Like father, like son: Murphy’s chef continues legacy at Atlanta restaurant

Matt McCarthy, executive chef of Murphy's, has followed in the footsteps of his father, Gregg, a former chef at the restaurant. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Matt McCarthy, executive chef of Murphy's, has followed in the footsteps of his father, Gregg, a former chef at the restaurant. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Gregg McCarthy recently found himself at a table at Murphy’s Restaurant in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, eating a fish dish he’d never had but seemed vaguely familiar.

The fluke with butternut squash risotto and an herb and walnut mixture crumbled on the top was a dish he might have made years ago, “but on steroids,” he said. “It was one of the best meals I’d ever had.”

The meal not only marked his return to the Atlanta institution he helmed as executive chef from 2005-2009, but it was also a moment of great pride, because the chef who made the dish was his son, Matt, 33, Murphy’s executive chef since June 2023.

“It was the first time, after all the meals I’d had here in high school while he worked here, that I got to cook for him,” Matt said. “I got to turn the tables, and it was really fun.”

“He’s a far better cook than I ever was,” said Gregg, 66, who moved to Florida in 2010 to open the Grand Marlin of Pensacola Beach, where he serves as corporate chef and partner. “I know how to run a kitchen and how to run a restaurant, but he teaches me cooking techniques now that I never thought were possible.”

What more can a father ask for than to see his progeny follow in his footsteps and succeed so spectacularly? Although they won’t be together this Father’s Day — Matt will be working at Murphy’s and Gregg will enjoy the day off in Florida — their mutual admiration for each other goes without saying.

The fluke with butternut squash ristotto was the first meal Matt McCarthy made for his father, Gregg, after assuming the role of executive chef at Murphy's in Virginia-Highland. / Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

Credit: Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

‘We could tell he had it’

Some kids know from a very young age that they want to follow in his parent’s career footsteps. Matt McCarthy was not one of them. He always enjoyed hearing stories of Gregg’s time at Buckhead Diner, Ray’s on the River and later at Murphy’s, and he would occasionally hang out in the kitchens while his dad wrapped up a shift. But it wasn’t until high school that the cooking bug bit.

Some of his earliest memories of his dad cooking were when the family, including older brother Chris and mother Audrey, would go on vacation to Lake George in upstate New York and have big, Italian pasta Sundays with rigatoni and sausage and meatballs.

Matt was 13 when he started to consider cooking as a career, despite the best efforts of Gregg and Audrey, who was also in the hospitality industry. The couple tried to steer their son toward other pursuits, but soon realized he was passionate about food.

“It’s a tough business,” Gregg said. “While everyone else is out there having fun, you’re working holidays, weekends, nights. You sacrifice a lot of family time for the industry, but it’s your love and your passion. And if you don’t have that, it’s a tough living. But we could tell he had it.”

“It was never, ‘Don’t do it,’ it was more, ‘Maybe do something else,” said Matt, who grew up in Marietta and went to Sprayberry High School. “But my friends would go home after school to watch Cartoon Network, and I was watching either ‘Barefoot Contessa’ on Food Network” or Animal Planet.”

He originally thought about being a marine biologist, but after taking a biology class realized he wanted something less academic and more hands-on. “Once I got to high school and I was able to choose my classes and look at my interests in a more detailed way, I found out it wasn’t for me. So when I filtered out all the other things I thought I wanted to do, cooking was the one thing that didn’t get filtered out.”

Matt got a job at 16 making pies at Galla’s Pizza in Marietta and started cooking for his friends. They still joke about the time he whipped up a giant pan of fried rice and threw in some sliced kielbasa, the only protein he had on hand. (”I actually remember it being pretty good,” Matt said).

Matt McCarthy, the executive chef at Murphy's in Virginia-Highland, prepares a hamachi dish in the restaurant's kitchen. / Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

Credit: Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

Gregg encouraged Matt to apply at his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. Gregg agreed to buy a pallet of sweet potatoes so Matt could make sweet potato gnocchi for a scholarship competition that asked applicants to come up with a dish using Thanksgiving leftovers, but he kept himself from getting too involved in Matt’s process.

