Kristen Murray: Dessert Whiz

The makings of the sweet chef behind Maurice—downtown's new "pastry luncheonette"

Photography by Nicolle Clemetson By Marnie Hanel March 3, 2014 Published in the March 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Kristen D. Murray’s inventive desserts graced nationally celebrated restaurants—Gramercy Tavern, Aquavit, No. 9—then attracted a devoted local following at Lucier and Paley’s Place.

This winter, five years after she arrived in Portland (and after she worked with, and helped nurse, the late Robert Reynolds, a chef whose French-accented sensibilities shaped the city’s food scene), she opened a diminutive “pastry luncheonette.”

Funding Maurice in part with a Kickstarter campaign, Murray crafted a welcoming, Scandinavian-French atmosphere and a menu that epitomizes her own discerning charm—and a long journey to a room of her own. 

I started cooking with my grandmother and my great-aunt Crys. Nana was drawn to an occasion. Crys was driven by the garden. Whenever I had a professional accomplishment, Crys would say, “Remember when I taught you how to bake a potato when you were 6?”

For me, food was always easy. I could make something beautiful out of not much. I could be very generous and gracious and make someone happy. Everything else seemed complicated. 

When I was really young, I went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Then I started working at Alain Rondelli, a French restaurant that got rave reviews while I was there. One night, Alain and the pastry chef got in a fight. Before he left, Alain threw me the key. It was trial by fire. I rolled my shoulders and shuffled, and he imitated me perfectly. I appreciated it. I talk to my staff about body language daily.

I moved to New York in my early 20s and covered pastry shifts at Gramercy Tavern. It was a great crew: Tom Colicchio, Claudia Fleming. Marcus Samuelsson asked me to come over to Aquavit. My career was great, but at one point, I hadn’t gone home to Pasadena in five years. I was working 80-hour weeks. Aunt Crys passed, and that was a real life-changer. I wanted to make family a priority again. When I quit, Marcus said, “You could have been a superstar!” I said, “Not like this.”

I worked back and forth between Park City, Utah, and Boston. In 2008, I got a phone call, because I had been recommended, sight unseen, for a position in Portland. At Lucier, I made my heavy hitters: the black pepper cheesecake I created when I was at Aquavit, the rhubarb–and–celery leaf vacherin I did at No. 9 in Boston; café con leche mille-feuille. After Lucier closed, in spring 2008, I started working at DOC, and then Kir, Little T, and Paley’s Place. I taught at the Chef Studio when Robert Reynolds was sick with his first bout of cancer. Thankfully enough, he always trusted me. We were cut from the same cloth. He asked me to teach with him because, he said, “no one thinks like I do.”  

We looked at so many spaces for Maurice. I found a spot on Division that was shaped like an hourglass. Robert said, “No.” I found an amazing space, and then Robert called me from the hospital. His cancer was back. I said, “I’ll find a space later. I’m going to help you.” From April to August, I was with him.

After Robert passed, it took me a good six months to heal. I found the space in May 2013, and started to see what it was like to put a business cap on.  I tried to find funding the conventional way, until I finally had to sign the lease. Friends suggested Kickstarter. I tend to live in a bubble. With Kickstarter, the bubble burst! 

It was funny trying to figure out the name. I thought of pastry names, like Choux, but nothing makes me happier than the name Maurice. He was a rabbit, given to me without instructions. I was like, “He’s really cute, but what the fuck do I do with a bunny in a box?” I did my research. Maurice was with me for 12 years. He was the most constant thing I’d ever known.

Maurice is my love child between a pastry shop, a café, and a wine bar. I think we’re filling a niche that’s missing in Portland: fine-dining desserts without committing to a full meal. If Robert were here, I’d send him a glass of pretty Alsatian white and chicken liver pâté, with a lemon tart following closely behind.

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