In March 2020, Benjamin Murray was the chef de cuisine at Pao by Paul Qui at the fashionable Faena Hotel. When he was furloughed indefinitely, Murray began making banh mi sandwiches in his apartment, leveraging his Instagram following to sell 50 sandwiches a day.
One year later, the Japanese-American chef opened his own Vietnamese-inspired banh mi shop, Benh Mi, in South Beach, with plans to open a second location at Smorgasburg in Wynwood this month.
InsideHook caught up with Murray about his pandemic pivot, work-life balance and what you need to try at Benh Mi.
InsideHook: How did your side hustle turn into a full-time gig?
Benjamin Murray: For the longest time, I really didn’t want to own a restaurant. It was never my dream to have my own place. It just sort of evolved into that. With the success that I found through Instagram with my banh mi sandwiches, I just had to keep it going.
I had a few offers to do different pop-ups at different locations, and then this guy I went to culinary school with a long time ago, Michael Kaplan, reached out. We were following each other on Instagram but we didn’t really talk. Then he came back to Miami from New York, and I worked with him as a consultant on a couple projects before we found the perfect spot for Benh Mi.
Why banh mi?
I love banh mi. And I think in Miami, it was familiar enough for people — at the end of the day, it’s just a delicious sandwich — but it was also a little unfamiliar, since there are very few Vietnamese restaurants and banh mi sandwiches in Miami, so that it was interesting for people, as well. A lot of people who ordered from me had never had one before, and they fell in love with it.
Why did you ultimately leave Pao?
In November 2020, I went back to Pao and I was there from November to February just relaunching the restaurant. At that point, Michael and I started a hospitality group, and Benh Mi was one entity of the hospitality group, so it was more that there was a bigger opportunity for my future financially. We have Benh Mi, Mimi’s and the Smorgasburg pop-up, and we also have a private chef business that really took off.
Do you ever miss the fine-dining world?
Yes, all the time. I’ve been in fine dining all my life, so that’s really what I love, and I miss it a lot actually. I miss a lot of the aspects of cooking with a team. In a casual atmosphere like at Mimi’s, there’s a team, but it’s not like coordinating a team effort where everyone is all in. Instead, everyone is just doing everything more casually, and it’s a different experience.
At Benh Mi, it’s all about volume and making the prep as easy as possible and as consistent as possible. It’s about how to make things faster and more efficient. It’s a different form of creativity, but I’m not creating new dishes, which is something I love.
What do we need to try at Benh Mi?
It all started with lemongrass meatballs and char siu mushroom, and then one day while at home I was thinking that people love chicken tenders, and so I decided to make one. And those ended up being my biggest seller out of my house. Fast forward to today, our fried chicken banh mi and fried chicken bucket are our bestsellers. Maybe it’s a fried chicken craze, but that’s something we’re thinking about expanding upon for a whole fried chicken concept. It’s the crunchiest chicken you’ll ever have. The secret is cornflakes.
We sell our spicy seasoning blend, called Crack Spice, by the jar. And I created this sauce called Funky Sauce that you can put on banh mi sandwiches. When I started making that from my house, I used fish sauce and pork stock, a bunch of umami-based stuff. But now there are so many vegans in Miami so I just do pickling liquid with a lot of black pepper. The char siu mushroom banh mi is vegan, and it’s my personal favorite sandwich on our menu. Anyone who tries it is blown away by how good it is.
Now that you have a better work-life balance, what are some of your favorite places to dine out in Miami?
Itamae is amazing. It’s Nikkei cuisine from a brother-sister chef team. I think they’re going to get a Michelin star. Boia De is great, and they’ll probably get a star too. It reminds me of a badass small restaurant in New York where they change the menu all the time. Macchialina is my favorite Italian spot in Miami, and chef/owner Michael Pirolo is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. They do all their own homemade pastas — it’s incredible.
Zitz Sum is another favorite. Like Benh Mi, he started it from his house during the pandemic, and it grew into an actual restaurant in Coral Gables. They make their own dumplings and even make their own dumpling wrappers and the skins are all different.
What’s next for you?
The plan with Michael was to open a bunch of things and we started doing that, but now we took a brief pause. And I’m like bored out of my fucking mind. I’m passionate about Benh Mi, but I’m not passionate about Mimi’s, and that’s where I spend most of my time right now because it needs the most help.
I love Miami so much, and it’s been my home for 15 years. I would never get tired of living here, but I think I want to move around a bit — work with more farms, more purveyors, more regional ingredients — and see what’s out there.
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