As Chef De Cuisine of Pao by Paul Qui, there’s nothing Benjamin Murray can’t do. He developed a passion for cooking at a young age, learning to fuse ingredients and techniques from both his mother’s native Japan and his father’s traditional American cooking. That passion led him to study at Johnson & Wales University, and he honed his craft in some of the best kitchens in the Magic City. Having worked as a sous chef at Zuma and Area 31, Murray went on to become Chef de Cuisine of Azul at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami. While he was there, the restaurant became one of only two restaurants in Florida to earn a Forbes 5 Star rating, while Murray, himself, was chosen as a featured chef at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s “Best of the Best.”
Today, Murray has gained a reputation for his creative use of ingredients; something he puts to good use at a place like Pao by Paul Qui. In his role, Chef Murray brings a dynamic and globally-inspired approach to the restaurant’s modern-Asian fare, garnering Pao a reputation as one of the most exceptional dining experiences in the country.
Ben is a breath of fresh air in the restaurant industry. He’s been an amazing addition to the Pao family. It’s rare to meet a chef that’s been in the industry with as much passion and talent as him.
—Chef Paul Qui, about Benjamin Murray
With so many accolades behind him, we wanted to sit down with Chef Benjamin Murray to find out the secret(s) to his success. Here’s what he had to say:
What’s your favorite dish on the Pao menu?
Of our current menu, my favorite new dish is our Wagyu Strip Adobo aged in Kombu, with mushroom escabeche and black truffle adobo. This dish is rich, tender, earthy, and loaded with savory umami and really incredible meat. My favorite classic dish on the Pao menu is our signature Kinilaw. It’s a Filipino-style ceviche that’s creamy (due to coconut milk and coconut vinegar), has some spice to it (we add Thai chili), and most of all, is downright delicious. The most-used ingredient in the Pao kitchen is… Salt! At Pao, we use different salts for various purposes due to variation in size and flavor. For example, Balene Sea Salt (fine sea salt) is used to season our raw fish, while Maldon Sea Salt (large flaky sea salt) adds a crunch and a burst of salinity to dishes like our Wagyu Strip Adobo. We also use Fleur de Sel for our signature Smoked Shortrib Asado to add depth of flavor, and even Pangasinan (Filipino sea salt) for our butter.
What’s your go-to dinner to make at home?
I like to make quick and easy dishes at home. Lately, my go-to is a smoked salmon bagel sandwich with a side salad. Toast an Everything Bagel, smear cream cheese, and add capers, tomatoes, thinly-sliced red onion, good-quality smoked salmon, and black pepper. For the salad, I opt for baby Bibb lettuce with radish, croutons, broccoli stem slaw, and my favorite dressing.
What’s your nightcap of choice?
I’m not a big drinker, but if I was going to choose an alcoholic beverage, I would go for either a Negroni or an Old Fashioned. For something brighter, I’d choose a Moscow Mule. But if I’m at home… a nice, super cold Yoo-hoo (yes, the chocolate water). Do you have a favorite memory as a chef? One of my favorite memories was when I was asked to be a guest chef for a week at an amazing resort in Mexico. I brought my good friend, Damien, as a sous chef to help me out in the kitchen and our chef buddy, Luis, showed us around the best spots in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. It was an incredible week in a place where so many guests are passionate about food. Plus, Mexico is just unbelievable. But I have so many memories with so many great and talented individuals—it’s really hard to choose!
What’s your favorite restaurant in Miami, outside of Pao?
Macchialina. Chef Mike Pirolo is so talented. I love his pastas, beef tartare, polenta, tiramisu; the list could go on and on.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received, cooking or otherwise?
“Thank you.” One of my former cooks told me this after saying I made a huge impact on his young career. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing someone improve and grow, especially when you are a part of that growth. As cooks, most of us aren’t highly emotional. We have thick skin and oftentimes hear more criticism than praise, so I know the words “thank you” aren’t spoken just to be said—I know how much went into it, and what it really means to receive that compliment.
What’s that one kitchen habit you always have to do?
I am constantly moving, even if I’m in one place. I’m always “drumming” to keep from standing still. I like to joke around too, because it keeps the cooks loose and comfortable. When you’re in a more enjoyable environment, it shows through in your cooking.
What advice would you give aspiring Miami chefs?
Know why you are there. My shortest stint at a restaurant was one year, and others were for two or three. I always make a concentrated effort to work at places with a chef, food, or culture that inspires me. I understand where I want to work, who I want to work for, and what I want to be a part of. Many cooks will go into an interview blindly because it’s “just a job,” but they’re not familiar with the food or the head chef or the history of the restaurant. It’s important to know those aspects, and when you do, that’s when your passion, hard work, and dedication is easy to see. Cook at a place because you know it will help you get to your ultimate goal. Go to an interview, not for a job, but for your future and your goals.
Interview Courtesy of Dining Out | By Jennifer Agress, Miami Editor