A last-minute private party is booked for friends and family of Sean Murphy, executive chef at F.W. Sullivan's Bar & Grille. Between tending to the group, Murphy manages the kitchen, trying to make sure that the regular Thursday-night crowd is satisfied. His 9-month-old son, Patrick, sits on his hip, freeing Murphy's wife, Tanya, to eat a shepherd's pie he whipped up.
Also on Murphy's mind is Lady N'awlins Cajun Café, across Stafford Avenue from Sullivan's, which needs his attention this evening. At 8:30 p.m., after about two hours, Murphy sends off his friends and family with warm farewells. Across the street, the restaurant is filled with the aroma of Cajun spices, and the décor and music give it a Big Easy feel. Immediately, Murphy pops into the kitchen and, catching a second wind, energetically directs the back-of-the-house staff.
It's all part of the balancing act for Murphy, 33, one of the partners in FWS Group, which owns Sullivan's and "The Lady," a New Orleans-themed restaurant that opened in January in the space formerly occupied by Friend or Pho and The White Dog. The group also plans to open a second F.W. Sullivan's this summer in Fredericksburg.
Murphy divides his time between both restaurants. "It's all about putting together a good staff; you can't do it alone," he says, adding, "I don't expect my staff to do anything I don't do."
A Richmond native, he has cooked professionally for more than a decade. After working in a couple of restaurant positions locally, Murphy had an apprenticeship at the former Fox Head Inn, a four-diamond restaurant in Goochland County where he worked under executive chef and owner Robert Ramsey. Murphy recalls picking vegetables from the inn's garden and using them in gourmet meals. After leaving the Fox Head Inn, Murphy took over the kitchen at Metro Grill, where the owner's Mississippi heritage inspired some Cajun dishes. At Lady N'awlins, Murphy is applying French techniques to Cajun cuisine. "There's a lot of French influence in Cajun cooking," he says. "It balances nicely." The restaurant's eclectic offerings include fresh gator bites with house-made Cajun rémoulade, empanadas paired with squid-ink vinaigrette, and fried doughnuts with a unique whipped cream that is heated over hickory wood chips and infused with rosemary — resulting in a taste reminiscent of s'mores.
Toward the end of the night, Murphy steps out of the kitchen to greet customers, including some regulars from Sullivan's.
Somehow, he still manages catering, cooking demonstrations and spending time with his wife and son. "I certainly have been working quite a bit a lot of long, late hours," he says, "but I couldn't have done it without a great staff."