Food and the creation of it got hold of 37-year-old Christopher Murray’s heart when he was still quite young and his pursuit – of finding a balance between feeding hundreds of people every day while making each meal a thing of gastronomic beauty and taste – now continues at the Orlando Lutheran Towers.
Born in Cape May, N.J., he grew up outside Philadelphia in Swarthmore, P.A. After obtaining a business degree at Pennsylvania State University, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and served as a food production chef for the Food Network. In that position, he said, he appeared on two episodes of the Iron Chef as an assistant to Bobby Flay. But, he smilingly declined to impart any of the shows secrets. He would only say “It was a very fast-paced and ego-driven environment.”
He met his wife, Jessica, at the Culinary Institute, and they have a son – Liam – who is now six-and-a-half years old. They moved to California and did Crafts Services for movie and television productions, providing meals for the cast and crew. (A second great opportunity for him to dish some stories; but, again, this was an offer he gracefully declined).
He and Jessica formed their own catering business, Creative Culinary Solutions, and she still runs it. After moving to Florida from California, he was chef at the Raglan Road Irish Pub & Restaurant located at Disney’s Lake Buena Vista, and also VIP Operations Chef for NASCAR at the Daytona Speedway. He also spent about six years as chef for various private golf clubs – such as the Heathrow Country Club, the RedTail Golf Club in Lake County, and the Windmill Restaurant at the Celebration Golf Club.
Armed with such a wealth of varied experience, Murray said he is finding his work at The Towers to be an exciting challenge. For one thing, he is creating dishes on a daily basis for essentially the same diners…something not seen in a restaurant environment. And these are diners with widely varying needs as well as tastes.
Murray oversees meals for all three of the Towers properties – The Fountains (independent living), Windsor Place (assisted living) and The Commons (skilled nursing care) – and has a total staff of 58. He spends his days running back and forth between the three buildings as well as circulating in the dining rooms to meet diners and get feedback on dishes.
“I’m a table-touching chef. I like to go out and talk to the residents. I get to build relationships. Here…meals really mean something,” he said. “We change our menus on a weekly basis depending on what’s in season. The ability to create meals based on that and not on a particular theme is exciting, and great for the staff as well.”
There are many factors that also go into creating his weekly menus, Murray said, including paying attention to the food allergies of some residents and other medical needs. To that end he highlights different things about the dishes so diners can be forewarned and he makes sure to include certain types of dishes on each week’s menu to accommodate those needs.
One wall of his office is almost entirely lined with photos of meals his kitchen has produced. They are not just there for him to admire, he said.
“A lot of my background is in fine dining. One way to keep my edge as a chef is to remember what we’ve done and think about what to do next. We are constantly creating. Sometimes the difference is huge and sometimes it’s a subtle change in flavors. I try to be as much of a purist as possible. I like experimenting with things but I don’t like masking foods. There is a lot of fusion cooking out there right now and I’m not necessarily a big fan.”
Murray said he was drawn to take this new challenge at The Towers because of a desire for a better quality of life.
“I used to work 80-90 hours a week. I have a young son and I didn’t want to miss any more of him growing up. I didn’t want to be exhausted all the time.”
Since he took up the post last August, each day has been a joy to come to work, he said, and he takes delight in building relationships with his staff and challenging them with new things. “It’s great seeing the cooks find a new passion for what they do. A lot of them have been here for 15 years. One has been here 25 years. It’s like culinary school the way we try new things and challenge ourselves.”
His enthusiasm is grounded in the feeling that he has found where he belongs.
“I’ve been here since August and I hope one day to say ‘Fifteen years ago when I started at Lutheran Towers….”