restaurant ribs. It’s what I remember growing up eating at Biasetti’s, Gale Street Inn or Twin Anchors, stuff like that. We sear ‘em then we do ‘em in the oven.

JC: We don’t boil them. [laughs]

JM: We have a lot of people say we boil our ribs---we do not boil our ribs.

JC: We give them a rub, we sear them on the grill, we slow-cook them in the oven, and we sauce them. They’re falling off the bone, and our sauce is a sweeter, tomato-based sauce, so I hope that they’re a good example of Chicago-style. The devil’s in the details, there are some bad examples of Chicago-style where people do boil them.

Are you ever worried the ribs could end up overshadowing the Irish cuisine on the menu?

JM: If people love our ribs, come in here for ribs. There’s something at the heart of this place that’s about--- and it’s a very Irish thing--- that focus on warm hospitality, giving people what they want, accommodating people. That needs to be the focus of a restaurant. It’s not about just what we want to do, it’s about what people want from us.

JC: Yeah, we’ve talked a lot about the food in pubs, the ingredients and all that, but you can’t forget about the hospitality aspect of it. You should just be able to go and enjoy yourself.

JM: And you don’t have to put a lot of thought into it as a customer to get something delicious. There’s something about the idea that it should be about the conversation, the interaction, being welcoming, that kind of thing. More than fussing over what kind of restaurant we are. That’s one of the ways I’d define the place.

JC: When you think about it, that’s one of the hardest things in the restaurant business, to balance the food and the hospitality aspects. There’s plenty of places that have one or the other down, but you definitely have to have both. People come for both things, you know?

Someone may walk in the door thinking ribs, but see something authentically Irish on the menu that they decide to try.

JM: I’m excited when that happens. We did some specials where Jeanne made turf-smoked salmon, things like that.

JC: With all that stuff, people who go for it enjoy it. We have shepherd's pie, we have our corned beef, but then we do specials that are a little more challenging to people, like our Irish prix fixe menu around St. Patrick’s Day.

JM: Fish pie, I don’t think that’s a thing that people normally crave as Irish cuisine, but it’s something that you’d find in pubs doing decent food all over Ireland. Fish pie with the creamy sauce and mashed potatoes on top. Especially with the smoked fish in there, I love that.

JC: Yeah, we saw that everywhere we went.

Do you get a lot of Irish people in here?

JM:      In the little shop we opened up in front, we’re doing a lot of little imported Irish foodstuffs, along with some stuff that we do in house. We do the Cadbury chocolates, things like that, some of it’s a little junk-foody, but other stuff like the artisanal Irish butters and things like that are really nice. One of our suppliers asked us: who are you catering to? Is it Irish people, is it Americans?

JC: It’s everybody.

JM: There are a lot of Irish expats in Chicago though, and a lot of people that have cultural or family ties to Irish stuff.

JC: I was surprised how many expats and Irish people visit the shop. I thought it would be mostly Americans, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many real Irish and English people too.

JM: Especially from my recent trips to Ireland, I wonder: what is an authentic Irish experience? Going to some of these Victorian-era pubs in Dublin: is that authentic? Or is going to some of these new beer bars that have only been open six or seven years but are doing a phenomenal job with all the new craft breweries in Ireland? Is one a more authentic expression of the culture than the other?

I think notions of authentic Irish food are trapped in some pre-Celtic Tiger, 1950s version of what Ireland was, the old sod, whereas the food in Ireland has evolved, and some of it has evolved in ways where they’re tapping into things that used to be a bigger part of the cuisine and have come full circle, like the whole seaweed thing.

JC: Oh yeah, things like seaweed and dried mushrooms, that’s some of the stuff that I wish we had here.

JM: If you look historically, especially in coastal areas, seaweed was a big part of Irish cuisine, and there are some people trying to bring it back. At some of the fancy food shops they have what they call “wild Irish sea veg,” and there’s one chef…

JC: Prannie Rhatigan?

JM: Yeah, she’s evangelizing for seaweed. But somebody’d come tell you, “What are you doing? That’s not Irish.”

Lastly, let’s talk about beer. What is the beer scene in like in Ireland these days?

JM: I could talk about beer for a while. [laughs] Ireland has this craft brewery explosion that’s going on right now, they went from something like five breweries in the country to over sixty. Kind of like Chicago in the last few years. I wish that some of the stuff that was coming to the market there right now was exported, so that we could serve it here. But that being said I’m not sure a lot of them would make the journey. There’s definitely a focus on things that are a little bit more lower-alcohol, more sessionable, for lack of a better word.

What are the highlights of your beer program here at Mrs. Murphy’s?

JM: We’re working with Ale Syndicate, they’re making a new house beer for us. It’s a red ale with ginger added to it. It was inspired by a beer I had in Ireland, from Rascal’s Brewing, they make a porter with ginger and I thought it was fantastic, and it would translate well. I liked the ginger flavor but I thought you lost it a little in the porter. Instead we thought it would go well in a red ale.

We’ve got a beer engine. I love cask-conditioned beer, and I love that in Ireland now some of the new craft beer bars are starting to bring it back. Guinness went and pulled out everybody’s pumps back thirty, forty years ago when they decided to switch to keg beer. Even some of these old Victorian bars are bringing back cask beer a little bit. It’s certainly not widespread but I’m super into that, and I think it’s something that people don’t necessarily know we have. I’m really dedicated to it, I take a lot of pride in making sure that we serve cask beer correctly here.

Mrs. Murphy & Sons