“He purposely didn’t help me,” said Matt, who took second place in the contest. “He guided me into figuring it out on my own. It was the first true culinary challenge I had to work through.”

“Knowing that this was going to be the rest of his life, I knew this would be the smallest challenge he’d have moving forward,” Gregg said. “It would have been easy for me to jump in, but it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.”

While Matt attended CIA, father and son bonded during phone catchup sessions over everything from professors they’d shared, to their preferred method of breaking down a chicken.

“My Dad, who’s done it all and has the same degree I was working toward, had been through it,” Matt said. “So I kinda had a lifeline.”

The gentle guidance continued after Matt graduated and worked under restaurateur Danny Meyer in New York, as a sous chef at Union Square Café and North End Grill.

When Matt would get in the weeds during some of his first shifts, he’d dial into what he remembered Gregg referring to over the years as “fifth gear.”

“You’ve got four speeds on a car, and there’s a fifth gear that you rarely use,” Gregg said. “And sometimes when I’d be in the kitchen and I’d say, ‘OK guys, fifth gear now, fifth gear.’ And all of a sudden, you switch in. You didn’t know you had it in you, but once you hit fifth gear, it was there.”

Matt spent nearly a decade in New York, and then in 2020, like for so many others, everything changed.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Gregg encouraged his son to come down to Pensacola for what both thought would be a two-week quarantine. But when two weeks became a month with seemingly no end in sight, Matt realized he needed to make some decisions. He bristled at his mom’s idea that he work for Gregg, something he always intentionally avoided. (”I never wanted to be known as ‘chef’s son,’” he said.)

Instead, he helped open a barbecue restaurant before moving to Washington, D.C., where he worked as the chef de cuisine for Michelin-starred restaurant Tail Up Goat. But after almost three years, he realized he missed his native city, and it was ready to welcome him back.

A family legacy

In 2022, Tom Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Restaurant, was searching for a new executive chef and heard from Gregg that Matt was looking to move back to Atlanta.

Open since 1992, Murphy’s has become an Atlanta classic known for its comfort food like its two-fisted burger and the famous Bonzo cake. A favorite spot to celebrate graduations and birthdays, it’s also served as a launching pad for chefs who have gone on to open their own successful restaurants including Ian Winslade and, of course, Gregg McCarthy.

“In my head, I was like, ‘All that time I didn’t want to work for you, does that change all that?,’” Matt said of taking the position his dad once held. “But it was still me writing my own path, just with a really fun story behind it.”

Gregg’s legacy remains at the restaurant. The Guinness-braised brisket he put on the menu years ago is still a guest favorite, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s three-star review of the restaurant while he was the chef still hangs on the wall.

Murphy's has been a mainstay in Atlanta's Virginia-Highland neighborhood since 1992. / Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

Credit: Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Matt McCarthy

“Murphy’s still strikes the right note between passé and nostalgic,” then-AJC food editor Meridith Ford wrote. “Part of the credit for that lies in executive chef Gregg McCarthy’s menu — a well-calculated mix of old and new, literally.”

Murphy believes Matt is the perfect steward for the legacy of both his father and the restaurant, while still putting his own mark on the menu with dishes like trout almondine with a cauliflower purée and roasted grapes, and a Georgia shrimp roll.

“It was almost heaven-sent when he showed up,” Murphy said. “Like his dad, he’s a solid, passionate hospitalitarian and a talented cook who I know will be a talented restaurateur. He recognizes dishes that are a signature but also puts his own spin on them. To get a younger Gregg McCarthy got me excited again about the restaurant business.”

For inspiration, Gregg draws from seasonal produce, cooking shows, Instagram plus ”memories of dishes I’ve had and flavor combinations I’ve liked,” he said. “It isn’t like, ‘Hey, I’m going to cook this exact dish,’ but I use components or the thoughts behind them and put my own filter on them.”

While Gregg never dreamed Matt would end up at his old stomping grounds, he said he’s proud of how far his son has come in such a short time. And while they both have their own pursuits, he’s hopeful that one day, they might own a restaurant together.

“Seeing him cook here is like seeing the fruits of your labor. Who knows what the future is?” Gregg said. “I learned the hard way, never to put any limitations on things.”